Opinion: as we can see at present, the relationship between sports fans and sports media consistently and routinely trades on nostalgia

Where once sport, and especially soccer, was an inescapable ever-present feature of life, it has now all but stopped. Given the recent announcement that no gatherings of over 5,000 persons will take place this summer, it is possible that there will be no GAA All-Ireland championships in 2020.

We already know there will be no European finals in men's soccer, no Olympics, no Paralympics, no Wimbledon, and no Open in golf. There will be no rugby, boxing or cycling to take its place. Fans and media alike are used to substituting in different sports in the offseason, but both are left with the uncomfortable vista of an almost complete sports void for the foreseeable future.

It is well established that nostalgia resonates at times of social rupture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, sports media has quickly replaced its scheduled content with past games, providing relief from the overwhelming nature of pandemic news. This trend includes broadcast television replaying classic matches in their entirety, radio and newspaper journalists reliving favourite sporting moments, while podcasts have also turned to analysing classic games.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, Paul Rouse from UCD on why he and the Little Museum of Dublin are on the hunt for Italia '90 memorabilia

For the media, this is certainly a relatively cheap and straightforward way of filling pages and TV slots given the circumstances. For the fan however, the scenario is different for nostalgia is rarely what it seems to be. We commonly use the term to refer to a romantic sentimentality for past enjoyable experiences. On this surface level, sporting moments like Italia 90 are ripe for such feeling insofar as they offer a denial of the present and seductive images of the past. Coined in 1688 by the Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, the term has pointed to something more melancholic however from its inception.

For Hofer, it was a medical condition characterised as grief or sadness (álgos) brought about by a desire to return home (nóstos). Unlike the travelling Swiss soldiers Hofer first identified as suffering from homesickness, the sports fan is currently tied to their home. Though some fans may pine for a visit to their team’s home ground, current sporting nostalgia, in an era where broadcast audiences routinely dwarf attendance figures, is a sentiment we now see manifest primarily as reruns of classic sporting events.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Darren Frehill's week of sporting memories

For the sports fan, the current pain is not an inability to relive famous events, but a desire to return to a time with new sport to follow. As such, the new broadcasting trend can never fully fill the current void. Instead, it is better seen as a development of the already present nostalgia operations of sports media.

Unlike other audiences, the relationship between the sports fan and broadcaster consistently and routinely trades on nostalgia. To be a sports fan is to be surrounded in media content laced with nostalgia. It is invoked in the promotion of events, implied in the constant referencing of statistics and personified in the use of former players for analysis and commentary. 

In this sense, sport is complicit in the contemporary phenomenon of "austerity nostalgia". Described in a British context by Owen Hatherley, it's where cultural artefacts like Downton Abbey and the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster uncritically fetishize an apparent earlier simplicity. Just as nostalgic images became an established trope in Romantic art (see, for example, the atmospheric and glorifying etchings of Roman ruins by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi), sports films, books and even jersey and crest design trade in the sentimental desire and imaging of a bowdlerized past. What Paul Grainge calls the accompanying "commodification and aestheticization of nostalgia" can clearly be seen in the tacky appeals to heritage that pervade sports merchandise and sports tourism. Nostalgia may long to reinstate the past, but it manifests as kitsch souvenirs.

From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, a discussion on retro jerseys

Similarly, Ostalgie is the continental variation used to describe the modern desire for aspects of life under Cold War communism. The chic appeal of communist signifiers like the German ampelmännchen pedestrian signal, the einkaufsnetz shopping net or films like Good Bye Lenin! has been described as longing to be "poor but sexy". Unsurprisingly, sport is part of this phenomenon. We can now see that it was only the unknown outcome of the next game (or maybe transfer speculation or disciplinary proceeding) that rescued fans from being swamped with this type of sports nostalgia.

And herein lies the limitation with this broadcasting solution: it lacks the true tension of sport. Essential to sport is that we cannot know with certainty the outcome, no matter how predictable the result. Furthermore, in privileging classic victories, broadcasters perpetuate romantic visions of the past that emphasise a joyful escapist relief rather than the true pain of nostalgia. Only in returning to defeat can the sport fan approach the nostalgia that Hofer identified. After all that's sport! Most teams lose. These reruns, like the recent rise of e-sports, are simulations that reveal the pain of the current absence of the social and physical proximity.

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Justin McCarthy explores if sport can survive the effects of Covid-19 and what it may look like when it returns

Romantic nostalgia is the refuge of those who look at the past and are not overcome with the necessary and sufficient cringe reflex. Yet, it offers us a way to make sense of the past, or as Walter Benjamin famously put it: "seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger". Not until this broadcasting trend extends to mundane matches of the past will it be able to avoid the sentimental romanticism of uncritical nostalgia. Equally, we ought be equally wary of the opposite extreme; dismissive "nostophobia" (disgust of home place) that Cairns Craig identifies in Scottish culture and is famously encapsulated by Rent-boy in Trainspotting: "its shite being Scottish" 

Nostalgia is often rightly seen as regressive, a fruitless activity. In the words of Randy Travis, "diggin' up bones [is] Exhuming things that's better left alone". Yet there is also something valuable, hopeful and potentially utopian. Grainge's separation of the affective mood and commodified mode is helpful here. The latter is guilty of a romanticism that removes the disagreeable, leaving only a sanitised version of history as heritage (wich explains why we cannot be nostalgic for a recent memory). The former, meanwhiles, allows for nostalgic archaeology to approach collective and critical engagement. If we watch the voluminous archives of recorded sport in a critical way the experience can be potentially rewarding.

Essential to sport is that we cannot know with certainty the outcome, no matter how predictable the result

Reflecting on Piranesi’s etchings, Andreas Huyssen noted that "as in any form of nostalgia, it is difficult to walk the line between sentimental lament over a loss and the critical reclaiming of a past for the purposes of constructing alternative futures". Similarly, sports fans can now perhaps take the opportunity to take stock of sport as it existed with all its joys and inequalities.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