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FRITZ COLUMN: Sports rely on shared experiences
COVID-19

FRITZ COLUMN: Sports rely on shared experiences

Saturdays in Madison will almost certainly look different this fall.

And college football Saturdays are as good as it gets in a town without professional sports. It’s not necessarily the tackles and touchdown runs that make them special. Rather, fall Saturdays across the United States stand out because of everything that leads up to — and goes along with — the on-field moments. It’s about the buzz and shared experience a game creates, and the well-cultivated traditions that enhance the atmosphere.

College football is the perfect example of the spectacle of sports. There’s a week-long buildup, with the upcoming matchups being analyzed before fans parade into town for tailgates, grilled meats, morning beers, marching bands, reunions and rivalries. If you drive into downtown Madison on a Saturday, you feel the buzz that’s present whether the Badgers are favored by 40 points or welcoming in Ohio State at night.

There is a sense of freedom when you head into a crowd that is planning to spend their day exactly like you. And it’s not just fans that feel it. While advanced statistics attempt to diminish the emotional aspects of sports, athletes are aware of what’s going on around them.

In Sunday’s episode of “The Last Dance,” Michael Jordan said, “For 1.1 seconds, everyone was holding their breath, which was kind of cute,” after he missed a buzzer-beater in Chicago’s 83-81 loss to Utah in Game 5 of the 1998 NBA Finals. Jordan’s full quote, which can be found in Roland Lazenby’s book “Michael Jordan: The Life,” goes on to say, “No one knew what was going to happen. Me, you, no one who was watching the game. And that was the cute part about it. And I love those moments. Great players thrive on that in some respects because they have an opportunity to decide happiness and sadness. That’s what you live for. That’s the fun part about it.”

Jordan knew he had people’s attention, as well as their emotions in his hands. That shared experience is exactly what we’re missing during the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken away our opportunities to gather — and will likely keep fans out of stadiums for the foreseeable future. Wisconsin is on the tail end of a spring without Opening Day, baseball, tailgates, spring football and full bars watching the Milwaukee Bucks try to win their second NBA title.

Sure, people love what goes into sports — the highlights, strategies, skills, broken records, comebacks, circus catches, scandals and championships. But it’s the buildup toward those moments that make them mean more, and keep us watching Brewers baseball in July and UW vs. Appalachian State in September.

The buzz is in the buildup, and there has never been a buildup quite like the last couple months. When the major U.S. sports do return, the payoff will likely be immediate, as the NHL and NBA need to get the postseason going while the condensed MLB schedule will add urgency to the sport without a clock.

Shrinking the sports calendar means that memorable in-game moments could come fast this summer and fall. However, if fans are relegated to watching those moments at home, will we be able to recreate the camaraderie and atmosphere that has built up around athletics?

Can that big-game feeling happen without masses flocking to a stadium or bar to share the experience? It’s possible, as long as people have a way to share those moments.

It was possible at the beginning of this quarantine period, when the drinks were flowing during those first virtual happy hours. The shared experience of the pandemic temporarily brought a feeling similar to the ones that can manifest while attending a big game, tailgate or party. Zoom calls gave us a new way to connect.

When sports return, they’ll bring back the strong feelings and opinions that go along with them. That hunger to connect through games again means that — as long as there are ways to share the moment — sitting outside with a grill and baseball on TV might be all that’s needed to create the big-game buzz this summer.

Follow Brock Fritz on Twitter @BrockFritz or contact him at 608-963-0344.

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