The Show Must Go On

COVID-19 & Sports

€‹With the coronavirus pandemic likely to stay with us for some time, the sports industry is working on new models and blueprints to deal with threats to business and financial continuity.

COVID-19 is affecting society across the globe, and the sports ecosystem is no different. The pandemic has caused games and competitions across the globe to come to an unexpected halt, resulting in massive financial losses and uncertainty over when and how this industry will return to normality.

In the midst of all this chaos, it is remarkable that the sports industry realized the danger of COVID-19 early and canceled or postponed many if not most major sporting events at international, regional, and national levels in order to safeguard the health of athletes and all others involved.

From marathons to football tournaments, cricket to baseball, weightlifting to wrestling, as well as ice hockey, rugby, sailing, skiing, athletics championships, and basketball, virtually all leading sports have been affected.

For the first time in the history of the modern games, a decision was taken to postpone the Olympics and Paralympics and hold them in 2021 instead. According to some reports, it will cost at least USD2 billion to push the Tokyo 2020 Olympics back a year.

Some of the other major events that have been impacted by the pandemic are UEFA Euro 2020, the African Nations Championship, South America’s Copa America, the London and Boston marathons, the World Athletics Championships, the Diamond League, the Wimbledon and French opens, and golf’s Masters Tournament.

Unfortunately, canceling major sporting events meant shutting down business ventures that were bound to bring billions of dollars in revenue. The global value of the sports industry is estimated at USD756 billion annually. Now, millions of jobs are at risk globally, not only for sports professionals but also for those in related retail and sporting services industries connected with leagues and events, including infrastructure, travel, tourism, transportation, catering, media, and broadcasting, among others.

The sports industry is now having to put its foot on the brakes and come to terms with new realities.

According to a report by the sports marketing agency Two Circles, the sports event industry alone could lose as much as USD61.6 billion in missed revenues in 2020. According to the study, the industry was originally on course to hit USD135.3 billion in 2020, marking a 4.9% YoY increase on the USD129 billion generated in 2019.

However, with close to half of the sporting calendar at risk of being shelved due to the coronavirus, the industry will now only generate USD73.7 billion in revenue.

As to what a world without sports would look like, it is nothing but a bizarre idea which not many on earth would like to pursue.

Sport has long been considered a key tool for building bridges between communities and generations. Through sport, various social groups are able to play a more decisive role toward social transformation and development, especially in divided societies. In addition to economic repercussions, the cancellation of sporting events also impacts their social benefits. Sport makes an important contribution to social cohesion as well as the social and emotional excitement of fans, whose identification with athletes leads to greater physical activity.

All this is why more and more sporting bodies around the world are deciding to resume play again, but without fans. South Korea’s baseball league started playing live games without fans on May 5. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) likewise resumed fights in an empty arena on May 9. The German Bundesliga became the first major European football league to resume live events on May 16. In the US, the NBA and the MLB announced plans to resume in July. Elsewhere, a 20-member squad of Pakistan Cricket Team left for England on June 28.

As play resumes, it is important for organizations to consider each aspect of reopening and the effects on players, employees, stakeholders, and spectators, including whether to pick up or restart the current season, health and safety measures, litigation risks, and more.

Resuming live events with fans, which involve hundreds of thousands of employees and fans in close contact with one another, is off the table for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the game must go on because when matches are canceled entirely, it not only puts a large financial strain on the sports sponsorship industry but also the broadcasting industry.

People used to say the sports business is safe from a recession or a global crisis. That was the case as long as tickets were sold, media wanted to broadcast, and brands saw value in marketing through sport. The coronavirus crisis has changed all that.

Multi-million sponsorship and advertising deals are largely at risk because top global brands like Emirates, Coca-Cola, and Audi, which sponsor a wide range of professional sports clubs, are still adjusting to the new normal.

Many questions have arisen from the situation. How to simultaneously manage fan expectations, minimize operational disruption, and plan for a new future?

Can new technologies and channels help engage fans during suspended or modified league operations?

As stakeholders ponder over what to do next, e-sports has come forward as a unique alternative that promises both excitement and financial rewards.

But the financial aspect is only one side of the story. The coronavirus has also forced sports teams to take extra precautions and invest in new technology and ideas to curb the spread of the virus. For example, leagues are bringing forward guidelines to improve the mental health of players and introducing regular testing, individual training sessions, and good hygiene practices.

For example, in cricket, the use of saliva to better grip the ball has been prohibited, and in football, the use of five substitutes instead of three has been approved. The NBA, on the other hand, has invested in the Finnish ‘Oura rings,’ which are designed to track an individual’s sleeping patterns and monitors essential vital stats.

The Finnish manufacturer says the device can help contain the spread of the coronavirus and ‘protect’ players from transmitting the virus to those around them.

While no one know exactly how effective these initiatives will be, they are some of many ways the sports industry is adjusting to the new reality. The entire sports ecosystem will need to continuously find new ways to make the most out of a post-COVID-19 world.

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