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August 21, 2020 Friday 01:07:29 PM IST

Sport is Back

Sports & Games

The year 2020 will be remembered in history as the year of a virus --one that destroyed sports, one that redefined sports. There was so much to look forward to this year, so many high-profile events, including the Olympics. And the threat seems to linger.

Sports might not be the most important human activity. Nor is it the prime denominator of a nation’s economy. But it fulfils two important duties -- helps people maintain their health and entertain them.

In these pandemic times this activity was in cold storage. The threat of the virus is real and vicious like what Novak Djokovic and his band of tennis cavaliers realised after the first weekend of the Adria Tour in Serbia. A bunch of players were infected and quarantined. Djokovic tendered an apology saying, “We were wrong and it was too soon.” What went wrong here was there was no health protocol in place. There was also lack of social distancing by players. The tour was abandoned.

German Example

The Germans showed how major sporting events could be conducted even during a pandemic. The Bundesliga or the German football league became the world’s first major sports event to be held after the lockdown. The virus testing and medical protocols that they set up became a blueprint for other leagues and sports around the world. The Bundesliga was completed, there was a trophy and there were medals. Only the fans were missing as Bayern Munich celebrated their title.

The European league followed the German model with strict social distancing rules, players and staff quarantined in team hotels all week, tested for corona virus regularly and facemasks made mandatory. Only around 200 people were seen inside the ground, which included players, coaches and ball boys on and around the pitch and the security, medics and media, in the stands. Footballs are disinfected before the game and during half-time. Substitutes and coaches are socially distanced. Head coaches are allowed to go without a mask so they could shout instructions. There is social distancing on show for goals too with strikes celebrated with just the elbow bumps. But fans are banned. There’s the rub. Football, the biggest spectator sport, is now played in empty stadiums becoming the new normal.

No Spectators

It is unsettling to watch football or cricket played behind closed doors. There is something eerie as players’ shouts echoes off empty concrete stands. Spectator sport may have returned but there’s something unnatural. What we watched on television is no substitute for a stadium filled with noise and life. The faces of the players, the jerseys they wore and their movements might be the same but the setting seemed alien that you felt a sense of dislocation.

Stadiums are great spaces. What make them special are the history and the people that fill their stands. Eden Gardens in Kolkata or Camp Nou in Barcelona are just basic stadiums built of steel and concrete till the fans converge. They then come alive and transform the game. The fans, the spectators, provide an emotional resonance. Remove them and it becomes a lifeless experience, forlorn. Spectators make a ‘spectator sport.’

It might take a long time before stadiums are filled again. Even the greatest of players are disappointed over the absence of fans. Players revel in their chanting, noise and encouragement.

Virtual Stands

Football leagues in Spain, England, Germany, and Italy were held in empty stadiums. Many of them tried placing cardboard cut-outs of fans in stadiumsfor some matches. Lack of crowds was replaced by having virtual fans and crowd noise, and there were images of fans wearing the home club’s colours in ‘virtualised’ stands. Who would have ever thought that sound effects for laughter and applause, commonly used in sitcoms, would have to be used in live sports?

Teams in all sports have always drawn on home support. The crowd is essentially the X factor. With matches being played behind closed doors this home advantage is lost. When a team looks to the galleries all they see are empty seats, silence, clapping and the odd shout from their team mates on the bench. The Bundesliga matches were called ‘ghost games.’ Here, statistics show that home teams have won 21.77% of matches down from 43.3% before the shutdown of play in March. Home teams have also scored fewer goals -- pre-lockdown  1.75 goals per game to 1.28 -- while the teams’ winning ratio has risen 34.83 % to 47.8 %.

It is easier for the away teams when there are no fans in the stadium for then it boils down to the quality of the players. For the ‘smaller’ teams the absence of spectators hurts more than it does the top teams. This is attributed to level of technical quality of top teams that are less dependent on crowd support.

Home Turf

Three Economics professors, Carl Singleton, James Reade both from the University of Reading and Dominik Schreyer, WHU, Otto Beisheim School of Management, have been analysing the mathematical trends in the differences between games played with and without crowds. In their work-in-progress paper Echoes: What happens when football is played behind closed doors show how teams have traditionally won 46% of their matches in front of their home support. After analysing 191 matches played behind closed doors in Europe’s top competitions since 1945, this figure falls to 36%. International cricket returned with England hosting West Indies in a three- Test series. It was played inside a bio- secure bubble amid new Covid-19 guidelines set-up by the International Cricket Council (ICC). The cricket world had waited for 117 days! It was all new with the team huddles being formed maintaining the social distancing while the toss took place without a presenter. Rather the two captains almost shook hands out of habit only to realise later that they should fist bump. The rules introduced by ICC like the ban on saliva; no neutral umpires, more DRS per innings and no handshakes of high-fives were in force. The first Test match at Southampton, which was won by West Indies, became, as commentator Michael Holding said, the mostwatched Test match. The template will surely be replicated by other cricketplaying nations in the days to come. Players reacted differently on playing in empty stadiums. Many of them felt that the magic was missing, that feeling of the crowd connecting with the players, those emotions. Others believed that sportsmen will have to deal with such situations. There are some for whom this emptiness did not really make a difference but allowed them to concentrate more. The series gave an idea of how things worked in such situations.

Many other sporting events have made a return like Formula 1. Some countries like Vietnam have even allowed spectators in stadiums for their domestic V-League football, with strict health protocols. And in New Zealand’s Dunedin, a capacity crowd packed the stadium to celebrate the return of professional Super Rugby after the tournament was stopped as a result of the pandemic. For now, though, fans will have to take a backseat. It also means end of home advantage in games, weird celebrations, less pressure on referees, chance for young players to thrive with no verbal abuse from the opposition stands.

Making Money

The advertising and sponsorship models for sports leagues have gone for a toss. Sports associations are contemplating introducing diversified means to make money off spectator sports. It is quite evident that the world of sports is going through a major survival crisis. Yet, the decision to unlock and conduct events behind closed doors should not be dismissed as a convenient measure or veiled greed for the benefit of television. Remember, the people watching on television are fans, too. True fans travel with their teams anywhere, the second type is the ones who only watch home tournaments and the third are the fans who only watch them on TV and are often derided as not true fans at all. But imagine you are a Lionel Messi or a Barcelona fan. There are so many impediments, geographical and otherwise that impede your ‘graduation’ to the first two types of fans. There are many who neither have the resources, the time nor even the ability to travel. When we say, then, that games are being staged for the benefit of television, it also means that they games are staged for the benefit of fans for whom this is the only way to consume sports.

The Sacrifice

Staging games behind closed doors is not ideal. But there are hurdles to clear before sports can return. It must be determined that it is safe for the players to train, and then to play. In no way can it become an unnecessary burden on an otherwise overstretched state.

Spectator sport without fans is nothing. For now, though, those fans may have to be further away than they would like. It is a sacrifice that has to be made. Sports will definitely return and we, along with it, will throng the stadiums. But I feel it will no longer be the same. Uncertainty looms even as sports strives to establish the ‘new normal’ to keep alive the spirit. What is required now is out of the box solutions until the crowds return to our venues.

K Pradeep

Sports Writer and Former Senior Deputy Editor, The Hindu Read more articles..