Will sport bounce back post-COVID-19? How, when, why and if at all
Can sports as we know, bounce back? Of course, they can. However, as a matter of fact, the most basic laws of physics are most easily overlooked. When you throw a ball up in the air, it will not bounce back and rise to the same height. Consecutive bounces will keep rising lower and lower without outside influence. A similar situation will arise if we tend to push ourselves to get things back, the way they were. The outside influence in this case had been companies and sporting associations, powerful capitalist business houses and their political affiliates.
Now more importantly, can ‘sport and development’ bounce back? Well, when did it ever leave the ground in the first place? And in that statement lies the answer. While sports for entertainment is looking to bounce back vertically, it is sport and development that can be rolled further laterally, more successfully and more effectively than has ever before been possible.
We are used to a ‘return on investment’ spectator sport economy where nations invest huge amounts in constructing stadiums and then companies and sporting associations raise millions of dollars as sponsorship for sporting events, paying for professional athletes and staff by creating huge administrative constructs. The question is, was this ‘big spectator sport’ vision really required in the first place? Did ‘sport’ want to limit itself to entertainment, leagues, money, industry and finally scandals? What we thought were our greatest successes by creating institutions and unlimited modern infrastructure could have been our biggest failure in not having been able to assess the damage to ecology and the systemic inequality it promoted. Could the sport industry take this pause which the pandemic has caused in a positive sense and think beyond profitability?
Most of us working in sport and development are quite aware of these existing issues and we could support each other by further driving our ecosystem to harness the tremendous power and influence of sport within the community. The larger population is still grappling with low participation rates, and a rise in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, sedentary lifestyle hazards, and social disharmony.
A brief snapshot of India, a home for 1.3 billion people on our planet: due to the pandemic, we are currently dealing with the problem of migrant labourers returning back to their villages and the unemployment rate at its all-time high. Medium, small and micro enterprises are the hardest hit, and they provide employment to millions of people.
Sport and development can explore more diverse income streams by shifting the gravity from mega national and international events to smaller local events where the sense of ownership, belongingness and element of fun is much higher compared to being in a live audience in a stadium where you also unintentionally leave behind substantial carbon footprint. Diversifying the scope of sports beyond the Olympics, cricket and football is inevitable.
There can be better ways of connecting with the natural world through rural sports: fascinating traditional games most people have never even heard of. For example, every state in India has its own multiple indigenous sports and no concentrated effort has been made to ‘organise’ this wealth of local sports that the country owns as its traditional asset. So is the case with indigenous sport worldwide.
We need to put our minds together to re-skill the workforce by way of promoting products for social cohesion rather than promoting products for more eyeballs driven by television, broadcasting, ticket sales etc. More sports enterprises can find work for themselves catering to the demand which the future post-Covid world will have.
Adding another angle: like many countries, India will also witness a sharp fall in foreign tourism but there might be a substantial rise in domestic tourism. Demand for sporting activities like skiing, trekking, mountain biking etc. will increase as people would like to undertake shorter journeys in small groups of their near family or friends. Sports entrepreneurs can meet this demand with added innovation.
Sport for development's lateral growth would therefore be more focused towards ‘Sport for development through skills and employment’ thereby ushering in the new order if we wish to see long-term meaningful development through sport.
Therefore, to make sport fun again, let it come from the bottom up primarily towards community development rather than corporate profits. This can be achieved in the short-term with minimal intervention in the given post COVID-19 world. It is necessary that we use sport as an extremely powerful tool for development, and finally if at all sport must bounce back to where it left off, then the categorisation of professional sport must fall under entertainment, be categorised as ‘entertainment sport’, thus putting it on par with the rest of the entertainment industry and out of the purview of health, wellness and development.
Rekha Dey is a ‘sport for development’ specialist having founded RDA, a knowledge-based sports and skills consulting firm. She is former India Coordinator of Australian Sports Outreach Program, Australian Sports Commission, Govt. of Australia; former India Director, Sports Education Development Australia in addition to her experience of having worked with chambers of commerce and the media including India’s leading daily, ‘Hindustan Times’.