How Toronto’s Sports Fans Are Handling a World With No Sports

As the COVID-19 crisis has put the entire sports landscape on hold, Toronto's fans are struggling to find other forms of escapism.

covid19 toronto
Kishan Mistry

Image via Kishan Mistry

covid19 toronto

Like most of us, Shan Panjwani remembers it like it was yesterday. Watching with bated breath alongside the family that got him addicted to sports, at his local AllStar Wings and Ribs, 4.2 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. Four dribbles by Kawhi Leonard towards the right baseline to evade Ben Simmons, and then a fadeaway on the move to avoid the outstretched arm of Joel Embiid. The shot went up high but came down soft, and four bounces were followed by absolute pandemonium.

“I’ve never seen a place lose its shit like that,” Shan, who has been an avid supporter of the Raptors and Leafs for the past 20 years, said. “Drinks everywhere, food everywhere, people hugging. It was just craziness.”

It’s a scene that effectively paints a picture across the entire city of Toronto, and the country of Canada for that matter—one that’s in stark contrast to what we see now. Except for those who still fail to realize the seriousness of a global pandemic, no one is congregating, no one is celebrating, no one is experiencing the thrill of live sports. Watching athletes perform is so insignificant compared to the devastation the COVID-19 virus has caused across the world, but for so many, sports has always provided that outlet to get away from life itself. That imaginary door into a world where all that matters is whether your team wins or loses.


“It seems miniscule talking about sports in the context of a pandemic,” Yasmin Duale, also known as carmelohdrama to those on Raptors Twitter, said. “But it’s a part of your interests, your personality; it’s a very strange situation to say the least. If you’re a working-class person, sports is escapism; if you’re a student, it’s escapism—and now your escapism is infected, literally, so it makes it real for a lot of people.”

Yasmin had sport hooked to her veins courtesy of her brothers and father. They are huge basketball fans and as those around her in university gravitated towards the Raptors, the bond grew stronger. Her passion for the NBA has advanced to the point where she wants to make a career in journalism covering the league, and she already co-hosts the recently launchedDishes & Dimes: A Raptors Podcast, an all-women podcast featuring seven other voices. While they now try and find creative ways of providing content, there is a new normal that everyone has had to make for themselves.

"If you’re a working-class person, sports is escapism; if you’re a student, it’s escapism—and now your escapism is infected, literally.” - Yasmin Duale

Many have resorted to watching past highlights of the best moments for their teams, others to TV shows and movies, but Shan has turned to sports in the form of video games—mainly FIFA—since he’s had to cope with not being able to play soccer and hockey as he usually does. Yasmin struggles with the idea of watching old games, and but for some of those iconic moments, she does not intend on tuning in for the duration of Sportsnet and TSN’s airing of each of the 24 games from the Raptors’ championship run.

“I feel like that makes me sad,” Yasmin said. “I try to [watch]. I saw people collectively watching games from the Finals and the Conference Finals, and I’m doing that, but it just makes me sad that I’m not watching anything new, I’m not looking forward to anything new. It’s very strange because that was literally my hobby—outside of work and school—it was basketball, it was covering basketball, talking about basketball. But when you don’t have anything occurring in the landscape, it’s very odd.”


The NBA and NHL have had several players test positive thus far, MLB officially suspended spring training, and the MLS season had barely begun before matches were called off. After initially suspending activities until April, the goalposts have now shifted to June. Is that a reasonable estimate for some type of return to normalcy? The truth is no one knows. NBA commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea of an exhibition game featuring select players to provide some type of distraction for fans, recognizing the momentary comfort sport can provide.

At least for some, like sports junkie Michael DiStefano, that release recently came courtesy of the NFL entering free agency and the league-wide transactions providing something for fans to talk about: the New England Patriots’ legendary quarterback Tom Brady deciding to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the very top of the list.


“I am glad that the NFL decided to keep it going,” Michael, whose Leafs fandom has seen him become host of the Locked on Leafspodcast, said. “It’s the off-season, so there’s not really much interaction face-to-face—they can all still be isolated and get business done. I’m glad they decided that and business went forward as usual.”

While isolating with his family in Niagara, Michael has actually dug into the sobering reality of today in the absence of his usual vice, regularly watching the news and trying to stay on top of everything that comes in. It’s a situation that appears to evolve by the hour, and outside of binging movies and spending quality time with his loved ones, watching events develop all over the globe has been his primary focus. That’s the biggest change we’re all confronted with: that there’s no real escaping reality right now. Turn on the TV or go online, it’s coronavirus updates. Look outside, the streets are empty.

The return of sports and its adoring fans in attendance will be one of the biggest indicators that life can be lived the way it was until just a month ago. And when it does, whether it be this season or next, it might not take a big moment to bring out that crazy celebration or warm embrace.

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