Each year, students from the University of Missouri work with students from India on joint story projects that link their two countries. This year’s stories deal with how various industries are faring in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The project was overseen by Laura Ungar, an adjunct instructor at the University of Missouri and investigative and enterprise editor at The Courier Journal in Louisville, and journalist Sujoy Dhar, founder of the Indian news agency India Blooms, based in Kolkata, India.
It’s been more than 400 days since the NBA announced it would be suspending its season, the first of many postponements or cancellations echoed by sports leagues across the globe in the following days.
The United States had 1,267 confirmed cases of COVID-19 by the end of that night on March 11, 2020. That number has since inched toward 170 million cases worldwide, despite national and state governments around the world declaring unprecedented lockdowns and public health and safety measures.
Over a year later, India’s highest regarded cricket league, the India Premier League, continued to play on despite over 350,000 people testing positive in India by early May.
But amid the catastrophic COVID-19 situation in India, the league — which has an estimated brand value of $6.8 billion — has been postponed. The decision was made after several players tested positive for the virus.
Officials had been advocating for continued play because of the league’s importance to the country’s overall well-being. An anonymous IPL official told Reuters that the “IPL provides a much-needed distraction for all from the doom and gloom around us.”
Another factor that may be holding the league back from canceling or postponing the season? The unknown monetary impact on the $2.55 billion dollar television deal that runs through 2022.
The league first started play in 2008 but is already the sixth-largest in terms of revenue in the world and has surpassed Major League Baseball in sponsorship revenue.
“Many IPL teams have made money this year,” said Thomas Abraham, co-founder of SportzPower, an independently owned media company in India.
According to Abraham, COVID-19 had zero impact on the big leagues like the IPL.
“Many IPL teams have made money this year. The big leagues have managed to maintain the numbers because they have a decent amount of media rights and higher levels of viewership. We do not really know what is going to happen to smaller leagues.”
However, not all sporting events or leagues deliver like IPL.
Some premier domestic leagues of India, such as the Ranji Trophy, will not be held for the first time in 87 years.
As a second spike hits its peak in India, the future of the country’s most popular sport, cricket, is uncertain.
“We have lost the year 2020-2021,” said Snehasish Ganguly, honorary secretary of The Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB), a state unit of India’s cricket board, BCCI.
“We are almost on the verge of losing 2021-2022 because nobody knows how long the pandemic is going to last. The year that we have lost, without cricket, has impacted the careers of youngsters, their mentality and mindset towards the game,” he said.
A number of players have already opted out of the IPL due to COVID-19 concerns, similar to the NFL’s decision to allow players to opt out of the 2020 season. Even newspapers had started to boycott coverage of the league because of its willingness to play during the crisis.
A different world
Meanwhile, sports teams and organizations in the United States are trying to slowly navigate through a pandemic that some state governments view as essentially over.
“The Texas Rangers tried 100 percent (capacity) on their Opening Day, the Indy 500 is going to have 135,000 people at their event and golf tournaments are bringing people back in, but it still remains to be seen whether there’ll be another surge again,” said Jim Riordan, director of the MBA Sport Management program at Florida Atlantic University.
“Outbreaks and positivity rates are going to dictate how quickly and how fast that each city can move.”
The disparity between cities and allowed attendance at sporting events has been substantial in recent months. The Kansas City Chiefs allowed Arrowhead Stadium to fill to 22 percent capacity for every game, but the Chicago Bears didn’t allow a single spectator into Soldier Field the entire season.
Even teams that accommodated fans couldn’t uphold their commitment to everyone who had bought tickets in advance because of the reduced capacity regulations.
“It was disappointing for a lot of season ticket holders just because of the way they did the spacing in stadiums,” said Chiefs season ticket member Jonathan Liddle. “Many of us that had tickets for quite a while weren’t allowed to attend games and that was unfortunate. But, required and necessary.”
While ticket sales are an important piece of revenue for professional sports teams and college athletic departments, they only make up a portion of the revenue earned on game day. Not having spectators in the seats has been costly on many levels.
“That takes away a lot of not only main revenue, but also ancillary revenue,” said Riordan. “You have ticket sales, but people who buy tickets to come to games also pay for parking, souvenirs, concessions, hot dogs, beer, food. All that’s gone by the wayside.”
