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Sports during COVID-19 is missing a part of its soul

Football is not just sport, or a means to keep people entertained during COVID-19. It’s also business, and the focus of the international market will be to better the home viewing experience

May 22, 2020 / 02:35 PM IST
A matchball is disinfected before the Bundesliga match between Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen, May 18, Weser-Stadion, Bremen, Germany. REUTERS

A matchball is disinfected before the Bundesliga match between Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen, May 18, Weser-Stadion, Bremen, Germany. REUTERS

Arun Janardhan

When the German Bundesliga restarted on May 16 after a two-month Coronavirus-induced suspension of activities, it was football without a part of its soul.

Eight matches played over the weekend in empty stadiums — what the Germans are calling Geisterspiele (ghost games) — lacked their traditional energy. Instead of a continuous roar of support, it was the players’ and coaches’ voices that bounced off the empty stands.

On Saturday, May 16, the Leipzig and Freiburg players got off their buses for the ground with facemasks on. The other people who were at the stadium, including some reporters, had their temperatures checked, the BBC reported. Police ensured no fans gathered near Leipzig’s Red Bull Arena. Only 213 people were allowed into the ground — 98 on and around the pitch and 115 in the stands, including security and medics, the report added.

Footballs were disinfected before the game and at half time. Substitutes sat away from each other and players coming off the pitch would first collect a mask from a member of the support staff before walking off. The two coaches, dressed casually in T-shirts and tracks, didn’t wear masks, probably so they could bark out instructions to the players from the sidelines.

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During the game, goal celebrations were muted, often confused, as some would be tempted to embrace and then end up doing an awkward fist-elbow bump. Players replaced their usual huddles and hugs by standing alone, looking longingly at teammates.

Dimitrij Nazarov, who scored for Erzgebirge Aue against Sandhausen in the second division, ran to the side of the pitch, sat down and applauded as the one-man crowd, reported ESPN. Hertha Berlin, however, succumbed to instincts by celebrating their second goal against host Hoffenheim by mobbing scorer Vedad Ibisevic — till one of the footballers pointed out the folly.

At the end of their 4-0 win over FC Schalke, Borussia Dortmund players walked around and applauded the empty stands, in a poignant gesture towards an invisible crowd. Before the final whistle, the commentator could not help punning that Schalke had been left “socially distant” from Dortmund in the score line.

A few could be seen removing their masks periodically or patting someone’s back — precautions were arbitrary, because some had protection and others did not. However, the onus remains on the clubs to enforce the league’s guidelines, said Robert Klein, CEO of Bundesliga International, and for most part they did it well.

The Bundesliga is the first major sporting league to resume, albeit amid restrictions. Closed-door events, such as these, are likely to be the norm going forward in sport — the English Premier League is expected to resume too and the Indian government is allowing for sport during Lockdown #4.

There has been criticism of the German government for permitting football at a time when their cases of infection are still rising (some footballers/staff from Bundesliga teams too have tested positive in the past few weeks), though Klein dismissed the notion by saying they have robust solutions and processes in place.

However, football is not just sport, or a means to keep people entertained during these testing times. It’s also business.

Before the last set of Bundesliga games was played on March 8, 25 of the 34 match days in the 2019-20 season had taken place. The league makes about 4 billion Euros in total revenue — with a larger chunk through television (34 percent), sponsorships (38 percent) and smaller amounts from gate receipts (16 percent). It also gets an average of 44,000 fans in stadiums every game, making it one of the better-attended sports events globally.

Bigger clubs, such as Bayern Munich, get a substantial sum from broadcast rights and TV, but smaller clubs need match day income to keep functioning. Had the league not been completed, losses were estimated to be over $800m.

Similarly, if the (English) Premier League were to be cancelled, it would take a $1.25 billion loss, according to ESPN. One of the smaller clubs, Burnley, admitted they would lose about $62.5 million if the season does not get completed.

If empty stadiums become a norm, the challenge would be to enhance the home experience because, as Mark Levitt, senior director of business development and corporate partnerships with NBA team Chicago Bulls said in a GainAccess Sports and Entertainment webinar on media rights and sponsorship revenues, 99.9 percent of their fans anyway don’t attend a game.

Bundesliga could become some sort of a template for others. Klein said over the phone that they were engaging with a number of leagues not just on medical protocols but also on the wider work, like support of local authorities. However, for the international market, the focus would be on production and sound technology, to make the whole viewing experience better.

We will — eventually — get used to it, as Uday Shankar, chairman of Star & Disney India, which telecasts the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket, told The Indian Express.

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based freelance writer-editor. Views are personal.
Moneycontrol Contributor

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