The New Normal: Sport

When COVID-19 arrived in Europe, sport went into lockdown. Athletes were forced to train from home and major sporting events, such as the Tokyo Olympics, European Championships and Wimbledon were canceled, as the sporting calendar was postponed indefinitely.

The knock-on effect of sport's COVID-enforced hibernation has been seismic. While some competitions remain postponed, others have resumed behind closed doors and without fans, in a sterile sporting world that is unrecognisable from the one we knew only a few months ago.

Sport may have changed forever. Athletes starved of the income they need from competition and clubs funded largely by the income generated by ticket sales and merchandise are now battling to make ends meet and trying to adapt to a new normal that may last for years to come.

To understand more about this new sporting world, CGTN spoke to three different people in the industry to find out exactly how they have been affected by the pandemic, the financial implications for clubs, organizations and athletes, and exactly what the future holds for sport and whether it will ever return to the normal we once knew.

Robbie Lyle is a lifelong Arsenal supporter and the founder of AFTV - a fan-focused social media channel that has generated a following of hundreds of thousands of supporters with its raw, outspoken views on the Gunners and their fortunes over the last seven years. With fans banned from stadiums, he's been forced to watch games from home and change the format of his channel to adapt to football's new landscape.

Alice Hewson is a 21-year-old professional golfer from England who plays on the Ladies European Tour [LET]. Just weeks prior to lockdown, she won her first major tournament at the South Africa Women's Open, in one of her first events on the professional circuit. With her career on hold, Hewson spent three months training in her back garden and taking instructions from her coach on FaceTime, before returning to the golf course at the start of July. 

Mark Palios is the former chief executive of the English FA and has been the chairman of League Two football club, Tranmere Rovers, since 2014. Prior to lockdown, his side were fighting relegation from League One but a winning streak had given them a good chance of survival. Clubs then voted for the season to be cancelled and Tranmere were relegated via a points-per-game formula devised by the Football League. He's overseen a financial project called Project Malthus to safeguard the financial future of the club for the next 18 months.

From L-R Arsenal supporter Robbie Lyle, professional golfer Alice Hewson and former FA CEO and Tranmere Rovers owner Mark Palios. /CGTN

From L-R Arsenal supporter Robbie Lyle, professional golfer Alice Hewson and former FA CEO and Tranmere Rovers owner Mark Palios. /CGTN


What impact has the pandemic had on you and your role in sport?

Robbie Lyle (the fan): "Well, it's been a lot different, obviously. There's no football. Well, we haven't been able to go to games. And, for me, as somebody who goes to every Arsenal game, you know, every single one home and away, even now in the summer we would be preparing to go to friendlies, I would've been going to the Euros as well. I mean, it's just been really strange. Even at the moment when games are being played, you still can't go. So it has been a very strange time and I've really missed it."

Mark Palios (the chairman): "The season was stopped on 14 March and since then we've been demoted to League Two on a points-per-game basis. I think everyone accepts that is an absolutely ludicrous way to terminate a season in the middle of the season. But we will deal with that, that's part and parcel of the strengths of the club. Within the next few days, my manager may well have gone to another football club as well and we'll have to sort of work through that and deal with that. So, you know, it's a question of resilience."

Alice Hewson (the athlete): "I won my first major tournament in South Africa in March and was looking forward to pushing on with the rest of the season and then the pandemic happened. I was abroad preparing for another tournament and was lucky I was able to fly home before lockdown officially started. It hasn't been ideal but I've been away from home for much of the last five years, I was studying in the U.S. and it's given me a chance to catch up with family and get some good work done with my coach over FaceTime so I'm ready when the season restarts."


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Financially, have you suffered because of sport's postponement?

RL: "The surprising thing has been that there hasn't been a big impact. [Our viewing numbers] since the games have come back, our numbers have been more than the numbers leading up to when the games finished. And I think it's a combination of the fact that obviously football's back and people are excited to see that football's back. And also, we're still giving people a chance to see people getting their point of view across. And also, the new sort of watch-a-long format has gone down really, really well with fans. So, we've been very lucky."

MP: "I think that as we go through the summer, you'll see a lot more clubs who will have difficulties. I already know that certain players have not been paid at other clubs. We ourselves, we're in a very fortunate position through a few years of trying to work ourselves through. We've actually built reserves in the balance sheet for a rainy day for projects that we were going to do, etc. So we know and we knew pretty much right away that we could continue to pay players' wages right the way through, even if we don't have any games or we don't have fans in stadiums until the end of next season."

