A week ago, it would have been unthinkable. Now it’s materialized — a world without sports. The calendar still shows Wimbledon, the Tokyo Olympics, a world heavyweight title fight and the Tour de France, among others. But these events are under threat. Already, the NBA has canceled games in the US, the English Premier League is suspended until April 3 and the Rugby Union’s Six Nations Tournament has effectively been aborted. There are many other casualties, and they will continue to spiral.
We never thought we’d live in a world without sport, but over the next month or so, we are going to do exactly that. What will it be like?
Social Distancing or the Danger of Life With Others
At the moment, sports fans — and that means probably 60% of the world’s population in some measure (if television viewing figures are a very rough guide) — are accepting the absence of competition as a novelty. Cricket and basketball fans are grumbling louder than others, having missed a Test series and a week of hoops, with at least seven more to follow. Football fans in the UK are hopeful they’ll miss only a couple of weeks, though that sounds like wishful thinking. But, should the current trend continue amid the coronavirus pandemic, all sports would cease temporarily.
So, what will fans do? In short, take it on the chin. They have no choice. Or do they?
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the latest scenario is the complete lockdown of some sports. Discussions in recent weeks have centered on staging sports events behind closed doors. This would have meant allowing only employees, officials, security agents and television camera crews into the venue. The rationale initially was that the coronavirus spreads rapidly where there are large gatherings of people. “Large” has never been precisely defined, but 500 seems to be a working definition.
Doors Shut. Cameras On.
The “behind-locked-doors” approach has angered many sports fans who believe the atmosphere created by crowds is an essential part of the sports experience, even for those watching on their screens. But we now have exigent circumstances, and my guess is that they would accept this test-tube competition as better than nothing. I still believe this will return as an option. The number of people actually attending a football match is usually only about 0.4% of the TV audience, anyway.
The alternative is cataclysmic, at least in sports terms. Take the English Premier League, for example. Globally, this is the most popular league in the world — 188 of the world’s 193 countries carry the matches legally (and probably a few more illegally), with a total of about 3.2 billion people watching games over the course of a season.
In the UK, Sky TV has the biggest viewing contract, with BT Sport also screening games. There are also deals with myriad broadcasters around the world. The value of these deals is £9.2 billion, or $11.1 billion at the time of publishing. In the absence of any action, TV channels lose advertising revenue. After all, no one wants to spend money publicizing their products when there are no consumers watching. So, chances are those broadcasters will insist on refunds.
The English Football Association (FA), which negotiates the deals and distributes the proceeds — much of it to the football clubs that make up the league — will then face a difficult choice: refuse to pay up and argue that it was helpless to avert the crisis or pay up and start scrutinizing the small print its insurance policies. And the insurers? They may value the FA contract so highly that they will cough up the lost revenue. Presuming the suspension ends, as projected, on April 3, this could run into several hundred million pounds. Perhaps over half a billion if it’s extended. Then insurers may invoke a force majeure clause and resist paying-out.
TV broadcasters will probably put pressure on the FA to resume games in secure environments. The initial resistance of fans will, by April, have dissipated and, while clubs will be obliged to play probably three times per week for a while, no revenue will be lost and the insurers will go. Phew!
Wimbledon to the Olympics
Some other sports will follow. But others will not. Will Wimbledon start on June 29? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that it could be played without spectators; many of the outside court matches are, anyway. Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight title fight with Kubrat Pulev is scheduled to take place in London on June 20. The problem here is that it’s booked to take place at Tottenham Hotspur’s new 62,000-seater stadium. A small nightclub would have been a wiser choice if a huge live audience were not anticipated.
The big one is the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo that is supposed to open on July 24. This is, of course, four months away. But could it possibly be sustained till its closing ceremony on August 9 without human spectators? It sounds unfeasible until you realize how much the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would be obliged to refund.
It is reported the IOC has set aside nearly $900 million in reserve to help deal with the financial fallout in the event of a cancellation. The city of Tokyo has invested $12.6 billion to stage the tournament, so the IOC’s piggy bank would be insufficient if the games were to be spiked. It may sound perverse at this point, but in a month’s time, if the suspensions continue to multiply, the IOC might be under pressure from broadcasters and organizers to sanction an unprecedented games in vitro, so to speak.
By then, audiences will have become habituated to viewing sports like they view movies — dismembered from other human beings. At least that’s how it appears whenever I go to the cinema. I’m old skool: I actually enjoy watching films in a theater, but there are rarely more than half-dozen others in the auditorium whenever I go. Maybe that isn’t such a nightmarish scenario. Think about what we’ll miss: racist abuse among football fans, drunkenness after the event and the periodic violence that breaks out during or after a competition.
Break Out That Smartphone
But how would people compensate for the lack of atmosphere? Social media. Twitter and Instagram are always alive with chat, images and other kinds of memes when sports competitions are in progress. We’ve become so accustomed to socializing remotely that the COVID-19 crisis may force us into another form of sociality — the virtual sports crowd “live.” Social media has its critics and, misguided as most of them are, they will be forced to concede its benefits.
Picture it: groups of people at home, in clubs, pubs and bars, or even in cinemas, all with their smartphones at the ready exchanging opinions and expressing outrage or ecstasy as the competitions progress. It’s all a bit like “Brave New World” for many. But we’re facing a future, at least an immediate and possibly short-term future in which Huxleyian principles are coming to the fore.
And, anyway, sports itself is a bit like “World State.” “Isn’t there something in living dangerously?” “There’s a great deal in it,” the Controller replied. “Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.