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In 2021, will sports be fun again?

Fans sit in a mostly empty Greensboro Coliseum after the cancellation of the ACC men's basketball tournament March 12. (Gerry Broome/AP)

At the end of every show, Dan Patrick was exhausted. For four decades, Patrick has been talking about sports, analyzing their games and characters in some fashion on television and radio. But sports talk had never been like this. Health, safety and science would fill one segment, followed by discussions about protests and social justice after the commercial break.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been that tired,” said Patrick, host of an eponymous nationwide radio program. “It was the mental part. You want to get it right; you want to be fair; you want to be smart. It just felt like there was broken glass all around. And it wasn’t a matter of if you’re going to step on it but how deep is the cut going to be.”

The year of broken glass and a shattered reality is finally coming to a close. As the final page from the 2020 calendar is eagerly balled up and tossed into the fire, it’s only natural to look ahead. A new year ushers in questions with hope, promise and uncertainty.

After an unprecedented period of pain and fear, of postponements and cancellations, of hard truths and harder discussions, will sports be fun again — will they serve as the harmless distraction and social balm that once sustained so many? Or has too much changed — not just the games themselves but those who play and watch them?

“I hope once we get into 2021, we sort of go: ‘Wow, we survived. Now what did we learn from 2020, and how does that make us better in 2021?’ ” Patrick said. “I hope we don’t go, ‘Okay, now let’s go back to normal.’ That’s not happening. The question is: Now it’s on us; how do we evolve?”

In the past, sports have served as a welcome distraction through pain or trauma. But no game could blot out what was unfolding in 2020. It all blended together, the planet’s problems disrupting the sports world, along with everything else. The virus attacked athletes the same as everyone else. The social unrest that shook cities similarly rattled the sports landscape.

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Even when the games returned, television ratings were down almost across the board. Sports hadn’t been able to offer a respite for everyone.

“It’s like watching somebody smoke for two hours on TV. Do you feel good about that?” said Jane McManus, director of Marist’s Center for Sports Communication. “Probably not.”

For many people, “just writing a different date brings this nice wave of exuberance,” said Barry Blyn, ESPN’s vice president of consumer insights.

“Think about it: We took all the fundamental building blocks out of sports this year,” he said. “Anticipation, social gathering, water cooler talk, the ability to play — we took everything out. The ability for some of those ingredients to come back gives me some optimism that we’ll be in a better place.”

On the cusp of a new year, the sports world squints at the future, unclear whether fans are ready or even capable of resuming a relationship at the same level of intimacy.

“I would love to be optimistic about this,” said Bryant Gumbel, the veteran newsman and host of HBO’s “Real Sports.” “I really would. I’d love to see people get their games back and move on and athletes return to some degree of expectation. I really would. But I look around, and I don’t see any reason why I should feel that way.”

A safe place

In many ways, it was the sports world that helped bring covid-19 to life for Americans. When Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive in March and the NBA swiftly halted its season, it was clear the coronavirus was a tangible threat. Almost overnight, it seemed, our world and routines changed.

Similarly, ESPN’s Blyn hopes in the coming months sports can help signal a new shift to the country — “An equally positive harbinger that it’s getting better,” he said — guiding Americans toward a post-covid world, in whatever form that ultimately takes.

The early weeks of 2021 still will resemble some of the darkest periods of 2020: games played in empty stadiums with many people eager but not yet ready — or even allowed — to return. The coronavirus infection and death numbers look increasingly dire, but there’s a sense that something better is on the horizon.

Blyn said people are starting to “feel permission to open the fist of tension in their life.” There’s a general sense of hope for the first time in months, “and I think sports has a chance to be a kite in that wind,” he said.

ESPN’s research shows promising shifts in fan behavior. The “avid” fans already have returned, Blyn said, but those who describe their interest as “light” and “casual” have not.

Because sports are a communal activity, Blyn said, “people can’t come back to sports until they can come back together.” The lure of the game isn’t enough; they want the socializing and camaraderie. If they can start experiencing sports together, that means they can tailgate and go to friends’ houses to scream at a television and take road trips to watch their favorite team play.

“There’s a reservoir of people who are looking for a signal to reengage with the joyous parts of their life,” Blyn said.

