'Phygital' has become a trending buzzword in today's world. But how feasible it is to implement the philosophy in the sporting sphere, especially with the COVID threat looming large?
The Indian sports ecosystem, with cricket as its crown jewel, is staring at an uncertain future in the post-COVID world. The global sporting activities are limping back to normalcy but for Indian sports lovers, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to witness any live sporting action in the next four months.
Where does this put all the stakeholders, especially non-cricket sports disciplines dependent on government largesse?
Although the Olympics has been postponed, the preparations of the athletes have been badly hit and sports federations are struggling to tackle the issue.
Sports broadcasters, an important cog in the set-up, have been dealt a body blow by the coronavirus outbreak.
With no live domestic sporting action to showcase and huge investments already made in efforts to popularise non-cricket sports, they can only look forward to resumption of international sporting activities as a solace.
But with fans not present at the stadiums, the ‘feel’ of watching an enthralling game is missing and broadcasters need to think out of the box to ensure they are not left out.
This philosophy is what is going to help them survive this tumultuous phase, and they realise the gravity of the situation.
Sanjog Gupta, Sports Product Head at Star India and Chair, FICCI Sports Committee, at a webinar at FICCI Frames, said this period can also be used to rebuild the structures in place and usher in more professionalism.
"The structures and models of governance should be carefully looked at. The health of the sports depend on fans, we need to put the fans at the centre of things. There is immense opportunity to use this time to use it to reset the structures of the sports ecosystem," he said.
Just as non-cricket sports disciplines were beginning to make a mark, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and has now put a big question mark over its future prospects.
"It is unfair to expect the government to continue funding. Business houses can adopt one sport which has Olympic potential. Only then we can excel in the Olympics. A broadcaster should also concentrate on other sports and devote 10 percent airtime," said Indian Olympic Association President Narinder Batra.
Although Batra has called for unstinted corporate support, industry sources said it is highly unlikely they are going to loosen their purse strings anytime soon.
"It will almost take four to eight months for the sports sponsorship industry to rebound," said an official of an international sports media giant.
So, how are sports associations going to tackle this financial crunch?
"Apart from cricket and football, other sports bodies have to depend on government support and they were anyway never in a good financial position," the person quoted above said.
Bhairav Shanth, co-founder and Managing Director, ITW Consulting, an agency specialising in sponsorship management of sports events, feels it is a chicken and egg situation.
"Sponsors may play the wait-and-watch game looking for some sport to resume and sports may be delaying resumption in the hope of finding more sponsors. I foresee a V-shaped kind of recovery towards the last quarter of this year because if a couple of the big events slated get the go-ahead, confidence will immediately return and we can expect a quick turnaround,” he told Moneycontrol.
Shanth said the COVID-19 disruption, perhaps, will leave more of a mark on the ground.
"Kabaddi had thriving attendance at the venue other than amazing TV viewership. The fan base they have established is fairly loyal and solid. We have seen that during internal research we conducted for our clients who are involved with Kabaddi. If these sports make a behind-closed-doors return like cricket has, they will find that fan base ready, eager and waiting," Shanth said.
But, for a country like India, will sporting activities find traction amidst economic upheaval?
"Historically, sports has been a unifying force and a welcome break from hard times, whether it be in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, or after a tragedy like 9/11 or even closer home, after the terror attack on Mumbai in November 2008. In all those cases, sports have rebounded back to the pre-disruption levels. Economic crises, on the other hand, tend to slow leisure consumption down, so the market may remain flat for just a little bit, but Indian viewers and fans love their sport and sports will find traction but in new ways. I am of the view that digital media will be highlighted strongly and the way fans will consume sports will change," Shanth said.
A recurring question which has always haunted the Indian sports sphere has been the aversion of corporates to support sports disciplines other than cricket.
JSW Sports CEO Mustafa Ghouse put the blame on the lackadaisical attitude of some of the sports bodies.
"JSW has been supporting Olympic sports disciplines because of the passion of the promoters. I can understand the reservations other corporate houses have about supporting these sports disciplines because many sports federations resist changes. At JSW, we have a dedicated team to look into these issues but not every corporate would have the wherewithal or patience to deal with them," he said.Follow our coverage of the coronavirus crisis here