OPINION

Will sport be the same in empty stadia?

This will mark a new normal, at least till the end of the year. Players will have to tune their minds

Last weekend’s return of Bundesliga — German football’s premier division — marked the revival of top flight international sporting action after a two-month long hiatus. But physical distancing measures necessitated by COVID-19 ensured that matches were played without fans. India is a long way from starting tournaments, with the government having just given the nod for individual training to resume under spectator-less conditions. In a discussion moderated by N. Sudarshan , Sunil Chhetri and Sunil Yajaman discuss if sport behind closed doors will be the new normal and what lies ahead for the sports industry. Edited excerpts:

Did it feel strange watching top-notch football being played in an empty stadium?

Sunil Chhetri (SC):It did feel strange. As a player I’d always prefer to play in front of fans. But as a spectator, I was happy. It looks like once the lockdown ends and slowly competitions start, we will have to play in empty stadia. But I might still happily play because what I understood as a fan last weekend was that you get a lot of joy watching live action. It is still the second best thing; the ultimate joy is still to go to the venue. But under the present circumstances, it made us all happy.

Sunil Yajaman (SY):It will be the new normal, definitely till the end of the year. But it is safer. Australian Open, the season’s first Grand Slam tournament in January, is already talking about having no spectators. The fear [of the virus] will stay for quite some time and we need to figure out new ways to get around it.

What is the change in mindset that players will require?

SC:In team sports, home advantage is a very important aspect. There are multiple reasons why a game is termed a home game — climate, ground and fans. Among these, fans are the most important and act as a motivating factor. But a home game played now will not feel like a home game. It is not ideal; but [these are] the kind of times we are in now.

SY:Spectators are a very important part of players’ performance on court, both in positive and negative ways. It has a psychological effect on players. So it is not going to be easy to play in an empty stadium, especially the bigger events. Smaller competitions like ATP Challengers and many ATP 250s (the lowest rung of ATP tennis tournaments) do not attract much of a crowd except for the last two days. But players will still have to tune their minds. All the motivation and energy have to come from within. It will take a few months of playing to get used to it.

So if fans cannot attend, is it worth going ahead, if you are told that there is a TV audience?

SC:To me, it is the best possible solution. To cancel events because fans cannot attend may be worse. Of course, the best thing would be for everyone to get a vaccine and for life to be normal. But that doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon. But the German and South Korean leagues have shown the way.

Let’s be clear here, it is not easy; even for a closed door game, there are a lot of things to be taken care of. There are ball boys, the kit managers, the coaches, the physios and we have to monitor all of them. In the unfortunate scenario of even one person getting infected, the whole league has to stop. At least that particular team cannot play and has to be quarantined. So you need to be really really careful. But I hope we are able to manage it until a vaccine arrives.

SY:If a sport is able to go on without fans, it is a great thing under the present circumstances. Professional players’ livelihood is tied to them playing. There is a whole bunch of people that depend on tournaments for survival, like the supporting staff, officials, groundsmen etc.

In the eyes of many, sport is better off waiting until things return to normal. Should it?

SC:We need to calculate and balance the risks. We need to look at various aspects — what’s the kind of money involved, how many livelihoods are at stake, etc. Ask a sportsperson, he or she will say sport is the best thing in the world. But it is an individual opinion. If studies show sport should be the last thing to reopen, so be it. In India, we first started with essential services, which was key. Next we tried to see to it that no one went to sleep hungry. These two were prime concerns, no doubt. People who need to be treated and those who need intensive care will always take priority. So in my view, decision making should be informed and shouldn’t be a matter of bickering and acrimonious debate.

Does it make economic sense to organise competitions behind closed doors?

SY:Except for the really top championships, money from ticket sales is negligible. And considering that only top-level tournaments like ATP Masters and Grand Slams are telecast, broadcast revenue also isn’t much. So that’s when sponsorships become important, especially for events in India, and it is going to be incredibly tough to find sponsors. Even at big meets a sponsor wouldn’t like to see his or her name in an empty stadium. Every sponsor will look at the return on investment (ROI) and one of the major conditions for good ROI is the footfalls at the sporting site. In the absence of footfalls, it won’t be inviting for companies. The ATP Bengaluru Open (South Asia’s biggest ATP Challenger) has a budget of Rs. 6.5 crores. The Karnataka government has been funding close to 50% of it. Now I don’t know if the government will even be looking to support a sports event in the next one or two years. And many of our sponsors are under financial strain and are a long way [from] recouping things. Already a company which had to settle the final instalment for the last edition has expressed an inability to pay. So you can already see the effect. For the next edition we will have to broaden the base by looking for more sponsors and also look to cover the government’s share because it may come down.

Thus far, the focus has been on fan safety. What about player safety even in a closed door environment?

SC:It is an individual thing. Troy Deenay (captain of the English club side Watford) has said he wouldn’t return to training because he has a five-month old son with breathing difficulties and he wouldn’t want to put the child in more danger. Why would he go out knowing that there are chances of him getting infected and passing it on? It is a legitimate concern that we should be sensitive to. There are, at least, 45 people at any given time on the pitch, even during a training session. So there is a risk. Personally speaking, when football starts, I will probably train. That’s a decision I am taking based on the information available currently and in the belief that my club will take utmost care and ensure full safety. But I don’t know what’s in store in the future. So, I can fully understand Deeney’s conundrum. There is a lot at stake, and in many cases it’s a matter of life and death.

SY:In tennis, players move across continents and countries on a week-to-week basis. If you see, the major spread of infection is through travelling. So they are always at the risk of getting infected. So we may see localised events, but at the ATP Challenger level, players may risk travelling because that’s where players earn substantial points and make a little bit of money.

There is talk of using augmented reality to create virtual fans so that match-watching experience on television gets better. Is this the way forward?

SC:There is huge money involved, so if broadcasters take that decision, I am not the one to comment. But technological intervention in football has thus far been minimal and that’s the beauty of it. There is the Video Assistant Referee system now, but it is still a mostly free-flowing game that’s raw and natural with real fans in the stadium showing their aggression and passion. It’s preferable if it stays like that.

SY:I am sure there will be innovative things done. But a tennis fan is mostly looking at the players. A television camera may miss zooming in on a celebrity sitting in the crowd. But for a fan watching tennis on the television, the presence of a crowd is immaterial. At the end of the day, they will continue to watch because of a Roger Federer, a Rafael Nadal or a Novak Djokovic.

What is the way forward for sports in India?

SC:If everything goes well, it will be around October or November before competitions behind closed doors can start. I am 35 and I don’t want to lose a single day of my career. But lives are more important. For us sportspersons, sport is life, but until we feel completely safe we should not start. Overall, sport is not going to be the same as before. A lot will change, particularly on-field hygiene. For example, spitting on the pitch will reduce. Just because footballers are fit, their hygiene is taken for granted. But that’s not always true.

SY:The sports industry as a whole is going to take a big beating. Fewer people are going to get into sport in the next one or two years. Fans will mostly depend on live broadcast but even for television companies revenues are going to reduce because all of them are under financial stress. We have no idea whether advertising will continue as before. But sports is about positivity and it will come back, albeit in a changed scenario.

In fact, you can see that the whole education system is undergoing a change. There is more online learning and I don’t see children getting back into the classrooms in the near future, with distancing rules set to be strictly enforced. More children are going to be locked up inside and parents are sure to ask their children to go out and play, at least individual sports, for their physical and mental well-being. So I am hoping that participation at the grass roots will not tank.

In team sports, home advantage is an important aspect. There are multiple reasons why a game is termed a home game, the most important being fans

Sunil Chhetri

Indian football captain

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