Baseball, a $10 billion industry, lives off fan revenue, similar to other major sports leagues. When a family of four attends an MLB game, they spend approximately $234.38 on tickets, parking, food and merchandise. During a typical 162-game season, gate receipts — the sum of money taken at a sporting venue for the sale of tickets — add up to $2.84 billion for the league.
That revenue took a big hit during the pandemic.
The New York Yankees, the highest valued MLB franchise and second most valuable franchise in the world at $5 billion, suffered a dramatic revenue drop in 2020. For the shortened 60-game season, the Yankees brought in $108 million, a steep decline from their $683 million dollar figure in 2019.
However, teams with lower payrolls and expected attendance such as the Kansas City Royals still managed to draw in $109 million in 2020. That could be in large part to the new television deal that was struck before the season that was rumored to have doubled their previous deal in terms of value. Business regulations in different areas also varied, which allowed merchandise to be bought in-person in select cities.
The importance of television cannot be overstated since the start of the pandemic last March. With no fans, or limited fans in the stadiums, teams and marketers have turned to television for advertising and brand recognition over in-stadium branding and ads.
“The eyeballs right now during COVID and the pandemic, or through last football season and in spring training, were not in the seats so to speak,” said Riordan. “Most of the eyeballs are now watching on television.”
In response, Riordan said FAU worked with The Ballpark of The Palm Beaches, the home of the Astros and Nationals for spring training, to display ads on the outfield wall and behind the catcher instead of on the scoreboard or sponsoring in between inning activities.
This way, more ads reach the viewer watching on cable or streaming services and marketers aren’t wasting money on ads in locations inside the stadium that will hardly be seen.
Teams have also started to become creative with their ballpark or arena to host events or gatherings that are unique to sporting venues.
“They’re using their parking lots to hold events like miniature car rallies, car shows, or different carnivals and fairs where people can social distance,” Dr. Riordan said. “A lot of the facilities are now being used as vaccination sites … so that’s a way of generating income as well.”
Careers, mental health in jeopardy
Covid-19 has dealt a blow to the budding careers of athletes in both India and the U.S.
“If tournaments and leagues do not take place, football players, especially those who are professionals, they would not get their salaries,” said Subrata Dutta, senior vice president of the All India Football Federation.
According to sports administrators, COVID-19 protocols and social “bubbles” are also affecting the players’ mentally.
Said Dutta: “If the players are confined to a room or a place, if they cannot go out and mix with people or visit their friends and relatives, they are mentally affected.”
“If the players are confined during a two-month-long tournament, it definitely takes a toll on their mental health. They would be demoralised and demotivated.
“The players might need a psychiatrist or sports doctor to come out of the mental agony.”
As Snehasish Ganguly of CAB put it: “In this situation, a lot of cricketers might have diverted themselves from sports to studies or are focusing on other parts of their careers.”
Despite the differences between the two countries, one thing remains constant.
“Everyone looks to sports and entertainment as an outlet,” Riordan said.
“Working 9-5 or a lot longer, five days a week, they look to sports and entertainment as a way of getting away from all that and getting refreshed and just enjoying themselves. Especially now since they’ve been cooped up in houses and not been able to do that.”
While Americans may be able to watch and support their favorite teams in the stands, many in India don’t have the same option.
But they are hopeful.
“Despite the fact that our way of playing sports and life in general are being affected, I believe that sports have a bright chance of picking up post the lockdown,” said Sankar UV, director at the Sports School, which is one of India’s first integrated schools for sports and academics.
“There will certainly be the aspect of heightened safety protocols for the foreseeable future, since the people of our country have become more conscious of their health.”
According to Thomas Abraham, there is going to be a process in which the whole ecosystem figures out how to get back to play.
“The momentum has been disrupted in a big way. Businesses have to come back on track, people need to have financial stability. There are many people who have lost their jobs,” he said.
“Financially, the potential consumers of sports have been affected. It is a process that has to start again. There is no straight answer here. The economy has a huge role to play.”
Whether or not health and safety protocols allow fans around the world to celebrate their team in person by the end of the year, sports will be at the forefront of public events to bring the community back together.
“When we had the 9/11 tragedy, people looked to sports,” Riordan said.
“People looked to the (2001) World Series and getting back to playing games a week later. We had President Bush throw out the first pitch. It was a national event. It was a national unification event.
“Sports are certainly a unifier. It’s bringing people together. And it’ll do that here (with COVID-19) too.”