2020, Year of Empty Stadiums and New Beginnings
Sports commentators often define fans as “the 12th man”, both in cricket and football. The crowds’ influence on team performance has been hailed in club statements, players’ social media posts and sports documentaries. But the challenging year behind us has tested the validity of such claims, constraining athletes to deliver their highly paid sporting feats without the vocal support and ever-present affection of their passionate followers.
Covid-19 limitations have also put enormous pressure on clubs and federations, and tried the resilience of many business segments in the vast constellation of professional sports. This is where some global events and leagues rose to the occasion: the NBA introduced the bio-bubble to finish up the season from August to mid-October (ending with LeBron James’ first title with the Lakers); the Roland Garros pushed through its delayed 2020 edition with limited seating over only three main courts (ending up with Rafael Nadal equaling Roger Federer with his 20th career Grand Slam title).
And then there was the Dream11 Indian Premier League 2020 (for sponsorship reasons), or simply the IPL – the biggest and richest cricket tournament outside the World Cups. The blockbuster League was efficiently moved to the UAE, surrounded by extraordinary health precaution measures for all cricket superstars and club personnel, and ultimately managed to make IPL 2020 one of the defining success stories of the year – an event which sports fanatics, media and advertisement agencies had all been waiting for more than a year.
IPL and BCCI Raise the Bar in Cricket Delivery
The incredible media and commercial success of IPL 13 can be explained with few very pragmatic considerations. The fans were completely cricket-starved, without a single event for about seven months. The IPL mass appeal goes beyond physical presence, especially if delivered properly.
The athletes, on the other hand, have proven they can perform without being spurred on by the crowds – in fact, cricket superstars from Virat Kohli to Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar are all known for top performances when getting “into the zone” of internal concentration and complete isolation from stadium emotions
Ultimately, the main factor for the success of such leagues and events is the top-level delivery which makes the difference even for the most demanding fans. The excitement of the game isstill there through HD broadcast and Over-the-Top streaming services, with fans being able to place bets at an online casino from the convenience of their own homes.
The sport’s able producers can bring us anything – from pre-recorded crowd cheers to local language channel offers (in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil or Bangla); from engaging story-telling in the hands of multinational crews to contextually relevant marketing messages. State-of-the-art technological innovations range from fan walls to streaming localisation services and give instant access to live games, news and scores, highlights and commentary – anything we want, anytime we need it.
It comes as no surprise that Disney’s Star India has reported record audiences, with almost half of all Indian TV viewers having watched IPL13. Looking for innovative ways to make fans feel closer totheir beloved game and avoid reminding them that stadiums are empty seems less difficult than many industry experts predicted in the spring of 2020. More importantly, professional sports without fans on the stands may continue for a while yet, with vaccination coverage and socio-economic impacts still to be fully reckoned with.
The upcoming 2021 Olympics, European football championships and the T20 World Cup will all add up to the experience of a new era of fan culture and crowd participation. India’s own ISL followed in the footsteps of cricket, moving its entire current football season behind the closed doors of three venues in Goa and implementing the bio-bubble for the duration of the tournament. Put simply, 2020 showed that the predicted hardships of live sports and large-scale events was grossly misjudged, with players, clubs and broadcasters able to provide mass appeal and top content even in such challenging circumstances.