The Re-emergence of Sport in a COVID-19 World
A cloud of uncertainty has hung over our heads in these last few months as COVID-19 has brought the world close to a halt. This uncertainty is arguably no more prominent than in the sporting world, which has had to down tools worldwide no matter in what stage of the season they were.
This postponement is the worst-case scenario for most sports. Some codes attempted to play games behind closed doors at first before government restrictions made that impossible. Many different ideas have been floated to attempt to bring live sport back. One possibility explored by some sports is the use of one centralised location as a hub, where all teams can train and play the remainder of their games behind closed doors until a vaccine is widely available. Australia’s NRL and the A-League are two leagues exploring that possibility.
Of course returning in that situation is not a simple task; social distancing measures still need to be taken into account, and testing and monitoring of the players and staff is needed to ensure the safety of all involved.
You may be wondering why these sports leagues are so desperate to resume; the answer is simple. Money.
Money, The life-blood of all sport, big and small. Sports clubs worldwide fear for their very existence if the COVID-19 restrictions continue for an extended period of time. The NRL was vocal in its fears that the failure to fulfil their season would lead to the demise of the league itself.
In addition the English Premier League has warned clubs that it faces the prospect of having to pay back £762 million in TV rights money for unfulfilled fixtures. This would have a dire impact on some clubs, who rely heavily on TV revenue for their income; AFC Bournemouth for example estimate that over 80% of their income comes from television money.
However, whilst in the NRL there may be near universal agreement about continuing the season, that sentiment is not necessarily shared in European footballing circles, with self-interest beginning to take priority. Teams just outside the relegation zones in some leagues are campaigning for ending their league seasons as they stand, leading to criticism in the press of blatant self-interest. So far, the French, Belgian and Dutch leagues have cancelled their seasons, leading to vehement protest from clubs negatively affected by this decision.
That said, many sporting leagues around the world are beginning to draw up plans to recommence playing in the coming weeks and months. The Premier League has been allowed by the British Government to resume playing on June 1st, with a plan to play the remaining 92 games of the season at neutral venues behind closed doors in place.
The NRL too is planning to resume its season on the 28th May. Where these games will be played and how interstate travel is to be organised remains to be seen.
The fact remains however that there are still many who harbour strong concerns over sport beginning so soon, especially in European countries that are more heavily impacted by the virus than in Australia. The Premier League has copped criticism for its eagerness to resume playing, with some calling it immoral to resume play whilst hundreds a day are dying of the virus in the UK. It has been said that the Premier League is risking the safety of players, staff and officials in order to avoid a financial disaster or legal action from dissatisfied clubs if the season is not concluded.
And it should be noted that not all players are keen to return in this current climate. A report by The Athletic showed that some footballers are concerned about potentially being isolated from their families for an extended period of time, as well as having their safety put at risk by coming into contact with others on the pitch; although this is clearly not a concern shared by some NRL players judged by their TikTok videos, poorly timed camping trips and refusal to vaccinate.
Newcastle United’s Danny Rose was vocal in his opposition to the resumption of play, stating “The government’s saying bring back football to boost the morale of the nation, I don't give a f*ck about the nation's morale. People’s lives are at risk! Football shouldn't be spoken about till numbers have dropped massively.”
There is no denying that in a perfect world sport would be put on hold until a widespread vaccine has been created. However the presence of player contracts expiring and TV rights deals that need to be upheld means that sporting leagues are hard pressed to delay for an extended period of time.
What should also be noted is the fact that there are many people’s lives that have been impacted by the suspension of sport beyond the players. Non-playing staff of many clubs are forced to rely on government money to pay their bills. Plus many smaller football clubs and NRL clubs are facing severe financial hardships if the season cannot be completed. We must not forget that many players are not being paid, with no guarantees they will have a contract whenever their season may finally end.
The sporting world could never have foreseen this situation and at the moment they will most likely be criticised by some no matter what they do. They are under substantial pressure and know that the decisions they make will have an impact on a huge number of people beyond their respective leagues.
Whilst all fans want sport to return at some point, let’s hope that rushed decisions do not lead to dire consequences. Because we definitely don’t want to look back in 50 years time and think, “what the hell were they thinking?”