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The vaccine is here, and millions of Americans will become inoculated in the first half of 2021. While that might mean athletes can soon compete without the risks and restrictions they faced in 2020, it doesn’t mean fans will soon pack into stadiums, nor does it offer any certainty for the coming months. The NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball will still have to navigate the complicated covid world, and polling suggests fans are far more conservative than league officials and team owners when it comes to pandemic play.

A majority of fans, 56 percent, said people shouldn’t play indoor sports, according to a Marist poll this month. And 49 percent said fans shouldn’t be allowed to attend the Super Bowl.

“What it showed me is people are very aware of the effects this virus is having on the community, and that extends to sports,” McManus said. “What’s jarring, I think, is leagues, the NCAA, college teams, they don’t seem to be factoring in the coronavirus in quite the same way.”

While many Americans are waiting for a vaccine to resume pre-covid entertainment pursuits and pastimes, McManus points out that nearly one in five sports fans, 18 percent, said they should be allowed to attend games right now and another 36 percent said they should be allowed to attend with restrictions in place.

It’s the contingent of holdouts and that relaxed attitude that concern Gumbel. Even as millions become vaccinated, teams and leagues still will face difficult decisions about opening their gates.

“The last thing I want to do is come off as a naysayer,” he said, “but we’ve seen the numbers. Anywhere from 25 to 33 percent of people are not going to get vaccinated. They don’t want it. They’re suspicious of it. And so we’ll have to decide, what’s the bar? Are we going to open stadiums when 60 percent of the population is vaccinated? [Or] 85 percent? We’re never going to have 100, so what is the criteria going to be?”

Solid footing

Sports have always been a microcosm of sorts, a meeting place for discussions about race, gender, labor unrest or any number of societal issues. But in 2020, the athletes themselves drove the dialogue. They amplified discussions of race and social justice. They worked in local communities and used their platforms to spread advocacy messages across the country. They talked about George Floyd, policing, Black Lives Matter and the collective need for us all to do better, to be more inclusive. When they started organizing and leading get-out-the-vote efforts, it marked a level of involvement and activism that had a tangible impact on our election.

With a new administration poised to move into the White House next month, the issues aren’t suddenly less contentious or conspicuous, and many expect the substantive 2020 dialogue to continue.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” Gumbel said. “There’s no way we’re going back to a shut-up-and-dribble age. That’s not going to happen.”

The difference isn’t simply the athletes discovering their voices but the broader acceptance of it. Leagues that had been careful to play to the middle were suddenly encouraging their athletes to get involved. The NFL painted social justice slogans in the end zone, and the NBA allowed its players to wear similar messages on their jerseys, supporting causes such as Black Lives Matter. WNBA players openly campaigned for political candidates.

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“People are no longer intimidated into silence,” Gumbel said. “Whereas before players justifiably had a right to be concerned that if they spoke the team would jettison them in a hurry, now I think they look at it and think if the owner does that he’s the one on the firing line.”

The issues highlighted in 2020 — from the paucity of minority coaches to the power imbalance in college sports — weren’t solved, so that dialogue won’t be silenced by hanging a new calendar.

There will be fundamental changes, no doubt, and some things just won’t be the same. Baseball is still working out details, but a designated hitter might soon be the norm in both leagues. Reporters probably won’t enjoy the same locker room access and thus won’t form the relationships with players that allow them to share important stories with fans. Colleges might find it harder to tell alumni, courtroom judges and themselves that athletes are just like any other students on campus. Team and league executives and college administrators will have to confront the racial disparities in their ranks and adjust their hiring practices.

As many seek to sprint away from 2020 as fast as possible, the question is what lessons will be taken into 2021: how athletes will view their roles, how owners and leagues will treat their fans, how fans will choose to spend their time and money.

“Americans, in particular, have very, very short memories,” Gumbel said. “I’m mindful of the fact that December 7 came and went and hardly anybody noticed. When I was a kid everybody said they’d always remember where they were when JFK was killed. People don’t want to remember this, and history suggests that they’ll forget about it and return to their old ways rather quickly. Which is kind of sad, because I think there are some lessons to be learned here.”