While I was working on my doctoral thesis on the Indian Premier League (IPL), one of the things I would hear a lot from people I interviewed was how there was more sport than ever before, happening all of the time. The cricket calendar was too busy, they’d tell me; so also football, tennis, everything.
There was so much sport that sportspeople were complaining about it and Roger Federer was skipping tournaments and paying with ranking points to ensure better results at marquee events. All of that was before 2020, when COVID-19 managed the unthinkable. The virus has brought all sport across the world to a sudden and absolute halt; not just big ticket events, even small, informal between-friends games — and no one is sure when we will have normal sports again.
It may be fair to conjecture, though, that televised live sport will return well before packed stadiums. That is, after all, where most of the money is; plus physical distancing norms are likely to stay for a while.
Advertising and broadcast rights are where most of the sporting revenue comes from — especially in the top tiers; and those are the ones the fans await the most. When sport comes back to TV, life can begin limping back to some form of ‘normal’.
After a hiatus such as this, viewership will probably be better than ever before; and consequently, so also advertising revenues. French cultural theorist Paul Virilio once observed that ‘those absent from the stadium are always right’; for the event is primarily ‘produced’ for those who watch the broadcast of the sporting spectacle, not those who are in the stadium. This crisis will likely reinforce that notion even more.
Of course, the thrill of watching sport in the stadium is nothing like watching a TV version of it, notwithstanding the better camera angles, the close-ups, and interviews that one can actually hear. However, physical distancing may change that experience for a long while yet to come. Health checks and temperature guns at stadium entrances may become the new normal. This will be true as much for large international events, as for small local fixtures. Mexican waves will look a bit different than we’re used to, and the noise and cheering may not be quite as loud as we remember, but it’s unlikely that fans will give up the stadium experience entirely.
The post-COVID-19 stadium experience is likely to include rules for mandatory face masks during games, while ensuring everyone sits safely three-feet apart from each other. I imagine the major players will quickly jump at the branding opportunities that sanitisers, gloves, and face masks can provide. Japan, where people routinely wear surgical masks to prevent the spread of infections, is already ahead of the game here. Imagine team-branded surgical masks and sanitiser packs, along with the usual flags and T-shirts at large events such as Premier League football or international T-20 matches.
It will be interesting to see if technology will rise to the challenge of preserving the social aspects of sport while still maintaining physical distances.
One of the interesting technological fixes for a new world of physical distancing could be based on virtual reality. I wonder if we might see broadcast technologies shift to some sort of VR-based telecast. Sort of like MORPGs (Multi-player Online Role Playing Games) but without the role playing; where friends from their respective homes — perhaps even on different continents — could watch a live match together through individual headsets as easily as playing games online. With 360-degree views, integrating a stadium experience with TV’s great camera angles and optional commentary as well.
However, it is clear that physical distancing will remain the norm in public spaces, even after the lockdowns are done. This will cause sport tourism to take a big hit. The Tokyo Olympics may have to bear the brunt of that, since events such as the Olympics and World Cups invest a lot — both in terms of enthusiasm and infrastructure — in visiting fans.
That said, sport must return. For it can act as a much-needed morale booster for a world recovering from one of its worst crises. It may be just what we need to heal: the vision of our favourite and best athletes competing with each other, displaying that famed spirit of sportsmanship, reaching for that faster-higher-stronger ideal.
Sport will be a balm on the collective soul of a battered human society that would, hopefully, have emerged victorious from this gruelling and traumatic crisis.
Vidya Subramanian is a Post-Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay. Her doctoral work was on the influence of technology on the Indian Premier League (IPL). Twitter: @vidyas42. Views are personal.
(This is the second article in a multi-part series, World After COVID-19
, which looks at the probable developments in various sectors: macro economy, trade, healthcare, agriculture, judiciary, international politics and sports.)