From “The Last Dance” to WrestleMania 3, old sport events have been crucial for fans

In a weird kind of way — for what is a weird concept in general — old games are the pandemic’s version of old sports trading cards.

Nostalgia has been forced upon us during this present journey of emptiness, amid a time when everyone is faced with the mind-bending thought that we are living through a unique period, one in which history is effectively standing still. Yet the minds of sports fans have had a progression of their own, and in many cases it went something like this:

We heard about the virus, that it was coming and that it might affect sports, but figured it probably wouldn’t go so far as cancellations. After all, sports events have survived pretty much everything life has thrown at America. The Masters had gone ahead every year except for from 1943-45, pausing only for the ravages of World War II. The Men’s NCAA Tournament had taken place for 81 years, without interruption.

Next, we heard that sports, some of them, would be staged without fans — then, rapidly, that they would not take place at all. Suddenly, all those years of relentless precedent didn’t matter, not in the face of this opponent. We were left wondering when sports would even come back at all.

Once the initial shock of lockdowns and restrictions and stay-at-home challenges set in, we finally started trying to figure out what we were going to do to pass all this newfound spare time.

Simultaneously, broadcasters were scratching their heads figuring out how to fill their hours of programming. The response was both obvious and glorious: We were going to get the old stuff. And we fell in love with it — some of us for the first time, some of us all over again.

With live action shuttered, more and more people are filling up their mental checklist by ticking off the classics, collecting new memories of days past as if they were binders of old memorabilia. Those broadcasts are like trading cards because they take us back. They make us feel good, and they have a value in that they soothe our soul, which is a feeling worth its weight in gold right now.

There has been everything from old Wrestlemanias, like the iconic third edition that was shown on FS1 Tuesday night, to feasts of boxing featuring greats like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Mike Tyson.

“The Last Dance” series highlighting the end of Michael Jordan’s career with the Bulls has definitely played into an appetite for reminiscing over glory days of yesteryear, while soccer specials like the United States’ Women’s World Cup triumph from last summer showed us that nostalgia doesn’t have to be from the deep past, just from a time that feels different to now.

“If you consider yourself a devoted fan of a sport, there is something satisfying about being able to say you have ‘completed the set’ of watching the most significant events or moments in its history,” Los Angeles-based businessman and sports nut Jason Hartley told me.

“Until recently it wasn’t really feasible. First of all, a lot of the stuff has become more easily available during the pandemic, because broadcasters have nothing else to show. Also, in normal times, you are too busy watching the live events.”

Hartley is a huge mixed martial arts fan, and each day has dove into the UFC’s library of old pay-per-view cards on its Fight Pass portal, starting with the original UFC 1 from 1993 with its bloodthirsty advertising approach and only three rules – no biting, eye gouging or whacks to the groin. He’s currently up to UFC 97.

Major League Baseball opened up its archives from 2018 and 2019, allowing fans to play catch-up. Kristen Santos, a freelance designer from Riverside, Calif., finds the audio for past games to be a pleasing backdrop while working from home. “It feels like something normal,” she said. “That’s what I love about it.”

In England, repeats of iconic cricket matches from last summer brought about a remarkable response across multiple platforms. When the country’s 2019 Cricket World Cup triumph was broadcast on Sky Sports, simultaneous radio coverage was available online, while the rival BBC did play-by-play updates as if the thing was playing out live, and popular website Cricinfo gave “up to date” analysis.

Players who had been involved Tweeted – and admitted feeling nervousness, in the same way Tom Brady did when he recently rewatched his Patriots’ comeback against the Falcons in the Super Bowl – while the eventual triumph over New Zealand led to a reliving of the sense of national euphoria.

It is strange, in a way, to watch the old games, just because it is already jarring to us to see so many people in such close proximity, fans shoulder to shoulder, hugging, high-fiving, breathing each other’s air. Meanwhile, it is hard to figure out what of the changes we’ve made to our lives will linger and which will quickly be dispensed with. Such pleasure has been derived from seeing the games of old that there is a likelihood that there will be some persistence. But who knows to what extent?

Over here, a return to sports is on the way; at least, it seems so. A firm MLB plan is on the table, while reports suggest the NBA has growing optimism its campaign can be completed. The National Football League schedule has been released in full, and was greeted with great anticipation.

When we have live sports with regularity again, what will become of our newfound salvation? Will mass viewing of the classics go away, no longer needed?

Or have we discovered something within us that gives us a greater appreciation for our sports history, even as the strangest of new histories is being written?