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Sports During CoVID-19

“The first match in the top European Leagues after the pandemic, the Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 got fans all over the world excited over the return of the sport. While there was no absence of fluid, attacking football, the stadium echoed stray shouts from the players, instead of the united, deafening chants of the Yellow Wall it was previously accustomed to. As Raphael Guerriero skillfully escaped the offside trap and finished with his left foot to essentially seal the game, the nonchalant celebrations that followed accurately reflected the current nature of football. The sport was back, yes, but not quite in spirit and passion.”

Players from Borussia Dortmund celebrate in front of empty stands, after they put their team in the lead by scoring a goal in the first Bundesliga match, which marked the return of football after the pandemic hit the world. [Image Credits: The Telegraph]

The world is in the grip of a deadly pandemic that threatens to wipe off humanity’s very existence. Citizens all over the world are concerned about failing economies, changing lifestyles, and the rapidly spreading fear of the outdoors. Around ten billion people, constituting the fanbase of the four most-watched sports in the world, are also worried that the sports industry might not return to its earlier glory. From a lack of investments to dampening of enthusiasm, athletes around the world face an uphill task as they adapt to overcome the new challenges hindering their pursuit of success.

The Dejection of Sports Enthusiasts

As countries around the globe impose lockdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus, people are in search of various forms of entertainment. While TV shows and web series saw a massive spike in viewership and popularity, sports events could not capture the interest of their target demographic. Even re-runs of earlier contests did not keep sports enthusiasts hooked as they moved on to other shows.

According to the BARC-Neilsen report, between 14 March 2020 and 20 March 2020, impressions on sports channels fell by 69 per cent. The daily average time spent by viewers decreased by 59 per cent, and the daily average reach of sports events dropped by 29 per cent. This fact deals a shocking blow to the collaboration between various teams and their broadcasting companies and may have many fiscal repercussions in the future.

The Prospect of Business

Sports, elite or professional, have become increasingly dependent on corporate sponsors. In the present times, though, a dearth of live sporting events means no profits for sponsors, which is the basis of most of their income. Multiple reports have suggested that pushing back the Tokyo Olympics by a year will rake up costs of around £2 billion, aside from affecting the schedules of the various sporting events to be held in 2021.

A couple of women pose for selfies in front of the Olympics logo erected in Tokyo as preparations for the mega event got stalled due to the spread of the virus. [Image Credits: The Bangkok Post]

Keeping aside the broader issues at hand, various organizers, smaller sporting events that fall under the umbrella of hugely popular leagues, the support staff, and other businesses may not recover from these economic losses. Clubs in the English Premier League are estimated to lose as much as £750 million — a significant reason being incomplete broadcast contracts. Assuming a best-case scenario where sports activities do resume in the second half of the year, the whole line of activities from sponsorship to event management to strategic services would still stagger under the weight of substantial losses.

The Player’s Perspective

Players across countries are anxious about the current situation of sports in the world. The extension of lockdowns in various countries has provided the players with a much-needed respite from their hectic schedules. Many players who were injured before are now offered a spell to recover. The relaxation of their strenuous routines, however, may come at a hefty price—a loss in mental composure, which could scar many of them. Multiple medal-winning Olympic gymnast Simone Biles has stated that she does not doubt that her coaches and regular training will get her back to shape, but the psychological problems will be much harder to overcome. Players have voiced their longing to return to the pitch all over social media and are also continuing to train hard at home, fortifying their love for the game.

The problem gets more complicated at the grassroots level, where fresh, young talents are forged. Parents will become wary of sending children to sporting events and group activities. It could severely impact the unearthing of new talent in various sports.  Following the spread of the virus and the subsequent curbs on sports, India’s women’s cricket captain, Mithali Raj, opined that the present situation will make it harder for youngsters like Shefali Sharma-who was a revelation for India in the recently concluded T20 World Cup-to make a breakthrough into the international arena.

Safety First

Precautions are an utmost priority in every situation, and the field of sports is no exception. With the re-introduction of several sports, it is vital to ensure the protection of not just the players, but the staff and all the authorities concerned. As with safety measures found in day-to-day life, the players and staff should be checked for high temperatures or any symptoms of the disease before a game. The staff must also ensure to wash the benches thoroughly before and after the game, and the squad members should be seated one seat apart, following social distancing norms. Moreover, players must avoid pre-game handshakes in order to prevent unnecessary contact. Players should be encouraged to get their own bottles as opposed to sharing a water cooler, and are obligated to drive to the stadium instead of availing the facility of a team bus.

