Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Docklands: an odd harbinger of sport‘s future

Although I have long been suspicious that – as those close to me like to presume – sport will return to something like what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, this article by Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel shows beyond doubt that this is unlikely.

For a start, no vaccine has been found against any past coronavirus. A drug is a more promising solution, but Dr. Emmanuel says that it is extremely unlikely that lockdown laws will end altogether for eighteen months, or before October 2021. In the context of the shut-down sporting industry, this has several implications:
  1. Given the extreme risk of transmission of such a contagious virus, it is unlikely spectators will attend again anywhere before the 2021/2022 southern summer sporting season
    • Even a return of spectators in 2021/2022 is by no means certain or even likely
    • The longest possible time before spectators might return is not even noted or discussed, as if it is plausible that many years might pass before spectators return
  2. Sports that do return will have to play with no spectators until at least the 2021/2022 southern summer season and possibly for many seasons beyond
  3. Sports that do play will be totally reliant on television (and perhaps radio) audiences for several complete seasons and a revised revenue model will be required
  4. It is quite probable that sports that do return will play in neutral venues in remote areas freed from COVID-19
So far, sporting commentators have ignored the long-term implications of the points noted above. However, it is clear to me from my knowledge of the history of cricket and [Australian rules] football that the unavailability of the traditional live audience will have profound, permanent, long-term effects on how sports are played:
  1. Because television’s main revenue source – corporate advertising – is likely to return several seasons before spectators do, television contracts will grow rapidly once sport returns without spectators
  2. Sports leagues and rule-makers will have at least one season and most likely three or four to adjust rules to make their sports more suitable for television
  3. These changes will no doubt:
    1. Make sporting contests much shorter and more stop-start-stop-start-stop to fit in more games and advertisements on television
    2. Make playing top-level sport more exclusive by requiring more specific and specialised body types to play particular sports
    3. Make playing sports much riskier because shorter playing periods and stop-start play will allow players to put much more energy into short bursts, creating much more intense contact (no necessarily player-to-player)
  4. The changes noted in (3) will make it much less worthwhile to attend sports with the much smaller quantity of play
  5. The requirement of strict quarantine for players to protect against contagious COVID-19 and future viruses will no doubt mean that sport will be much more confined to the major leagues than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • The only exception will be junior leagues for players too young to play in the major leagues
    • Rather than have minor leagues, players of lesser ability will serve in the major leagues as reserve players, creating systems akin to the “huge interchange bench” feared by Eddie McGuire in my old Football Year 1991
  6. Lack of minor leagues will produce much more pruning of junior players
    • However talent pools will be much smaller due to more rigid size requirements (à la telegenic basketball and volleyball) as discussed in point (3(3)).
  7. Players will be required to develop at much younger ages due to absence of opportunities in lower leagues for slow-developing talent.
    • Typically they will go from high school to high-level professional leagues – previously a great rarity seen only for such precocious talents as the late Kobe Bryant
There is, in fact, a very strong possibility that sports when they do return will be under a totally new model, but one reminiscent of the changes brought about on [Australian rules] football by the replacement of Waverley by Docklands twenty years ago. The creation of closed-roof stadiums has mimicked this to some extent in other sports, but it may not have had the same effect it has on football.

What is unique to the AFL but which COVID-19 may make the global norm is centralised grounds, where all matches are played at a few nearby venues. Although the AFL has centralised grounds only for its Melbourne matches, it is possible that MLB and the NHL may adopt this policy for entire post-COVID-19 leagues. It is indeed possible that outdated facilities – as the VFL’s old suburban grounds were due to of of government neglect, health regulations or fixed ticket prices – will not be replaced.

It is also possible that – as has happened in the AFL to a considerable extent since the phase-out of the suburban grounds – teams will no longer be identified geographically or locally but will be truly global businesses identified by name (what we could call “brand”). There is some advantage to this in that teams may not be able to be located in unviable markets and will have to work out themselves where to look for supporters; however, I have not spent any time looking at the full implications.

Whilst under present conditions this new model may be necessary, experience watching football and other sports makes me more than critical. It is a model of restricted opportunities, necessarily fast player development, and potentially very high injury risk. All of this I have recognised ever since studying not merely football and the transition to Docklands, but even cricket and the transition away from first-class cricket – which has been played for the last time before I write this – to one-day and 20/20 forms.