In the UK we are emerging from our latest (and, we hope, final) COVID lockdown. Like creatures unused to daylight we blink in the face of the brightness of our new freedoms. And in some cases, wonder whether the darkness we have become used to might not be preferable, for the moment at least, to all this spacious brightness. From 17th May we have been allowed to invite friends and family into our homes again for the first time since last summer. And hug our loved ones. And eat indoors in a restaurant. And go to church services and to sports fixtures.

For more than a year our major sporting fixtures have been played in empty stadia, with players’ and coaches’ voices echoing around the bare grandstands. Broadcasters have dubbed in fake crowd effects – partly because it just feels so unnatural for the game to be watched in this eerie soundscape and partly because the language sometimes used by players and coaches is not suitable for family viewing.

But from this week limited numbers will be allowed to return to cheer on their teams at the UK’s sports stadia. Will they go? Studies of behaviour in the pandemic suggest that many have become so cautious in the last year that they will be reluctant to place themselves in large public spaces with many strangers around. Or perhaps we have become so pampered by the various broadcasters who have piped every game into our homes through the winter that the public has decided that it likes watching the game from the sofa.

Into this debate has come some interesting research from Germany on the impact on the games themselves of the missing fans. In a journal article entitled “How does spectator presence affect football?,”1 Fabian Wunderlich and his colleagues examined more than 40,000 games played before and during the pandemic in an attempt to analyse the difference the presence of the crowd made on outcomes. The results surprised many readers – and the researchers themselves, apparently – because they suggested that a significant advantage to the home side remained even after the fans were removed. There were some discernible negative impacts for home teams – fewer shots on goal from the home side, for instance; and interestingly, there was also evidence that referees appear more even-handed in issuing penalties of various kinds without a home crowd imposing their bias upon the match officials. However, the overall outcomes of matches were not statistically different.

The relationship between a sports crowd and elite athletes is complex and has been the subject of many studies in a range of disciplines: sociological, psychological, historical, religious. Such studies might examine the relationship from the point of view of the sports participants or from the spectators. The study from Germany suggests that – while athletes often speak of the importance of the crowd and its effect – whatever the crowd is affecting it may not be the result. Studies of the crowd have often spoken of the cathartic effect of sports spectating, or of the complex multiple identifications which take place – fans with players, with teams and locations, with one another. I have found it helpful to think of the relationship from the spectator’s side as a vicarious one:2 in some sense the players are playing on behalf of the crowd. While such identification is possible from the sofa, it appears more intense and – perhaps – complete in the stadium. While the players’ winning ways may not have been affected by the absence of fans, the fans themselves do seem to have been negatively affected. Some spectators will have been missing something very important to them in terms of performing their identity and engaging in the complex ritual practices of game day.

A study by UK Sport in 2011 reported that there was a very significant difference in the “inspirational effect” of watching major sports events live in a venue compared with watching it on TV.3 One of their measures was the extent to which fans agreed or strongly agreed that they felt reconnected with the enjoyment of sport itself and also inspired to be more active and to take up sport or exercise. The difference is striking: 67% of those in the stadium reported this, compared to a meagre 28% of TV viewers. Watching sport “live” gave a greater affective impact than watching it on TV.

As I watched the English FA Cup final on Saturday 15 May, with Leicester beating Chelsea 1-0, I pondered this. A small number of fans from both teams had been allowed into the stadium and the scenes at the end of the game were emotional ones: Leicester had never won this illustrious competition before, and it is their first success since the tragic death of the club’s owner whose portrait was printed on to the insides of the players’ shirts and appeared giant-size across empty stadium seating. After the debacle of the European Super League a few weeks earlier in which Chelsea and some other “top” clubs had attempted to entrench their privileged position this seemed like a blow struck for soccer’s true and aspirational heart. The players at Wembley fed off the fans’ reactions, and both served to provoke a reaction in TV viewers too. My wife, normally untouched by such things, watched the end of the game with me and remarked afterwards: “it’s very moving, isn’t it?” The affective impact of the event was made more powerful for fans at home because of the interplay between players and fans in the stadium that we witnessed.

Some aspects of sports fan experience are comparable with (or possibly a substitute for) the kind of experience women and men might have in the spaces of organised religion. I have suggested elsewhere4 that sports embody the “dimensions” of religion identified by Ninian Smart: the ritual, mythological, doctrinal, ethical, social, experiential, and material dimensions of religion.5 It is interesting to speculate, therefore, on the different kinds of impact of enforced sporting deprivation for fans and the deprivation of church going upon believers.

Consuming recorded worship services on YouTube or tuning in live on Zoom takes some of the heat out of Sunday morning routines for many people. Worshippers are as likely to be in their loungewear as their “Sunday clothes.” For some it is not just a question of being “pandemic-safe,” it has been so convenient not having to leave the house. Many sports fans say they long to be back in the stadium: as our churches begin to open up again we will find out how many churchgoers long to return and how many have lost the virtuous habit of public worship.

