Few cultural fields, if any, have increased their popularity as much as sports in recent years. Equally, few such fields face as uncertain a future. The short- and medium-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are a big challenge for sport, at least for the kind of sport that has been promoted thus far by the international governing bodies of sport.
It is true that the practice of sport has become a healthy lifestyle model. It is true as well that sport is a powerful educational tool and an excellent means of integration of socially vulnerable groups. But it is also true that many of these virtues have developed, deliberately or otherwise, under the umbrella of elite sport commercialisation. It is now a product marketed on a global scale, employing a business model of sport that may become unsustainable in the coming years, just as it is in these COVID-19 days.
The budgets of billions handled by leading sport governing bodies: IOC $ 5.7 billion; FIFA $ 6.4 billions; NBA $ 8.7 billion, just to offer a few examples, help us depict the scope of the problem. Almost two thirds of the income of these organisations comes from broadcasting rights of major sporting events.
The business model of sport is under pressure
This model of sport is currently offside. Obviously, without sports events there is nothing to broadcast; nothing to sell and no income; no funds to transfer from international to national federations, neither to solidarity nor social responsibility programmes. Disagreements on these issues have already arisen within the IOC and FIFA, and they will soon do so in other international sport organisations.
While the present is depressing, the future is worrying. There are no major sporting events on the horizon in the short term. Without profits, businesses usually go bankrupt.
Consequently, leading sports governing bodies and all industries that trade with sports events need to adapt quickly to a post-pandemic scenario. It will not be easy but for elite sport money means life.
Perhaps we will see a half-way product between live sports and e-sports which already generate huge profits and attract investments from international sports governing bodies. TV channels and betting agencies that are desperate for content might be ready to accept this in the near future.
But let us be realistic. Public support is the most precious muscle in sport. Like musical concerts and theatre plays, sport is unthinkable without an audience. The complete silence and standing ovations are indelible parts of a sports show. And the show is precisely what is sold and what makes sport attractive for global consumption. Nothing else matters: the solitude, the strenuous efforts, the injuries, (both physical and psychological), all these burdens carried by the athletes are secondary in the media-money driven model.
The costs of the corona crisis to athletes
This panorama has perverse effects. The postponement of sporting events has already ruined the effort and enthusiasm of a large number of athletes. Most of these people, unknown young people who have given the best of their lives to a practice that is demanding way beyond health concerns, are largely ignored. They cannot give up part of their salary because the whole salary barely covers living costs. Unlike the famous stars, these athletes are not in the headlines of sport media, but they appear every day on social media giving advice to people, helping us to keep fit and preserve our mental health doing sport at home during this never-ending quarantine.
But even for those who are part of the sports elite, the postponement of major sporting events will have undesirable effects. It requires new personal sacrifices. And as if that was not enough, the expected concentration of competitions in the near future is incompatible with the physical and psychological training that top-level sports performance requires. Not to mention that some of their most basic rights as athletes are affected here. Above anything else, athletes are human beings, and as such they should be respected.
The effects of this pandemic will be long-lasting and currently unforseeable. Perhaps it is time to rethink the sports model we want for the future. An unsustainable model from the economic, ethical and environmental point of view, or a humane model, respectful of gender diversity, diversity of capacities and opinions. A more democratic model in sports management and sports practice. In short, a world of sport committed to the values of effort, social responsibility and universal ethical principles as stated in the Olympic Charter. Gold is up for grabs, the challenge is priceless.