Sport can keep the economy moving

The Indian Premier League has just been “postponed indefinitely” – which means it has not been cancelled. To do so would mean denying the Indian economy of an estimated $11 billion this year, money which will be desperately needed to fight not only the spread of the corona virus, but the effects it will have on the people in the most populous nation on earth.

Critics who claim that sport is trivial and irrelevant during this global crisis are correct, but only partially. The teams, the competition, the glamour…none of that matters right at the moment (although it would be a welcome distraction for millions of fans.) What does matter is saving lives and putting food on the table and sport can help do that.

The IPL signed it’s latest broadcast deal in 2017 for an eye-watering $3.2 billion over five years between 2018 and 2022. Indian economists place the annual knock-on effect of the tournament to be around $11 billion. The notion that all that cash goes straight to the billionaire team owners and the players is nonsense. The trickle down effect is vast.

Whereas other industries will always struggle to operate within the artificial confines of a quarantined environment, many sports could do it for a finite period. Discussions amongst IPL teams and the tournament’s administrators have been taking place for weeks and will continue to do so.

One suggestion is that it is staged in just two cities which are easily accessible by road, like Mumbai and Pune. Every player would have to be tested for the virus and kept in isolation for two weeks before the first game. Privately chartered planes would fly the overseas players into Mumbai and all eight Franchise squads would be accommodated in the same, quarantined hotel. Security would be at a ‘presidential’ level normally reserved for counter-terrorism operations.

Most of the ‘normal’ functions of the tournament would be discarded, such as catering and the majority of the ground and stadium staff. A skeleton television production crew would undergo similar testing and be transported between hotel and venue in the same way as the players. Double-headers every day would mean the tournament could be completed inside 30 days.

Empty stadiums are an anathema to professional sportsmen, as empty theatres are to other performers, but if the options are living for six weeks in a closed and safe environment, practising twice a week and playing three times a week, or staying at home and using the exercise-bike, the vast majority of players would opt for the latter.

Would sponsors accept the compromised product? Indian telecoms giant, Vivo, are the title sponsor and paid $330 million for the privilege. It doesn’t take a marketing expert to predict that when live sport resumes again, the majority of the world will still be on Lockdown – voluntarily if not by order – and viewership figures are likely to be record-breaking.

The logistics of any plan would need to be approved by the most qualified medical experts and adhered to with military discipline. There will be problems to tackle and obstacles to overcome, but it would be in everyone’s best interests to find solutions and make the economy start moving again.

Other businesses will find it harder to restart. The construction industry, with thousands of workers relying on public transport and living at home with their families, will face far greater challenges than elite sport.

Cricket South Africa’s acting Director of Cricket, Graeme Smith, recently persuaded BCCI President, Saurav Ganguly, to send the Indian to South Africa for three T20 Internationals in August, a short tour worth a staggering R180 million to the ailing national body. But putting together a ‘made for TV’ product involving just two teams over a week rather than eight over a month seems relatively straightforward.

The most recent suggestion from India is that the IPL could be staged in September as a pre-cursor to the T20 World Cup in Australia in October and November. So perhaps there is still hope that Virat Kohli and his team can squeeze that week in on these shores, although it is fading by the day.

This is not just cricket’s problem, of course. Wonder why English Premier League clubs are so desperate to finish the competition? It’s not because they believe they can deny Liverpool the title or even about qualifying for Europe or preventing relegation. It is because they will have to pay back approximately £762 million to Sky for failing to deliver the games the broadcaster paid for.

Whether you’re a sports fan or not, you need the show to go on. Probably a lot more than you ever realised.

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