When the sporting world fell silent

When the sporting world fell silent

Bigger. Better. Stronger. This has been the motto that has driven virtually every walk of life over the last years, decades even, and sport has been no exception. If there is one thing that unites sports across disciplines and geographies, it is the need to expand and grow.

The fundamental urge is understandable. After all, sport is about competition, and in order to identify the best team or the best individual, competition is a cornerstone. Being the best in state elevates you take on others country wide and eventually country plays country for the honour of being crowned the world champion.

To that end, most sports have expanded so dramatically that they are unrecognisable from how they were played even years ago.

Cricket is a classic example. Until 2007 when the International Cricket Council conducted the first ICC World Twenty20, cricket was a sport that was played largely across two formats. There was Test cricket, which was considered the ultimate form of the game, a five-day contest that allowed for ebb and flow, for one team to dominate over a long period of time and yet leave the door open just enough for the other to make a comeback. And there were One-Day Internationals, originally 60-overs a side, but most popular as 50-over events. Even this shortened form of the game took an entire day to complete, leading to the invention of the snappiest form of the game that was commercially viable: Twenty20 cricket.

When the World Twenty20 was played in South Africa in 2007 — it was considered such a novelty that the ICC did not even call it the World Cup — hardly any teams took the format seriously. It was considered a bit of hit and giggle, a truncated format that allowed a match to be finished in three hours. This meant that the matches could be played in the evening, attracting the post-work crowd. It was also thought that the format would make cricket more accessible as a sport, allowing families to take in the games together. To this end an entertainment element was woven in, either in the forms of music concerts bookending matches, shows being shoehorned into the short break between innings and an element of theatrics and cinema underscoring the broadcast.

The format itself was invented by Stuart Robertson in the United Kingdom in response for to a need the England and Wales Cricket Board felt to attract new audiences to a game that was fighting for relevance with other sport. But, it was undoubtedly the conduct of the World Twenty20, which was won by India, that spurred things on.

Birth of the mega cricket league

The Indian cricket team, thanks mainly to the attitude of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, did not take the format at all seriously. The mainstays of Test and Twenty20 cricket, the biggest names of all, the ones who put bums on seats and brought in the advertising dollars, did not even play Twenty20 cricket much. It was the lucky accident of winning the inaugural tournament that opened up the biggest market in cricket to the world game.

Enter the Indian Premier League. While the Indian Cricket League was already in operation, this was a tournament that did not have the blessings of the authorities. This meant that the matches were not played at the best venues, which were all either owned or controlled by the BCCI and its state affiliates, and that the best players could not compete without facing life bans from official sport. Still, the lure of money on offer was so high, that players from around the world, who had either fallen out of favour with authorities or were at the end of their official careers, flocked to the tournament.
Therefore, in 2008, when Lalit Modi conceived and executed an officially sanctioned global Twenty20 league based in India, it was bound to be a runaway hit. The sums of money involved, when it came to boring a franchise or bidding for players in an open auctions were unheard of, astronomical for the sport and naturally there was serious concern over whether this was even financially viable, or sustainable in the long run.

But, riding the wave of India’s success in the ICC World Twenty20, players and sponsors bought into the concept. The biggest business houses in India, some of them worth billions of dollars, put their money into the game, even conceding that returns would take time to come. But, with the model laid out for all to see, and the audiences flocking to watch the matches, things began to fall into place. When the bidding for the television rights to broadcast these matches went through the roof, it became clear that the IPL was here to stay.

When Coronavirus stopped play

Which brings us to 2020, and what would have been the thirteenth edition of league. Scheduled to begin on March 29, the league was gearing up for yet another bumper season when the Coronavirus or COVID-19 crisis struck. For the first time since the league began operations, it was clear that there was no chance that play would be possible. International travel was grounded, large gatherings were curtailed — ruling out fan attendance — and the first move of the league was to postpone the tournament.

With the Indian government announcing an initial lockdown phase of two weeks, the IPL authorities took a wait and watch approach, hoping to begin the tournament in mid-April. It considered playing the matches at empty stadia as a television-only event and when travel became a sticking point, pondered playing the tournament with only Indian players. But, as the global crisis escalated, it became clear that any such line of thought was only wishful thinking. While the tournament is yet to have been called off for the year — there is still the hope that it can be played in October-November, when things settle down — the writing seems to be on the wall.

The high stakes of the IPL have ensured that those involved are doing everything possible to avoid a cancellation, but other sporting events have already shown the way.

The foresight of Wimbledon

The first to take decisive action was the All England Tennis Club, calling off the prestigious Wimbledon tournament. The marquee event in the Grand Slam calendar, played over June and July annually, is the most coveted trophy in tennis, and the decision to call off the event — the first time such an eventuality has come to pass since World War II — had one distinct advantage over others. The authorities who run Wimbledon were covered by insurance. While most sporting events have insurance against most predictable disruptions, none had thought about pandemics. The All England Tennis Club, however, had opted for pandemic insurance, paying out premiums every year since the SARS outbreak of 2003. This meant that their cancellation came with an insurance cover of approximately US$ 141 million, allowing them the leeway to call off the event without it significantly impacting their future.

The Olympic postponement

The biggest event in the sporting calendar, the summer Olympics, was to take place in Tokyo and after much deliberation, it was decided that the event would be postponed by a year, beginning only on July 23, 2021. This was not a decision taken lightly, for the quadrennial event is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for many athletes. All the hard work and effort put in to qualify for the 2020 event would be affected by this postponement, with many of the participants being unable to simply maintain the standards over an additional year, as age and other factors played their part.

But, once the Olympics bit the bullet, it became clear that there was little point in other sporting codes attempting to go on as if it was business as usual. In the United States of America, the home of franchise-owned mega leagues, the National Basketball Association league was suspended when a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the virus. Major teams in the English Premier League whose season was not set to begin for months, announced that they were putting players and staff on suspended or reduced pay.

While team sports had the cushion of postponement, competitions in which individuals represented themselves were badly hit. For the average golf or tennis or snooker professional, an inability to take part in tournaments meant that their primary source of income was hit, leaving them to look for alternate sources of income till the storm blew over.

The year 2020 is like no other in sport. Not even in the time of world wars had sport come to a standstill globally in this manner. Here was a time of the year when stadiums in Asia, Europe, North America, South America, Africa and Australia would have been filled with fans barracking for their favourite team. Instead, April 2020 will be remembered as the month in which the sporting world fell silent. And fans will be hoping that this never happens again.

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