Televised live sports have all but vanished in the age of coronavirus, but an unlikely exception emerged recently on ESPN3: the “2020 Platform Tennis World Championships.”
The name was rather grandiose for a makeshift tournament streamed live from a backyard court in Wilton, Conn. It featured four little-known men playing a little-known game at a private home with no prize money at stake.
“For platform tennis, it’s the biggest stage we’ve ever been on so far,” said Mark Parsons, who ended up winning the title but not taking home the trophy.
“The guy who brought the trophy was the only guy allowed to touch it,” Parsons said. “We were doing our best to keep the social distancing.”
With professional and collegiate sports shut down just about worldwide, there is a narrow window for niche events to seek some light during the pandemic.
Burke Magnus, the executive vice president for programming acquisitions and scheduling for ESPN, said in a statement that one of the network’s goals was to entertain fans through “themed and stunt event programming that will provide a diversion at a time that there are virtually no other live sports to watch.”
Platform tennis — played outdoors, even in subzero temperatures, on a scaled-down tennis court inside fences that feel more like a cage — was a new entry in a strange and sensitive era for live competitions. Team and contact sports do not work well now. N.B.A. players, NASCAR drivers and cyclists are competing in video games, and ESPN recently re-aired “The Ocho,” its annual outlet for zany competitions like stone skipping and ax throwing.
There will be more attempts to stage live sporting events. The Big 3, a three-on-three basketball league featuring some former N.B.A. players, has ambitions to quarantine certain players in a house and broadcast their lives and games. An exhibition rematch between the golfers Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson is being discussed, as are tennis exhibitions from private residences.
Magnus said on Monday that ESPN was also positioning itself to be ready if international sports leagues resumed play ahead of those in the United States.
“There is clearly a thirst for live games,” he said. “It may provide a unique opportunity to introduce fans to events or leagues that may not have had as much exposure here.”
Platform tennis has had hardly any mainstream exposure, but last week it was the only live event on ESPN3 that was played on a physical court or a field.
Bob Considine, the owner of paddlepro.com, helped organize the platform tennis tournament on short notice, and he said he had worried about being respectful of the moment and the fears of fans.
“We didn’t want to be going against society,” he said. “I was so nervous the week going into it, thinking, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing the right thing?’”
Despite being fenced in, the competitors did their best to maintain distance. To avoid coming within six feet of each other, they played singles instead of doubles — the more customary platform tennis game.
Each competitor wore a glove on his nonserving hand and played service games with his own ball. When it came time to change ends, they crossed on opposite sides of the net and never tossed a ball to the other player, instead hitting it with their paddles.
Off the court, they sat far apart, and no spectators were allowed. The only people in attendance other than the players were the four members of a skeleton television crew. Instead of bringing in a production truck, they used the house’s internet connection, which made for a spotty stream. They also had to improvise after a camera affixed to one of the fences came loose.
Considine climbed a ladder and held the camera himself during the final.
“I was up there for a good hour,” Considine said. “A little scary to tell you the truth — 15 feet up there, with those guys slamming into the fence.”
To keep the number of people involved down even further, players doubled as television commentators, joining the play-by-play man Brad Easterbrook to discuss the next match after finishing their own.
Post-match interviews were conducted at a considerable distance.
“I would do anything in the world to trade this situation for getting back to normal,” said Harry Cicma, whose independent production company staged the event and made the deal with ESPN. “But people were contacting me and were really sad and depressed they didn’t have live sports, and I was just thinking of ways to do it in a safe way and about the sports that would work. Football, baseball or basketball, you need a public venue. But platform tennis you can do at someone’s house in a safe manner, one on one, and we happen to have the best players in the world in the New York area.”
According to Considine, there are only “100,000 to 150,000” platform tennis players in the world, nearly all of them in the United States. The hub is in suburban New York; the game was invented in Scarsdale in 1928. The world’s No. 1 player, Johan du Randt, drove down for the tournament from his home in Boston.
Parsons, a 40-year-old Canadian, is ranked No. 3 and said he lived “less than a seven-minute drive” from where the event was staged. Like many top platform tennis players, he once played professional tennis. He was a member of Canada’s Davis Cup team.
The tournament was without several other top players, including Jared Palmer, a 48-year-old American who was ranked No. 1 in tennis doubles and won the 2001 Wimbledon title with Donald Johnson.
The only person involved with the tournament who seemed comfortable with the “world championship” label was Cicma.
“I cringe at that term,” Considine said.
Though the competitors had played little for the previous three weeks and rarely play singles, Parsons shook off the rust to beat du Randt, his former doubles partner, in the final.
When it was over and they met at the net, there was no handshake.
Instead, they touched paddles and then quickly retreated.
“It was strange not to reach over and give Johan a high-five or a hug,” Parsons said. “We played together so long, but hopefully we can get back soon to the way things were.”