Coronavirus in sports: Straight out of doomsday movies

The intricate web of integration of the global and local characteristics of sport — ‘glocal’ as it is called — lies shattered after the outbreak of COVID-19.

The English Premier League has been suspended because of the coronavirus and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp offered one perspective. “Football always seems the most important of the least important things,” the German said. “Today, football and football matches really aren’t important at all.”   -  Getty Images

 

These are not pretty times as COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) — a respiratory illness declared a pandemic — continues to wreak havoc around the world. Tales of streets being cleared, towns quarantined and entire countries in lockdown mode convey only half the story. The unfolding human catastrophe, of livelihoods being lost and mounting deaths, may well be beyond anybody’s imagination.

Where does sport fit in this world of dystopia? Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp offered one perspective. “Football always seems the most important of the least important things,” the German said. “Today, football and football matches really aren’t important at all.”

As if on cue, from cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) to football’s Premier League to tennis’s ATP and WTA Tours to basketball’s NBA, every mega event that routinely sees thousands of footfalls has ground to a halt. Even the Olympic Games, that great vehicle of using sport as a means to build an active, fair and hopeful society, is now under threat with the Japanese capital Tokyo, the site of the 2020 edition, too close to the original epicentre of the viral disease.

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European football’s flagship events, the Champions League and Europa League have been stopped while the Formula 1 season opener in Melbourne has been cancelled. The Masters at Augusta, the first golf major championship of the year, which has been played every year since 1934 except during the war years (1943 to 1945), will not happen.

But modern-day sport is more than just an on-field activity. During testing times, it may not be a priority like Klopp said, but the very fact that it has grown out of its late Sunday afternoon amateur avatar into a multimillion dollar industrial complex makes it more than just a distraction. The intermingling with trade, business and politics accompanied by the free movement of capital and resources makes it a vital part of the worldwide economic supply chain.

There is also a social and cultural dimension to sport. Apart from the game itself, sports-watching and match-going experiences inculcate a sense of shared consciousness in the deeply private and secluded world that people of today inhabit.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) and guard Donovan Mitchell tested positive for the coronavirus . Gobert’s test result forced the NBA to suspend the season and the player has since donated half a million dollars for the battle against the virus.   -  AP

 

It is this intricate web of integration of the global and local characteristics of sport — ‘glocal’ as it is called — that lies shattered after the outbreak of COVID-19.

Barely a few days ago, though, no one had as much as an inkling about the chaos the world would descend into. Elbow-bumps and leg-shakes were still considered novel methods of beating the virus. But the sudden deepening of the crisis left no room for people to even meet face to face. ‘Social Distancing’ is now the way forward.

The Indian Wells tennis Masters set the ball rolling by cancelling the event in early March even as players, including the likes of Rafael Nadal, had started arriving. The lucrative tennis competition in the Californian desert is dubbed the ‘Fifth Slam’ and once it was put off, pretty much every tennis tournament in the subsequent weeks was expected to fold.

READ| Indian Grand Prix cancelled, Fed Cup postponed

In England, it took the positive tests of Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi for the Premier League to suspend action. As it stands, with nine games still left, table-topper Liverpool is ahead by a whopping 25 points.

There will be no argument if the authorities were to end the season immediately and pronounce Liverpool the champion, a well-deserved accolade for the club that is desperately seeking its first title in 30 years. But the grant of the Champions and Europa League places and promotion and relegation of teams across divisions are tricky matters that have no easy solutions.

In the cash-rich IPL, clouds of uncertainty first gathered when the Indian government, in a bid to contain the virus, suspended most visas for foreign nationals, including those of top international players. Not long after, advisories against mass gatherings and big-scale public events put paid to all hopes and pushed the BCCI to suspend the cricket extravaganza by two full weeks. The India-South Africa ODI series was halted midway while England’s tour of Sri Lanka was called off.