The Canterbury Bulldogs players seated on the bench during the second round of the National Rugby League [Image Credits: AAP]

Supporters are slowly getting acquainted with watching games from home and not entering the confines of the stadium. The number of ball-boys, assistant referees, and coaches should be truncated as much as possible to reduce further risk. Bundesliga, a German football league, has shown successful implementation of these protocols to bring back the beautiful game, setting a huge precedent for other teams and leagues to follow. Various sports associations in countries like South Korea and New Zealand, where the government has been efficient in combating the virus, have restarted their seasons early amidst precautionary measures. Other sports tournaments will soon be able to complete their respective seasons, after being required to abandon them midway with all these measures being administered.

An Unexpected Surprise

While sports leagues around the world have been comparatively dull due to the lack of atmosphere created by fans, the excitement generated till now has been unusually palpable. Very close games, league finishes and last-minute heroics have been the highlight of various sports post-lockdown. In the world of football, the race for the top 4 in the Premier League was the closest it had been in years. The competition for the spots went till the final day, with Leicester, who were projected to get the spot at 92% before the suspension, narrowly missing it out to Manchester United and Chelsea. Elsewhere, in Spain, Real Madrid took advantage of the points dropped by Barcelona, who were favourites to win the league, to unexpectedly triumph over their long-time rivals. Even the relegation battles in various leagues around Europe, especially in England and Spain was exciting as well, with most teams just escaping league demotion by an inch of their hair.

Lando Norris getting a podium finish in the post-lockdown 2020 Austrian GP, becoming one of the youngest racers to do so [SImage Credits:]

Another sport that had people at the edge of their seat was Formula 1, with the comeback better than everwith the first race of the new shortened season in Austria. On completion, the Austrian GP was being debated as one of the greatest F1 races of all time, and with a whopping 9/20 cars retiring, there was no lack of excitement. The race didn’t lack any drama either, as current world champion Lewis Hamilton was given a five-second time penalty for causing Red Bull’s Alexander Albon to spin. McLaren’s 20-year-old Lando Norris put in a stunning final lap of the race to ensure the first podium finish of his career. Since then, F1 has gone on to host one more Grand Prix in Austria and another in Hungary, which didn’t fail to enthral.

Even the West Indies tour of England didn’t disappoint, with the game going into Day 5, with both the teams fiercely battling it out. Eventually, West Indies couldn’t hold out on a draw on the last day of the Second Test, with England winning by 113 runs, in large part due to immense contributions from Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes.

The Prospect of Revival

Several sports associations pushed for a quick continuation to end the season before the tentative start of the new season, keeping in mind the revenues in broadcasting and other entities. Tennis fans around the world were disappointed, having witnessed the cancellation of their beloved grass-court championship at Wimbledon. A plethora of top-tier football leagues had advanced as far as training sessions pretty early and managed to bring their players to match-day fitness just in time.

The extremely intense competition in the NBA resumed on the 31st of July, with the Jazz triumphing over the NOLA Pelicans, and the Lakers winning over their local LA rivals on the first day, with the point differential in both being just two. Closer to home, with the pandemic situation in India still dire, the IPL is scheduled to be held in the UAE, with a start date of 19th September being announced. Amid a stressful lockdown, avid sports fans turn to highlight reels of nail-biting finishes as well as documentaries such as Netflix’s ‘The Last Dance’ to quench their thirst for sports.

Michael Jordan in a still from ‘The Last Dance’, one of the most-watched and critically acclaimed sports documentary in human history. [Image credits: Brian Drake/NBAE via Getty Images.]

In the very near foreseeable future, it is reasonable for fans to expect their favourite teams back in action, albeit the lack of a stadium environment. In these trying times, the unique ability of sports bringing people all over the world together is truly lamented more than ever. It is incredibly likely, however, that the sporting industry would re-emerge more robust and in favour than it already was before the lockdown. The respective federations, coaches, players and fans are working in conjunction the best they can in order to establish new protocols and guidelines to revive the sport one way or another. After a long hiatus, fans and players alike remain optimistic about their chances of experiencing the thrill and excitement of the sport that they love.

[Featured Image Credits: The Economist]