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SPORT AND THE VIRUS: OUR PERSPECTIVE



With the world in crisis due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19), sport has been hit hard on many levels. Not only are fans being deprived of watching and supporting their beloved teams, but some of those teams are in serious danger of going out of business due to loss of revenue and commercial income etc. Leagues, competitions, and events, from elite sport to grassroots sport, have been suspended indefinitely and with no return in sight there is obviously lots of confusion as to when, and if, sport will resume and of course what the landscape will look like when it does.


The most high-profile sporting casualty of the pandemic has undoubtably been the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, arguably the biggest sporting event on the planet. Across the world football leagues and cup competitions have been suspended, rugby has been suspended, Wimbledon cancelled, the F1 season on hold, and golf’s Masters and The Open postponed. However, for the organisers, sponsors, businesses, media, suppliers, participants and spectators, the cancellation of much less prominent events has been equally as devastating. The loss of the three main income streams for sports, broadcasting (income from media), commercial (sponsorship and advertising) and event revenue (ticket sales and hospitality) has left many futures in sport hanging by a very thin thread. No games or competitions means no TV income and no ticket sales income; no income means……. well we all know what no income means! The sports industry is hoping that this will just be a ‘blip’ in their business and that it will be able to recover their income stream quickly by re-organising the postponed events for later in the year and not lose out completely. However, the great unknown is how long it will take for the public to feel confident enough to attend these mass spectator events again and sports face the prospect of relaunching behind closed doors in order to protect and salvage what they can from the TV revenue. MSK Zilina, seven-time football champions of Slovakia and USA Rugby (USA’s national governing body of the sport) have both declared bankruptcy since the pandemic hit, and sport is bracing itself for more high-profile casualties.


Competitive sport has had to recognise, that despite all of these concerns, it has to take a back seat whilst the world tries to deal with the virus that has changed all of our lives, in some cases forever. However, delve beyond the loud headlines of the Premier League players reticence to take a pay cut, or the furloughing of Premier League staff and you will see many stories of sport, including football, doing what sport always does, reaching out into communities and bringing hope and optimism to so many and helping wherever it possibly can on so many levels.


Former Manchester Utd players have allowed NHS staff to use their hotels free of charge, Roman Abramovich has done the same with the Millennium Hotel at Stamford Bridge and Manchester City have allowed the NHS to use the Etihad Stadium as a training centre. Watford, amongst a host of other clubs, are also allowing the NHS to use its Vicarage Rd Stadium for a range of NHS purposes. Despite taking some time to get organised, and an apparent lack of cohesion in the response by its representative union, the PFA, Premier League players have now launched an initiative called #PlayersTogether which will “help those fighting on the NHS front line”. Many of the biggest names in football have forfeited large percentages of their salaries to protect the game, their clubs and the non-playing staff that work in and around them. Look beyond the negative headlines that have surrounded football in particular in recent weeks and sports everywhere are ‘stepping up’.


Many rugby clubs, including Wasps, have adopted the #makethatcall movement with players and management calling their most vulnerable fans to offer help or simply just have a conversation. Netball has been doing the same, with vulnerable fans receiving telephone calls and offers of assistance from their on-court heroes. We work with the Netball Players Association (NPA), representing the netball players and safeguarding their interests, and whilst there have obviously been concerned conversations around contracts and payments the NPA have stepped in to provide their members with a Welfare Fund amid this outbreak.


Our work in motorsport has also brought to our attention how the skills of engineers and technologists have pulled together to provide for the greater good while their sport is on hold. UK-based Formula 1 teams, during this enforced hiatus in their season, are working in collaboration with F1 on ‘Project Pitlane’ and using their expertise in design, technology and production to develop and produce medical respiratory devices to help with the treatment of patients. Prodrive answered the Governments call for specialist businesses to help and are all set to start making ventilators for the NHS. Mercedes -AMG have produced a device known as Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) and this has now been recommended for use by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). This device can be made extremely quickly and in large volumes; they expect to have the capability to produce 1,000 per day.


The English Cricket Board (ECB) has implemented an initial financial rescue package for cricket that will hopefully not only save the professional game but also safeguard grass roots and local community cricket. The ECB have promised that there is more to come if it is needed. Sport England has recognised the importance of keeping the nation active by pledging a £195 million package to support the sporting sector. There is £20 million available from this ‘pot’ in funding for organisations that that play a vital role in supporting local communities to stay active and are currently experiencing financial hardship.


Many athletes are taking to social media to stay connected with their audience and offering workouts and keep fit sessions. Our England and Saracens netball client, Sasha Corbin, is using her personal feed and her company feed, Solo Sessions, to offer some entertaining and creative netball and fitness challenges that anyone can take part in (or at least try!) at home during this time of social distancing.


Another area of sport that certainly should not be forgotten is the many community focussed groups associated with sport, either the community arm of a club or the athlete foundations that do so much great work engaging with very often disenfranchised pockets of our local communities. For many young people using these foundations, sport is the conduit that allows them to have a voice, to engage with others and to learn confidence building life skills and gain qualifications that they would ordinarily not have access to. We work closely with the Rio Ferdinand Foundation (RFF) and the Legacy Sports and Education Foundation. Lots of hard work has gone into adapting their current programmes in a considered and accessible way so that the connection is not lost with the many young and vulnerable people they help on a daily basis.


These are very challenging times for everyone. Sport, understandably, is not the most important thing in people’s minds right now and may not look the same for some time, if ever. However, there is no doubt sport continues to play a huge role in our society, lifting spirits and keeping people connected, even when we are apart.


Let the stadiums not stay empty and soulless for long!!

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