Forbes India|August 14, 2020

As international sport resumes behind closed doors, players miss fans and vice-versa. But everyone is ready to roll with the new normal

Among the many incredible legacies of WG Grace, one of cricket’s earliest celebrities, is a lore that doesn’t get old even with a century of retellings: Once given out lbw in an exhibition game, he just continued batting, reportedly telling the umpire off, “They came to watch me bat, not you umpire”.

Grace’s quirks may have hit the laws of the game for a six, but in his own way the bearded doctor from Bristol acknowledged an integral element of the sporting experience: The fans. As every sport aficionado would concede, a packed stadium and an involved crowd adds to the story and drama of a sporting contest. Consider that the 1986 soccer world cup is talked about as much for the emergence of Diego Maradona as an all-time great as it is for the Mexican Wave—a celebratory throwing up of hands in unison that was started earlier in the US, but introduced to the world at the tournament held in Mexico.

And players have indulged too. German tennis great SteffiGraf played along when a spectator threw her a marriage proposal in the middle of a match during Wimbledon in 1996. “How much money do you have?” the otherwise shy and reticent Graf replied, leaving the entire stadium in splits.

As international sport resumes after a Covid-19induced hiatus, the new normal of playing behind closed doors has shut the fans out of the stadiums. And the loss has been a two-way street—as much for the fans who’ll miss the live action as it is for the players who yearn for the spurring-on from the stands. Ask English football club Liverpool, which played in deafening silence as they took the field after winning their first league title in 30 years.

“It won’t be wrong to say many results have gone our way because of the energy and support our fans bring in. Of course human safety is paramount, but I have to say we’ll miss the fans,” says Sunil Chhetri, captain of the Indian football team. Chhetri’s connect with fans came forth in 2018, when he put out a passionate appeal on social media goading them to come to the grounds to watch the national team play. “Abuse us, criticise us, but please come to watch,” he had written. As the 35-year-old gears up to play in the Indian Super League beginning November, in empty stadiums, he admits he did feel “a little weird” watching the vacant stands at the soccer leagues that have resumed in Europe.

Chhetri’s apprehensions have been confirmed by a report in the New York Times, with results drawn from data scoured from the Bundesliga, the first major sports league to return to the field following the pandemic. All home teams in the German domestic circuit have fared poorer than pre-Covid-19 games, with their win rates slipping by 10 percentage points to 33 percent. Besides, home teams have scored fewer goals than they had in full stadiums, taken fewer shots, won fewer corners and attempted fewer crosses and dribbles. The numbers have confirmed what a packed house has always been referred to in the sporting lexicon: The 12th man.

In terms of business, clubs will feel the pinch next season, especially when it comes to match-day revenues. LaLiga, the Spanish domestic football league, is hoping for at least a partial attendance of spectators at the grounds when the new season begins on September 12. But if it doesn’t happen, bigger clubs will be affected in particular. “It’s not the same for, say, SD Eibar, which can host around 7,000 people compared to Barcelona, which has a seating capacity of nearly 100,000,” says Jose Antonio Cachaza, the India MD for LaLiga. “On top of that, museum tours and merchandise sales for bigger clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid won’t be the same until we go back to the real normal, not this new normal. Our chairman reckons we would probably need two to three years to go back to where we were before March.”

Most Indian clubs are still waiting to hear from the game’s nodal authorities to work out the financial implications. Bengaluru FC’s CEO Mandar Tamhane conceded they earn about 3 to 4 percent of the revenues from ticketing and, in terms of merchandise, they are still selling online, “but it’d be tougher than the sales we would have had if fans came to watch our games”.


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August 14, 2020