A World Without Non-Contact Sport…

The State of Play…

The only thing certain these days is that nothing is certain, right? What seemed like an end-of-the-show news report about a virus in Wuhan not so long ago has tipped the world on its head and subsequently served us with daily reminders of its monumental impact on daily life, health, travel, commerce and other matters typically taken for granted. Ladies & Gentlemen, I give you Covid-19…

Ryanair’s normal daily schedule of 2,500 flights is a mere aviation footnote with approximately 20 routes now in operation per day, while US unemployment rose from 3.3m to 6.65m people in just 7 days and is projected to continue and reach 12.5% nationwide – just two examples of the stark ‘new normal’ that we find ourselves living in.

At a time when some light-hearted humour is always good, the fact that Corona (who must surely be thinking about how unfortunate their brand name is right now!?) have halted their beer production in Mexico may also be seen by some as a similarly bad news story…

Sport has been seismically affected too, of course. Major and indeed minor sporting tournaments and general industry have all fallen foul of Government lockdowns and other restrictions. The cancellation trickle became a tidal wave and the yellow ticker on Sky Sports was bursting at the seams in updating the latest sporting showpiece that had been pulled from the schedule.

Mega international events like Euro 2020, Wimbledon and The Open packed up their tent and said, ‘see you all in 2021’. Perhaps even more disruptive than that were the competitions already in progress that were brought to an unceremonious halt including the English Premier League (LFC fans – despair!), the Guinness 6 Nations, the big US sports, the F1 season, a planned Irish soccer team playoff in Slovakia and the GAA Allianz Leagues. Not even a savior ‘behind closed doors’ model was possible to ensure such competitions could conclude.

Sport is a big part of life and an even bigger part of modern day business – so much so, Premier League decision makers are reportedly considering concluding the last 9 games of the season on Chinese soil where normality may resume quicker than Western Europe to mitigate against an estimated £1bn loss (£762m relating to a payback to broadcast partners). In an equally bizarre approach, the NRL in Australia were considering quarantining all their players and staff on Moreton Island off the coast of Brisbane, before ferrying them in and out to the mainland to play matches behind closed doors.

Rescheduling to later in 2020 is an option but comes with its own risk of not being able to proceed even then, dependent upon mass gathering restrictions or indeed the resolve of a vaccine. The USPGA have gone all in on a late Q3 recommencement by moving the US Open at Winged Foot G.C. to September, teeing up (pun alert!) a mouthwatering back-to-back fortnight of golf culminating with the Ryder Cup in Whistling Straits.

The sad tale that could emerge from these sporting postponements is that, like a lot of small businesses around the world, any prolonged hiatus could spell a terminal end for minority sports who rely heavily on consistent mindshare and the limited revenue sources they have…turning the tap off on these for even a short to medium term could spell the end of their existence.

In any walk of life there are of course the outliers, those who proceeded with action despite the apparent concerns such as Horse Racing Ireland and the dapper folk involved in Cheltenham who may look back on history and feel they took a misstep. The Russian soccer league also thought it appropriate to trial their new YouTube PPV platform ($2.99 per game or $4.99 monthly) at a time when global sport enthusiasts craved any form of live sport and were prepared to part with their hard-earned rubles no matter what the code.

Owing to their supposed delayed contraction, sporting Associations Down Under were among the last outposts to stop playing games. The AFL persisted with their opening round ladder games behind closed doors and generated eerie pictures of live match broadcasts and social media vignettes in empty stadiums like the MGC and the Etihad.  The A-League also stole a march on world sport by playing out some of their soccer calendar while the rest of the world stayed indoors and watched Tiger King on Netfllix (what – you don’t know who Joe Exotic is!!?). Brisbane Roar, managed by none other than ex-Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler, seen their live match viewership skyrocket from an average 50,000 TVR to 10 times that number.

Meanwhile, if you are still looking for a live ‘fix’ you can check out Russian table tennis, horse-racing in Hong Kong and the Belarussian reserve football league – all of which are still taking place.

Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Options that are still on the table…

1. Virtual Simulators

Stating the obvious, any form of physical contact is out for the foreseeable future but virtual simulation could fill the stop-gap in the meantime.

Picture Tiger Woods teeing it up on his indoor tracking platform (likely to be the Full Swing technology of which he is already a brand ambassador – handy that, eh?) and playing a swift 18 without even needing to leave his man-cave basement. Thousands of courses are ready to play at the touch of a button and inclement weather and altitude can even be factored in to make conditions even more life-like. A 156-stong roster of current PGA Tour PRO’s could tee it up every week as per normal circumstance or perhaps even find themselves in a match play format despite being in different corners of the world (e.g. Rory at home in County Down v Hideki in his homeland of Japan playing the Old Course in St. Andrews in the morning, before the winner progresses to play a Madrid-based Jon Rahm at Pebble Beach in the afternoon). Staying with golf for a moment longer, the European Tour mobilized their new ‘BirdieTime.TV’ online coaching hub very swiftly at a time when they knew fans would crave new content, particularly ‘practise at home’ elements – check it out for yourself…

If 2-wheels are more your thing, how about taking the plunge and joining the growing Peloton cycling community (the basic bike package will set you back £1,990)? Like Zwift, another online cycling tool that recently announced a 12-race series in conjunction with Cycling Ireland to fill the Covid gap, simply download the app and monitor your daily spin progress against yourself, your work colleague, the stranger that you will never meet but share a passion for hill climbs with or perhaps some of the world’s best pro cyclists. Pro cyclist Matteo Cigala was reported to have experienced a different kind of ‘crash’ during a recent event when he lost connectivity and those all so precious few seconds on the lead group. Still, at least no stitches, casts or crutches were needed on this occasion.

