Is the pandemic less about existentialism than it is a matter of essentialism?
No, the lockdown hasn’t tipped me over the edge. My question is this: Are we seeing people and institutions for what they really are, their basic make-up, in this time of trial?
This is a sweeping question, but consider the behaviour of organisations and individuals in the last couple of weeks. Are you surprised — really surprised — by the way the banks, or Liverpool, or Donald Trump, or second-home owners, have been conducting themselves?
(A quick aside on the sideshow involving professional soccer and the obligations of its players and clubs across the water: Saying you are being held to a different standard doesn’t validate your basic meanness. I’ll leave it there before we’re completely sidetracked.)
The point about essential character is: a) it always reveals itself eventually and b) it helps us understand the changes coming our way. An example many readers might relate to is the sports broadcasting landscape that will greet them when the dust finally settles.
You’re no doubt looking forward to hunkering down in front of your television to drink in the sweet ordinariness of a game being broadcast live, irrespective of your preferred code.
Which is completely understandable, though we should all keep an honest timeline tracking our gradual abandonment of relief at the return of sport in favour of general unhappiness with the quality of what’s on show.
But how exactly will you consume sport when it returns?
No more than other traditional media outlets, broadcasters are now under huge pressure. But unlike other areas, there are big beasts lurking just out of picture who may now slide in to replace those outlets.
Big tech companies have the resources to challenge terrestrial and non-terrestrial broadcasters when sports rights come up for discussion, and that was true long before the economic downturn expected on the back of the pandemic and lockdown. Now the playing field has been tilted significantly in favour of the likes of Amazon and Facebook.
Amazon, for instance, has a clear interest in sports content as a way to drive subscribers to its various streaming platforms: One of those, Twitch, is still raking in millions of viewers because it specialises in e-sports, which are unaffected by the strictures on social distancing.
The attraction of e-sports goes far beyond the current circumstances. This is a sports outlet which is low-cost — there are no stadia which need to be built, no teams with stars, management, and support staff to be paid; no crowds to be accommodated and fed, no scheduling headaches or weather-related challenges.
Little wonder, then, that Facebook are now taking a closer look at e-sports. Only last week it announced a new upgraded platform, Tournaments, to facilitate the e-sports fans among its many devotees.
Be wary, however, because sport may be the quickest route to your data. I’ve raved here before about Shoshana Zuboff’s book Surveillance Capitalism: That title sums up tech companies’ thirst for your details and information and for monetising same.
Your login/mother’s maiden name/postcode/phone digits are the precise items the tech companies want for their algorithms and advertisers, and signing in to follow your sport of choice expedites that process. If those tech behemoths choose to flex their muscles, then e-sports are just the beginning. The main field sports will be next.
Of course, you may be just fine with signing away your details. Just as you may be fine with what Wired magazine calls Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s “14-year apology tour” — his repeated promises to do better when his company is confronted with what Zuckerberg himself calls “breaches of trust”.
You want sport to come back as soon as possible. But not at any cost, surely.
Impossible to disagree with McConville
Oisín McConville wrote in these pages last week about the virtual Grand National being staged, with wagers being accepted by bookmakers on it.
He’s a man with a deeper knowledge than me of the issues surrounding gambling and addiction, but the most compelling argument he made in his column wasn’t based on inside knowledge.
“The truth is that while everyone else toed the line,” McConville wrote, “The racing and bookmaking industry flew in the face of that.”
Why is that, exactly?
Early in the lockdown there was a good deal of demonising young people — with their youth, their futures, their clear skin, their heedless disregard for us oldies — but there wasn’t quite as much demonising the thousands who went to Cheltenham, who didn’t appear to be moody, disaffected teenagers for the most part if the photographic record was a reliable one.
While it might be diverting to see someone twist themselves into rhetorical knots trying to prove horse racing fans just need to see their sport more than any other sector, that’s just not going to fly.
Because of that it’s impossible to counter McConville’s thesis that bookmakers are happy to be part of a mockery like a virtual horse race in order to separate people from their money.
‘And the attendance is...’
A solution to the problem of empty stadia has appeared.
I note that the Rakuten Monkeys have decided to fill their stadium with robots because social distancing rules preclude fans from attending their baseball games in Taiwan.
In what may be a sign for the near future of sport here, new government regulations in Taiwan only allow 200 people in the stadium at any time, and clearly the playing squads, game officials and necessary stadium staff would eat up a large proportion of that figure.
Don’t fret if you’re a fan keen to spend money on the team, however, because the Monkeys have also come up with a way to relieve the pressure on your wallet.
They’re offering a new way for you to ‘attend’ a game — a cardboard cut-out with a photograph of your face on it will be put in a seat at a cost of approximately €180 for four pictures.
If this is adopted by Irish sporting bodies I demand a cut of the proceeds.
Treat yourself to the wonder of Winslow
I’ve popped up here in the past with my enthusiasm for Don Winslow.
One of his more recent books, The Force, is an all-time great read if your taste runs to pacy New York cop thrillers (which is just a longer way of saying you have good taste).
He has a new book out, Broken, which is a little different to its predecessors in that it’s a collection of six novellas.
This in itself is a recommendation, given the need for reading material in our current situation, but if you need further persuasion, consider this as an opening line to one of the novellas, The San Diego Zoo: “No one knows how the chimp got the revolver.”
That story’s dedicated to Elmore Leonard.
He couldn’t have begun it any better.