AH: "There is definitely a financial impact over not playing. We have to be out there actually playing golf to be earning some money, so it is a little bit of a challenge. I've been really lucky that over the lockdown period following my win (Alice won the South Africa Open in March) I was able to sign with Wasserman as an agency. So I'm really excited for my future with them to see where that can take me. And I feel that the work that they'll do will assist me a little bit financially. My win in South Africa was definitely beneficial as well and will help to fund the rest of the season."


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How have you adapted to the changes in your job/industry?

RL: "What we decided to do is we decided to create a socially distanced space where we could watch the game with a couple of fans. Before you can come in you have to get your temperature tested, everybody is socially distanced, two meters apart. We watch the games, about five of us, and we watch the games together, the five people being some of the regulars that we interview on the channel. Before and after the game we get their points of view and we also film ourselves watching the game through like a watch-along - it's worked really well."

MP: "I created something called Project Malthus. This was designed to extend our financial resilience from three months to 12 months, which is the length of time left on players' contracts. We've managed to do that without making redundancies to staff. We've also continued to work on projects in the community - we've sent food out to local residents in need and our education business has continued to flourish. We're Wirral's professional football club and just because we don't have football doesn't mean we don't continue to work and help local people."

AH: "I was very fortunate in that I was able to get my hands on a net for my back garden really early on during lockdown. As it turns out, apparently that was quite difficult to do, so I was very lucky to be able to actually still be able to hit balls in my back garden. I've got a 13-foot Huxley putting green that I've been able to practice on as well during lockdown. So I've just kind of been able to maintain the swing, maintain the putting but it's really difficult not being able to see ball flight, not being able to hit a putt that's breaking or longer than 13 foot, that is definitely a challenge."


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We know that we'll be fine without paying crowds until the end of 2021.
 -  Tranmere chairman, Mark Palios, says his club is financially secure for the next 18 months.
Horse racing was one of the first sports to restart after the COVID-19 lockdown, with race meetings across Europe held without fans. /AP

Horse racing was one of the first sports to restart after the COVID-19 lockdown, with race meetings across Europe held without fans. /AP


Can sport survive without crowds and the money fans bring in?

RL: "I don't think this is sustainable. It really is not sustainable, even for a club like Arsenal, even for your really big clubs. I know a lot of people out there will be saying, 'oh, but they've got billionaire owners' and stuff like that. But billionaires don't like to lose money. The longer these clubs stay shut with no fans, you know, they're going to lose money. I went to the club shop the other day and it was completely empty - all the fan revenue has gone."

MP: "In the Premier League and Championship teams are not as reliant on crowds for income, they have money coming in from TV, so they may well be fine without crowds for a while. Lower down it becomes a problem. Clubs have been living hand to mouth for a long time and their wage bill exceeds their turnover. We're very lucky, we've modelled different start dates for next season, October, January, or worst case scenario we don't play at all. We know that we'll be fine without paying crowds until the end of 2021."

AH: "Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of our events from the schedule this year. As I said earlier, we were set for a really, really great year on the LET with so many great events and a lot of prize money up for grabs. So that's definitely been reduced but both the LET and the LPGA have done a really great job of ensuring that people's status is secure for next year so that if people don't feel that it's safe to travel they can put it on hold and they know that they'll come back to exactly what they had, exactly the same opportunities that they had this year."


Could anything positive come out of sport's 'new normal'?

RL: "I think the one thing that's positive that might come out of this horrible situation is that clubs may start to appreciate their fans. They've seen it for themselves, it is not the same without us. If we're not there, it's not the same. When we do recover from this, I hope that every single club, including mine, starts to have a greater appreciation of the fans. I hope the TV companies, who will put on a game whatever time, not caring that there are no trains to get back to London or whatever, I hope they start to take those things into consideration. Without fans it's no good."

MP: "I think we've got to just take this opportunity to address the wage situation, because even if it's only to put in force majeure clauses into players' contracts, it really does need a root and branch change. You've got to get to the position whereby you have sustainability. I define that by having balance sheet resilience, like we have, money in the bank for a rainy day. It's about having enough fat on your back to ride through a bad patch. You won't get that tomorrow, but you're going to have to grow that over a period of time. In five years time, I want all the clubs to be self sustainable."

AH: "The break has been really beneficial for me personally. I've done a couple of sessions a week with my coach and managed to catch things early with my technique rather than playing through a season and then having to come and deal with the bigger faults towards the end. So for us to catch a few things through lockdown, I think it's actually been really beneficial."


Check out our new six-part podcast series Notes on a Pandemic as CGTN Europe finds out how business, science and people have risen to the challenge of COVID-19. 

Video editing: James Sandifer. Video producer: Alec Fenn