Last year, Bangaluru police had zeroed in on mannequins dressed as cops as a means to discourage motorists from jumping signals or wildly switching lanes. This week, embarrassingly, South Korean football team Seoul FC took a similar route of deception in an effort to create an illusion of a packed-stadium for their match against Gwangju FC.
In what must be a first in the world of sports, they inadvertently used sex dolls amidst cardboard cutouts to fill the stands for the match played behind closed doors. Seoul FC streamed music and cheers over the public address system in an effort to create an air about the game. But the use of sex dolls was a horrendous faux pas.
Nearer home as Lockdown 4.0 was announced, sports fans desperately scanned the Dos and Don’ts of engagement only to realise that ambiguity was the name of the game.
Clause two in the new set of regulations dealt with activities prohibited throughout the country. Under this, in sub-clause (v) it specifically states ...‘Sports Complexes and stadia will be permitted to open; however spectators will not be allowed.’
However, the next clause (vi) in the prohibited activities bans ... 'All social/political/sports/ entertainment ....’
The big concern for India’s sporting ecosystem is undoubtedly the IPL. There’s big money at stake for franchises, broadcasters, media, hotels, airlines, transport, communication, advertising agencies, event managers, apparel manufacturers, food and beverages, BCCI, state units, etc. The spin-off through employment opportunities too is humongous.
No wonder that many, from all sections, have advocated playing IPL behind closed doors. This they believe would ensure that the edition takes place and also minimise the risk of the spread of COVID-19.
The catch, though, is that there is no template to follow for this sort of a manoeuvre. It has not been done in the past, particularly where an entire tournament (60 matches) is concerned.
But clues could be gained from some sporting activities that are already limping into action, specifically where football, golf, motorsport are concerned. These are being played behind closed doors with varying results.
Take football, the world’s most popular sport. It is, ironically, on a journey of realisation. The fans believe that football is not football without them. And who would argue against that?
The Bundesliga was first off the blocks but instead of 75,000 fans forming the intimidating ‘yellow wall’ at Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park there were fewer than 300 people, mostly players, officials, associated personnel and media in the stadium.
For IPL, this was a crucial lesson, because football, much as it is about the skills and quality of the competition on field, is also about passion, noise, theatrics of players, fans and the whole nine yards.
Who can forget the screaming red-shirted hordes threatening to blow the roof off the Chinnaswamy Stadium with their unbelievable noise levels every time their star and master batsman Virat Kohli walked out to bat? The same was the scenario at Wankhede when Rohit Sharma or Kieron Pollard smashed the ball into the ‘sea of blue’.
Frankly, IPL is not just about players, it is also about deafening roars, scenes of jubilation, ecstasy, crazy placards, Mexican waves, full-throated screams of the hero’s name when he is on song, shrill whistles, etc. The thunderous noise is re-affirmation of the game’s reputation, appeal and popularity. Without it the sport would not be the sport as we know it.
Football learned these lessons to its grief as it tried to conjure up some action for live television. Empty stands with giant nets to ensure that the ball did not go into the stands stood like a shroud of mourning. The screams of players and coaches echoing in the empty stadium were distressing. Players meekly celebrating with a touch of elbows and socially-distanced celebrations looked pathetically unnatural.
But it is apparent that not just the Bundesliga, but other European leagues too will follow this pattern at least for some time to come.
Golf, however, looked the same except that world-class golfers Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, and Matt Wolff had to carry their own bags at a charity event in Florida. The coverage was lapped up by fans, especially as they got to hear these champion golfers discuss and speak to one another over the 4 million dollar event.
No fans were permitted for the four-man Skins but there were close to 900 essential staff, including security and media.
But golf too has had to make numerous compromises. The US Open which is finally scheduled to be played in New York in September has done away with its plethora of qualifier events that saw tens of thousands of participants take part in the only truly open sports event in the world. Instead, special exempts and player rankings will help form the field in the closed-door event.
F1 organisers and fans also closely followed the return of NASCAR last week. The race in South Carolina gave a boost to Formula One whose season has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. F1 hopes to get back into action in July in Austria and hence the unusual interest in the American race.
NASCAR opted for a number of stringent methods to provide safety to its staff and drivers.
The drivers had to carry their own helmets and other equipment, including water.
The carrying of water or drinks will need a momentous change even in IPL where drinks break, strategic break, drinks at the fall of wickets, etc were an opportunity to huddle and pass the drinks around. This will need to change significantly.
Meanwhile, it is obvious that IPL cannot get off the ground for the next couple of months at least. The monsoon that would hit mainland India in early June would make cricket impossible for some time to come. There could be a slim window of opportunity in August when KPL, TNPL, etc were held. But any play along the west coast (Mumbai, for one) would be impossible.
Obviously, if playing conditions (rules) and venue are not tweaked to provide for the concerns of the monsoon, the next best opportunity to stage the IPL would be in October-November. That’s when ICC’s World T20 is scheduled to be staged in Australia (18 October to 15 November).
It would make sense for all concerned to shift the dates of the world event and instead hold the IPL around those dates in India. Else, it would be a logistical nightmare for Australia to manage the travel and safe stay of 16 teams during these times of the pandemic.
One thing though is certain. Even as broadcasters would grapple hard to create an atmosphere for the viewer, it must be accepted that IPL, in particular, and sport, in general, will seem very different for some time to come.
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