The same concept might even allow the old chums at Oxford take on Cambridge in the annual boat race (after the original event due to take place on March 29th was cancelled) from silo rowing machines. Bowling, darts and weight-lifting might even be runners if the appropriate tracking and AV technology was in place.

So, there you have it, virtual simulation as way to circumnavigate isolation, travel bans and mass gathering restrictions.

Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

2. E-gaming

‘Stay at home’ offerings such as Netflix, Amazon, Uber Eats and Spotify are all benefitting from global lock-downs but an industry that once was arguably the sole preserve of teenagers which has also seen huge growth is E-Gaming.

Games like League of Legends and Fortnite – who also own the smash-hit video call software HouseParty… *cough cough data – already had a global footprint but many more house-bound people have turned to online gaming and killed time channeling their inner Harry Kane or James Harden while playing FIFA20 or NBA2k respectively. Previously, the only time we seen pro athletes holding a controller (apart from ex-Irish international David Meyler who is a known and very accomplished FIFA gamer) might have been at staged product launches or PR events. However, the savvy sports bodies who seen it as something more than a publicity stunt have now embraced it as a new commercial arm and promotional tool.

F1 were a sporting front runner in this space when they incepted their own eSports Series back in 2017 and has grown its community to over 65,000 online participants, all vying to make pole and compete for prize money worth $500,000. New Balance and DHL partnerships generate significant revenue and TV viewership has reached 5.5m people across the course of the race calendar. Since the postponement of the real thing, F1 drivers like Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and William’s George Russell have competed against each other on the virtual tracks they were supposed to be driving on each week to great fanfare, attracting decent viewership on mainstream TV platforms within the original race time slots. NASCAR hastily initiated a similar race series involving current drivers, influencers and celebrities that FOX Sports air on linear US TV channels.

Keith Pelley, European Tour CEO, immediately championed technology and innovation to grow the game globally when he took over the role. This year’s inaugural 6-event eTour was an open casting call like the F1 eSport model and will only grow in stature to a point that will no doubt see its frequency mirror the physical tour roster.

Wolfsburg and many other Bundesliga teams have a very strong e-gaming presence, stealing a march on laggards in the EPL like Man City and West Ham who will soon pit themselves against each other live on Sky Sports in a new broadcast deal. Mind you, even they may well be dwarfed by the newly established MLS e-sport organization who work with EA Sports in championing their eMLS Cup, which also doubles as a qualifier for the FIFA eWorld Cup.

In the absence of a live sport schedule, betting companies have pivoted hard towards an e-gaming market, with some of the protagonists successfully lobbying the Nevada Gaming Control Board to permit wagers being placed on shoot-em-up games like Overwatch and Counter-Strike. The uglier side of what happens when e-gaming and betting collide was evident when a much-fancied gamer recently received death threats prior to competing in the FIFA Quaranteam Cup (more on that later), in a bid to influence likely winners and losers.

Online eGaming site Twitch has seen its viewership jump +20% in March while virtual chess – which sounds extremely compliant to responsible physical distancing guidelines – has apparently also seen a surge in online viewing.

…but don’t take my word for it. If you want sage opinion on the world of e-Gaming check out Jonny Madill, a key member of the Sheridans Sport legal team, who is a thought leader in this space @jonnymadill07 / @SheridansSports.


3. A Trip Down Memory Lane…

If you are more of an armchair fan at the best of times, you may be more inclined to take everything in from the comfort of your own home rather than the terrace in Finn Park or the ever-blustery sideline at the Sportsground in Galway anyway. Irish TV viewing has sky-rocketed in recent weeks (the average daily minutes watched +20% YOY, with reach figures being the highest recorded in 2 years according to TAM / Nielsen figures). These KPI’s would ordinarily have station chiefs rubbing their hands with glee but for the fact that monthly ad revenue could have a run rate during the pandemic of -50%.

Sport has played a major part in filling broadcast schedules and unquestionably ‘archive is the new live’ (™N. Quinn, 2020 ;-)). Historic matches from glorious past has struck a fantastic chord with nostalgic sports fans as they look back and recount old footage with updated talking heads and long read analysis. Never has a cycling tour of Bordeaux or Olympic badminton qualifier from decades ago been watched with such intensity by the masses starved of new action!

