Sports will be back after the coronavirus shutdown, but experts suggest they may look very different. (Supplied: Perth Stadium)
Barely a couple of weeks into the coronavirus shutdown and the sporting world is already on its knees.
Things thought impossible just one month ago are the sober reality.
The AFL has stood down staff, with players agreeing to a pay cut until May. The NRL will try to sell players its own rescue package on Monday.
And that’s only the beginning. The sports stoppage could go on for months.
Rugby league great Andrew Johns has already envisaged the virus shaving the NRL competition from 16 teams to 12.
But that could be just one small part of a radical period of sporting reform.
The immediate response
Liam Lenten, a sports economist from LaTrobe University, has looked back at how events like World War I (1914-1918) and the outbreak of Spanish Influenza (1918) affected the world of sport.
But the effects of that period, such as abbreviated VFL seasons and the cancellation of the 1916 Berlin Olympics, have already been matched by the current outbreak.
Players may never finish the 2020 AFL season, and the Tokyo Olympics has already been postponed to next year.
This time around, he believes clubs might seek to have outcomes of competitions that were close to completion confirmed through legal action.
That means a club like Liverpool in the English Premier League might seek to have its trophy awarded in court.
“With no titles being awarded in some competitions, legal action might be threatened,” he said.
“Liverpool almost, but not quite mathematically, had the title sewn up.”
Liverpool lead their EPL rivals by 25 points with 10 games to go — but it might not be enough. (AP: Alastair Grant)
Paul Hayes QC, a Victorian barrister and editor of the Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Journal, might be in a better position than most to benefit from a wave of litigation.
But he’s more interested in the growth of interest in, and acceptance of, esports.
The shutdown of other sports, he anticipates, could mean a flood of interest in virtual competitions as broadcasters, hungry for content, turn to gaming.
“In coming months Fox Sports and other broadcasters will need to fill airtime with compelling content,” he said.
“There are only so many great Wallabies victories which can be repeated and put to air.”
The Olympic movement’s charter pursues “the qualities of body, will and mind”.
That’s a long way from the traditional image of the gamer: seated for hours at a time, disconnected from the physical world bar the kick of energy drinks.
But reality has quickly overtaken stereotype. Formula 1 is planning virtual races to replace postponed events this year, and the involvement of professional drivers delivers legitimacy to this competition.
“The esports and gaming scene is already booming among enthusiasts around the world and is now big business, especially in South-East Asia, but this increased exposure is likely to drive its acceptance more broadly,” Mr Hayes said.
The growth in competitive gaming has seen esports leagues pack out venues from Sydney to Singapore.
The silk, who has represented Olympic athletes including cyclist Mark French and swimmer Nick D’Arcy, believes the skills of their virtual counterparts could win over the sceptics … and the International Olympic Committee.
IOC president Thomas Bach has already flagged esports becoming part of the Olympic program in the future.
“It will be too soon to replace Tokyo with a 2020 esports Games,” Mr Hayes said, “but the interest generated this year will mean it won’t be long until esports, much like non-traditional Olympic sports such as surfing, is brought under the IOC banner.”
While he’s enthusiastic about the likelihood of virtual racers and FIFA players competing for medals, Mr Hayes believes even the IOC has its limits.
“Don’t expect Grand Theft Auto.”
Major codes such as the NRL and AFL have historically been reliant on broadcast deals for the lion’s share of revenue.
No games to play means no TV dollars, exposing the financial ill-health of clubs and administrative bodies.
Many players will have already signed the richest deal of their careers.
Sarah Kelly predicts demand for live sport will be stronger than ever after the coronavirus shutdown. (Supplied)
Sarah Kelly, an associate professor in marketing and law specialising in sport at the University of Queensland, said sport was being forced to evolve rapidly, and its business models may be overhauled.
“These include cost reductions in professional sports, possibly revised ownership and investment and rapid innovation to develop new revenue streams and growth opportunities.”
Mat Jessep, founder of Game Legal and Consulting, anticipates an “overdue” age of financial integrity.
He foresees enhanced governance requirements, greater oversight from bodies such as Sport Australia and more private and fan ownership models in leagues and teams.
That may threaten the norm of sporting codes being structured as not-for-profits run by boards with limited business experience.
“We’ve seen few sports actually ensure profits are made, and fewer investing any profits into sustainability measures,” he said.
“Sport can’t just shrug this off and go back to the good old days.
“Professional sport has to get better at business, or get less professional at sport.”
He flagged more clubs being kicked out of competitions due to poor financial performance, and even radical restructures where for-profit holding companies would run executive and commercial functions, while not-for-profit subsidiaries run sport operations.
“Fans may see sports retract in size or clubs and teams even relocate as finances are managed better,” he warned.
“However, in the long term, fans could expect greater stability in the competitions they follow and support, as well as better integrity in their sports as healthier commercial outcomes are invested back into pro sports.”
Upon sport’s return
As sport itself re-emerges from the shutdown, it’s likely to resemble the most recent rounds of the AFL and NRL: matches played in front of empty stands.
But the jarring lack of atmosphere may be a thing of the past.
Adam Hodge, head of strategy and planning for sports marketing firm Octagon in the Asia-Pacific, said the complete absence of crowd noise made it hard to watch.
“Without the roars, rumbles, screams and sighs coming out of our speakers, the edge was taken off the game for at-home fans,” he said.
Mr Hodge believes augmented reality is a realistic option to make the return of sport more like the experience fans remember.
“What if we take the pre-recorded crowd sounds from the video game versions of the sports and then map these against the live game action?
“So as a player streaks across the field towards a try or goal on live TV, the system triggers the game crowd sounds to help our ears match what our eyes are seeing.”
If it was to happen, Mr Hodge anticipated a period of complaints similar to that which follows the introduction of things like interchange rules, non-traditional jersey styles, new camera angles and original on-screen graphics.
But he notes that augmented reality is already used in other entertainment, such as auto-tune in live music, and ultimately fans may come to appreciate the approach.
“Sometimes these changes are evolutions made over many years of small tweaks.
“And then other times these changes come in the form of a revolution where extraordinary circumstance call for immediate change.”
Long after coronavirus has come and gone, artificial crowd noise might even work at a Suns versus Giants clash on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
“Either way, the fan will always have the final say.”
Stay up-to-date on the coronavirus outbreak