There is some initial and preliminary evidence (though “evidence” might be too strong a word at the moment) that suggests that a negative impact is being had on church worshippers. In a widely reported phenomenon (though perhaps still anecdotal in status), the digital natives’ millennial generation seem less enamoured of worship streamed on YouTube or Zoom than their older counterparts. David Kinnaman of Barna, a group specializing in research on religious practices and cultural interactions, believes that the loss of in-person worship in the pandemic has accelerated the loss of younger members to churches.6 But we might also wonder whether, by comparison with the UK Sport conclusions, the effect of Church-from-the-sofa is less inspirational than the experience of face to face worship. Might we speculate that the effects of church online are less powerful than our pre-pandemic experiences? The absent younger people testify to the importance of maintaining contact with the routines, practices, and faith reinforcement of church life. Without these, as any sociologist will know, plausibility structures crumble. But if sport on TV is less inspirational than its live counterpart, what of worship on a zoom-screen?

It is interesting to compare these two deprivations. Discerning lockdown TV sports fans complain of a lack of “atmosphere” while watching (especially without the piped crowd noise), and some also miss the “close fellowship” of the bleachers and the liturgies of match day. Our experience of a football game is not simply the passive watching of an unfolding contingent contest, it is also the hot dogs and the songs, the sense of wonder of being in the same space as remarkably skilled protagonists, the coarseness and the closeness of the stadium seating.

Without the TV viewers feeding off the spectators in the stadium as they in turn vicariously identify with the athletes (as I did while watching Leicester’s famous win) sport is reduced to mere entertainment. It loses its compelling power to engage and dramatize, to be this superfluous yet utterly essential moment when we encounter our limits and witness beauty and feel despair or joy deep within. If that last bit sounds a little like worship, it is supposed to.

Michael Novak rather grandly observed that “Believers in sport do not go to sports to be entertained; to plays and dramas, maybe, but not to sports. Sport is far more serious in the dramatic arts much closer to primal symbols, metaphors, and acts, much more ancient and more frightening.”7 By contrast, he says, “In order to be entertained, I watch television…primetime shows… slide effortlessly by. I am amused or distracted, or engrossed.  Good or bad, they help to pass the time pleasantly enough. Watching football on television is totally different. I don’t watch football to pass the time. The outcome of the game affects me. I care.”8 Novak argues that “watching football is not entertainment” and he evidences this in part by the contrasting the passivity of the television viewer with the animation of the sports fans. How do we mark the contrast between the passive YouTube worshipper and the engaged “fans” in the pew – and are the online services just “sliding effortless by,” making no impression on their spectators (I choose this word here quite deliberately)?

Listening to people who have been prevented from attending church in person over the last year it is interesting to hear what they miss. Fellowship and singing figure prominently among evangelicals. For others, the loss of sacramental life creates a huge void. The physicality of worship, and it is not just through the sacraments that we experience it, reminds us of the stadium experience and its game-day ritual. Right down to those annoying people who sit behind you, so easily avoided when we lounge on the sofa and “go to church” on You Tube, or watch the game on cable.

Sports fans often sound more desperate to get back to their stadia than church-goers sound when talking of returning to buildings. I wonder, is this because our worship is too often tame (a little too much like the experience of watching sports on TV without crowd noise, maybe) and that it too seldom demonstrates a compelling power to engage and dramatize, to be this superfluous yet utterly essential moment where we encounter our limits and witness beauty and feel despair or joy deep within. We have learnt in the lockdown, if we needed to, that major sport just is not the same without fans in the same space as the athletes. What, we need to ponder, have we learnt about worship and being church?

Footnotes

  1. Fabian Wunderlich, Matthias Weigelt, Robert Rein, and Daniel Memmert, ‘How does spectator presence affect football? Home advantage remains in European top class  football matches played without spectators during the COVID-19 pandemic,’ in Plos One, 31 March 2021, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0248590
  2. See Robert Ellis, The Games People play: Theology, Religion, and Sport (Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014), 248-262.
  3. UK Sport, ‘The Inspirational Effect of Major Sporting Events,’ 2011. https://www.sportsthinktank.com/uploads/the-inspirational-impact-of-major-sporting-events.pdf
  4. Ellis, The Games People Play, 109-122.
  5. Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions (Cambridge: CUP, 1998, 2nd edition), 13-22.
  6. Barna Group, ‘Will the 2020 Pandemic Accelerate Loss of Faith Among the Next Generation?’ https://www.barna.com/research/pandemic-accelerate-loss-faith/
  7. Michael Novak, The Joy of Sports (Lanham, MD: Madison, 1994, revised edition), 24.
  8. Novak, Joy, 25.

Robert Ellis

Dr. Robert Ellis serves as principal at Regent’s Park College, a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford.

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