Even the Indian Wells tennis event, referred to as the “Fifth Slam,” has been floored by the threat of the virus. The loss the Southern California area will incur following this cancellation will be to the tune of $400 million.   -  AFP

 

The economic impact will run into millions. According to Thomas Riley, host of MarketScale’s <Diving into Data podcast, the loss the Southern California area will incur following the cancellation of the Indian Wells Masters will be to the tune of $400 million. The Miami Open, the next Masters to be snuffed out, drew 388,734 fans last year. The loss for South Florida this year is pegged at $390 million. Apart from gate receipts, this also includes the hits that auxiliary clusters of economic activity like hotels, restaurants, transportation and television and online broadcasting will take.

In India, Star Sports paid a whopping $2.55 billion for the IPL telecast rights for a five-year period from 2018 to 2022. The cost per game ($8.47 million) placed it third in the list behind the NFL in the United States and the Premier League in England. To call off the IPL will lead to a bloodbath, with tens of millions of dollars erased from each franchise’s share of the broadcast revenue.

Initially there was an attempt, in England in particular, to protect at least this part of the revenue by staging matches behind closed doors. While bigger clubs and franchises can absorb the loss of turnstile earnings, for lesser outfits that do not attract sufficient eyeballs on televisions and streaming websites, the loss of money from ticketing will be crippling. It may also lead to a situation where the broadcast companies themselves may be circumspect before investing such huge sums anticipating future disruptions.

On the other hand, if the Olympics doesn’t go ahead, it will be a seismic disaster for Japan. Riley pointed out that Japan’s spending on the Olympics is about $12.6 billion of which $5.6 billion is in private capital and the rest in taxes. A successful Olympics will enable Japan to earn back a significant amount of the latter; this, despite the recent experiences of Greece and Brazil, whose economies floundered after playing host to giant-sized sports competitions. The Asian powerhouse appears driven by the prevalent belief that large upgrades in infrastructure will have a positive impact on the well-being of its people in the long run.

A man wearing a face mask walks past a Tokyo Olympics countdown clock on March 13, 2020, in the Japanese capital. Though something like four months remain before the mega event kicks off, there are calls for it to be put off because of the corona scare. Even United States President Donald Trump has suggested that the Olympics should be postponed to next year.   -  Getty Images

 

Now imagine a closed-door Olympics which will at once wipe out a billion dollars of gate receipts and much more in tourism potential.

In the event of a cancellation, a case can be made for say the newly built transportation systems to come good in the future, but Games-specific infrastructure will remain ghost entities. Even a stadium as iconic as the Bird’s Nest, built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is now an ‘expensive-to-maintain tourist attraction.’

What makes things even more difficult is the haphazard way in which COVID-19 has affected the world, with different areas hit at different times. The worst seems to be over for East Asia, especially China, while India, Europe and the Americas are bracing for the challenge. East Asia is an important market for all things sport and even after it is ready consume, it remains to be seen if the rest of the world would have recovered enough to keep pace.

Even if hypothetically the situation is conducive for Japan to host the Olympics, will the world’s athletes be eager to participate? It’s similar to ‘Rolling Recession’ in economics, a state where as one sector enters recovery, the slowdown will hit another part of the economy. There will also be question marks over the long-term effect COVID-19 has on fan behaviour. A die-hard supporter will most certainly return to the stadium once the matches resume. Will a casual spectator, who might have otherwise travelled to the venue, risk being part of a large public gathering that soon?

For now, the governing bodies of different sports have presented a fairly optimistic outlook. English football has been suspended only till the end of April while tennis until early June. The IPL hopes to chug along from mid-April at least in a truncated form. But amidst devastation of such huge magnitude, it is safe to say that the world will not hurtle towards normalcy but only slowly mend. As sportswriter Jonathan Liew called it in The Guardian, “This is, in short, the most seismic disruption to the sporting calendar since the second world war, with the possibility that an obliterated spring is simply the prelude to an annihilated summer and a torched autumn.”

And until such a time the hiatus stretches, fans and players can twiddle their thumbs and get by. But the task is cut out for those organisers looking for damage-limiting solutions, broadcasters staring at empty slots of programming and newspaper editors scrambling to find content to populate their columns with.