RTÉ commissioned ten classic UEFA Champions League games, Virgin Media Sport were swift to replay the triumphant Irish 6 Nations win in Cardiff in 2009 on the same day 2020 fixtures of the same competition were supposed to be taking place and TG4’s timing of this season’s much lauded ‘Laochra Gael’ series could not have been better. GAA.ie’s own GAANOW content platform and eir Sport have also gained great traction on their GAA match archive output, serving to affirm the opinion that a lot of players from bygone years wouldn’t get a sniff of an inter-county jersey in the modern era. Yes, I just said that…cue exasperation from the veteran brigade!

Looking back as a means to tread water has been a tactic deployed by audio platforms as well, and who would argue against it now with listenership reported to be +23% daily. RTÉ Morning Ireland sports bulletins have celebrated famous live sporting commentaries from yesteryear such as Jimmy Magee’s calling of Barry McGuigan’s World Featherweight title victory in 1985 and a medley of Euro ’88 reports.

Other media companies have leveraged these trips down memory lane and married it to modern day community consumption trends whereby people watch and share views as a collective. Netflix Party (a google chrome extension) is a good example of this, allowing friends to chat ‘in picture frame’ during shows…discussing and critiquing each historic NFL snap or potted black to complete the maximum 147 together. Other post-production innovation has allowed companies such as Rolex and BMW to retrospectively place their brand in key on-screen locations during retro tennis and golf classics and is a sign of what is to come.

The emergence of this type of content will place a far greater emphasis on it in during any future rights negotiations between Associations and broadcast partners – the appetite is obviously there and is a crucial fail-safe for stations needing to fill schedules at short notice.

4. Other Fun Content

Tip of the hat must go to League Two side Leyton Orient who turned their match cancellation with Bradford City into a social gold by playing out their match using the much-loved online football game Football Manager via the ‘computer v computer’ setting. The club’s official twitter account (@leytonorientfc) live tweeted events as they unfolded and seen a surge in followers off the back of the activation…despite going down 1-0 at the Utilita Energy stadium.

The O’s Media Assistant Dan Walker, who can expect to dine out on his ingenuity for a long time to come, then went one step further and created the Ultimate FIFA Quaran Team Cup. Virtual teams from all the top divisions around the world competed and seen Wolves eventually crowned champions on a live Twitch stream, raising £80,000 for struggling lower league teams and frontline workers at the same time. These ‘in the moment’ ideas ignite and fizzle as quick as each other and this was evident from the pitiful audience of just 493 lonely soles who watched a copy-cat simulation of the event-sponsor organized Emirates FA cup tie between Sheffield United and Arsenal a few days later.

Other rights holders who turned to all-out-computer simulation includes the NBA and NHL (the Washington Wizards and Capitals fulfilled their remaining schedule using NBA2k20 & NBA20) and the organizers of the Grand National who reached 4.8m people across a 28% TV audience share on ITV, raising £2.6m for NHS charities in the process. These events were all shown at the same time as the originals were due to take place and seen many fans don their team’s attire with refreshments in hand and engage on social media as if it were a normal day.

Finally, honorable mentions must go to the social media teams in Bayern Leverkusen and Hull City who played out a hilarious Connect 4 tussle on their social channels, online satirical site Tyrone Tribulations live tweeting of the 1995 GAA Football All-Ireland final between Dublin and Tyrone and a World Cup ’94 sports stadium preview report by Balls.ie… get googling!

5. Influencer Skill Challenges

The final option available to those seeking action during the lock-down leans heavily on the power of user generated content (UGC) and personal videos of sporting prowess. I mean, if you haven’t kicked a football into an open wheelie bin or tried the keepy-uppy toilet roll challenge yet are you really living your best quarantined life? #StayAtHome

Skateboard England ran a virtual national championship and asked people to upload their flicks and tricks before a head to head elimination process crowned the winner using a public vote. Dublin GAA footballer Ciaran Kilkenny also gained significant interest in his daily skills challenge by calling on young and old, as well as some well-known personalities like Shane Lowry and Johnny Murtagh, to give it a go…the cherry on top being his bi-lingual piece to camera for each skill explainer.

This type of access to sporting heroes going through the very same Covid experience as the rest of us is enabled by the big tech platform providers and it is no surprise to hear of Instagram growth rates of +45%, Snapchat +42% and a flood of Tik-Tok account registrations.

Personal ‘brand athletes’ like Steph Curry or more likely his agent will soon move from having a bit of fun playing golf in his hallway to a much slicker commercial play (“This 60′ Steph Curry 3pt challenge was brought to you by Mountain Dew…”). Availing of remote GPS tracking technology might also see people being challenged to complete the NFL Draft 40-yard dash in their own back yard before the footage is overlaid with VR film of record holder John Ross’ 4.22’ sprint… Steph and Roger Goodell can have those ones for free 😉

NFL Draft

Final Thoughts / The Real McCoy

The above commentary at times are nothing more than a bit of fun and should perhaps be positioned as ancillary parts to ‘the real deal’, rather than the star attraction.

Here’s hoping for a swift return to live sport as we know it soon. Otherwise, we’ll have to continue spending more time with loved ones, baking even more banana bread and learning to appreciate the finer things in life such as English literature and classical music…

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April 9th, 2020

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Leftfield - (of artistic work) radical or experimental.