COVID's sporting victims

The misery of the COVID-19 global lockdown has been compounded for sporting fans around the world, with all major sporting events either cancelled or postponed. From the European football leagues, to the Indian Premier League (IPL) — the 2020 edition of which still hangs in the balance — Formula 1 racing season, tennis, rugby, golf, basketball to the athletics and the Olympics, no sport — not even chess — has been spared the virus’ deleterious effect. In the general mayhem that COVID-19 has wrought on the global economy, the problems arising from the postponement or cancellation of a major form of entertainment may appear a marginal issue. Indeed, the impact on this industry may not be as severe or as visible as, say, the poverty and destitution that India’s unorganised sector workers face. But as with most other branches of industry, it’s the lesser mortals of the sporting world who are likely to feel the impact most.

Sports fans on social media lavish considerable attention on how the stars are coping with the lockdown. Any number of videos are being circulated, from Rafa Nadal’s impressive workout to Liverpool veteran James Milner’s hilarious number on pruning his garden with a pair of nail scissors to pass the time. Meanwhile, two former stars of Manchester United, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, have opened up two of their jointly-held hotels for NHS staff free of charge. As far as income security goes, the stars, whether in teams or as individuals, are safe as are the organisations — clubs or individual teams — that support them. That is because most are backed by hefty sponsorship money and endorsement deals, which are typically paid up-front, and hedged by protective insurance clauses. The loss of match (or appearance) fees and prize money will merely dent their earnings. This also applies to “closed” tournaments, such as the IPL or the National Basketball Association — i.e. those that do not play within promotion or relegation set-ups like, say, the European football leagues — which obtain more finance from upfront fees than gate money. The impact will be far more severe on rising or aspiring sportspeople, especially those in individual sports. Tennis, for example, is one of the world’s most unequal sports income-wise, with about 80 per cent of players on the circuit earning next to nothing. The earnings of those outside the top 20 depend critically on match fees, which is why the cancellation of the ranking-points tournaments has spelt career-ending trouble for hundreds of players. A woman player ranked number 371 has started an online petition calling for struggling lower-ranked tennis players to be given financial help. This asymmetry is true for professional footballers in the lower leagues as well where, say, Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo may earn an eye-watering €565,000 per week but players in the lower leagues take home less than €10,000 a week, none of it bolstered by endorsements and much of it critically dependent on a club’s gate money earnings.

The postponement of major tournaments could help some of them recoup their earnings but much of this is contingent on how fast and how permanently COVID-19 abates. It is ironical that the developed world is the centre of the sports industry and the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak. Indeed, it is easy to see that the sports business will take a hit for at least a year or two until public confidence revives sufficiently to encourage the crowds to jettison social distancing and come to the stadiums. This factor alone is likely to have a knock-on effect on thousands of invisible agents that support sporting events, most of them small or individual businesses with little wherewithal to cope with postponements or cancellations. The suppliers of food and drink for matches and tournaments, the small hotel owners who have readied their properties for the influx of fans, sportspeople and their support teams and private transport networks are all indirect victims of COVID-19. Sports fans should sympathise with their plight too.

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