First, there were denials. Secondly, sports administrators over the world started taking notice. Soon postponements followed with a promise to resume live-action soon. But as one after another, countries across the globe went into lockdown, hopes of seeing our favourite athletes in action started diminishing further. Perhaps the most telling blow came when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to the following year with no fixed date in sight. Coronavirus’ domination over the wide world of sports was complete. With no end in sight as to when this crisis will be over, one thing is for certain: sports (including day-to-day life) will never be the same if and when the pandemic subsides.
With close to 4 million people being affected to date, the world stands at a crossroads, faced with the decision of jumpstarting the economy while living under the fear of the novel Covid-19. Sports administrators are also increasingly grappling with questions regarding the future of various events and leagues across the world. There has been some good news recently in the form of the German Bundesliga declaring a May 16 restart while the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) planning to host West Indies for a full tour starting in July.
But even the most optimistic of sports fans would understand that unless and until a vaccine for the coronavirus is invented and is available for the masses, when and how sports will return to their pre-Covid-19 status is anybody’s guess. In this piece, we try to present a few key areas regarding popular sports which are set to undergo massive changes as they try to get back on track.
Playing in front of empty stadiums is an idea that has been mooted by many since the onset of the pandemic and it seems the only logical way to restart play while ‘living with the virus’. With the risk of a contagion set to rule the daily lives in the near future, most die-hard fans will also be a bit apprehensive about filling the stadiums to watch a game. While it will certainly be a weird experience for the players and also for those watching on TV, there doesn’t seem to be a way out of this unless governments are able to strictly impose social distancing norms in big stadiums. A curious example, in this case, has arisen out of Taiwan a couple of days ago.
Empty seats ring the field during an ODI between Australia and New Zealand at the Sydney Cricket Ground in March (AP)
Recently, sports officials in Taiwan started to adjust to the new age by filling the stands with fake spectators instead of real ones, stocking locker rooms with bottles of sanitizer, and urging players and coaches to keep a distance.
Even if a handful of spectators are allowed inside the stadiums, it might lead to a reduction in prices of tickets, online subscription fees, and other services on offer as the sporting bodies would certainly want to win back their fans whichever way they can. Entry/exit protocols in and out of the stadiums might also see a drastic change in the form of biometrics as people would prefer a fast and seamless experience rather than security guards checking each ticket in person.
With the lack of any live-action at the moment, there is no doubt that fans are currently hungry for more. But if the period under lockdown is anything to go by, players and teams all over the world have started finding new ways to keep their fans engaged. The sudden spike in Instagram Live sessions with athletes across sports is already a signal that more such ways of personalized fan-engagement are set to become the norm. While earlier fans had to be mostly dependent on news outlets to get a sneak-peek into their sports stars’ lives, the lockdown has ensured that almost every day some or the other player is coming closer to his followers by interacting with them directly – either via a Q&A session, online challenges, etc.
Tuba Parlak, a pole dancer and instructor talks to her students watching from home, due to the coronavirus restrictions (AP)
Innovations and rule changes
Necessity is the mother of invention and in the case of cricket, the fear of Covid-19 has already started a debate regarding whether it’s still appropriate to continue using saliva on the ball. For a game already grappling with fall in attendance figures, cricket could also see more innovations on the lines of T10 leagues or The Hundred. Similarly in other sports, multiple rule changes to avoid contact between players and keeping the fans sitting at home glued to their screens, are sure to bring much more innovation at a faster pace. Sevens Rugby is another example of such an innovation and more investors would come in and try to create more futuristic sports leagues to attract the public.
With athletes being consigned to their homes due to the lockdown, there is an increasing concern regarding whether they will be fit to perform when asked to. In this scenario, we might see a shift in the training approaches as they will have to be remotely monitored. Thus, training might become much more personalized and player-centric.
Cologne’s Sebastiaan Bornauw wears a protective face mask as he enters a hotel before restart of Bundesliga (Reuters)
In the same vein, teams and sporting bodies would do well to remember the mental toll a pandemic could take on a player. Physios and mental conditioning coaches might have to be on their toes, more actively than before and design regimens that cater to the needs of each player.
Restart yes! But when?
As of May 5, more than 150 sports events have been either postponed/cancelled since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. While there was no choice for the sports federations to do so, one of the biggest questions facing them is that of when these events will be held eventually. A number of World Championships and global events like Olympics have been postponed till further notice but there is bound to be a clash between the dates of most of these proposed events.
Scheduling is going to be under focus also as the qualifying rounds for the above events are also set to be compromised with there being no sunset date in sight as far as the Covid-19 is concerned. How sports administrators are going to deal with these issues is a factor that is going to define the future course of sports all over the world.
This is not an exclusive list of the upcoming changes as there is a lot of information that needs to be processed over the next few months before some of these tweaks see the daylight. Until then, we can go back to our Zoom calls and Insta Lives trying to make sense of a situation that doesn’t seem to be making any sense at all.
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