The global sports industry is estimated at well over $500 billion annually, with broadcasting rights alone accounting for more than 10 per cent of this figure. Against this backdrop, it is obvious that there could not have been a more costly or complex era for a global pandemic to decimate professional sport.
But the almost universal increased reliance on broadcasting revenue has clear benefits; sporting codes across the world are managing to stay above water through technological and operational innovations that would not have been possible or effective even 20 years ago.
There is no end in sight to the negative impact of COVID-19 on most key revenue streams for international sport, including gate receipts, merchandising and hospitality (not to mention the broader tourism benefits). The sight of fans flooding into capacity stadiums around the world remains a distant dream. But at the highest levels, the most critical source of funds for any sport – broadcasting revenue – remains a viable avenue. And it is by this single thread that the fate of many professional sporting leagues now hangs.
For example, India’s upcoming tour of Australia for four Tests and three one-day internationals, scheduled across December and January, is reportedly worth some $300 million to Cricket Australia in broadcasting revenue. Similarly, this year’s IPL, taking the place of the postponed T20 World Cup, is said to be worth almost $750 million to the BCCI, again primarily on the back of Star India’s landmark $3.2 billion 2017 broadcasting rights deal.
Governing bodies have been forced to adapt to ensure these broadcasting lifelines remain available to them. In Australia, the AFL and NRL have implemented strict COVID-19 bio-security measures with success. These include isolating players from the community, limiting venues, packing more games into a tighter timeframe. In the AFL’s case, they’ve even reduced the length of games.
Crucially, there is evidence that a biosecurity “bubble” can work across international borders, too. The West Indies cricket team’s recent tour of England was hugely successful, saving the ECB over $500 million. It also proved the viability of a long-term quarantine program which saw players in a tightly regulated quarantine bubble for 7 weeks. Laudably, the West Indies players left the relative safety of the Caribbean at a time when the UK had the second-most COVID-19 deaths in the world.
These enormous collaborative efforts between broadcasters and governing bodies have seen sports innovate, just as other industries have adapted. For the recently-concluded Wisden Trophy, Sky Sports developed a “Lords hum” of crowd noise to accompany the live feed. They used a high-tech Big Brother-style interview room for players and even rolled out a remote-controlled “Buggy Cam” in lieu of reporters for on-field interviews.
This scale of innovation is no mean feat, given broadcasters too have suffered from COVID-19 as subscribers and advertisers flee. In Australia, Foxtel’s stand-alone sports streaming service Kayo had shed more than 130,000 subscribers by May, as live sport came to a standstill.
But these losses can be stemmed by drawing viewers and partners back. Innovation is now at the forefront, and technologies like augmented and virtual reality may be embraced sooner than predicted.
It is a delicate state of play. As the interests of policymakers and sporting boards collide, any outbreak within a league not only compromises the integrity of the bio-bubble for that league, but makes it harder for other sports to keep their games alive.
For now though, elite sport has shown that it can find a way through. In sustaining these multi-billion dollar industries, sporting codes are sending a clear message: let us play.