On a glorious Sunday evening in March, Earl Eddings was one of 86,174 spectators thrilled by Australia and India contesting the women’s Twenty20 World Cup final. The Cricket Australia chairman went home “happy enough to take that memory to the grave”.
Four days later, that match could not have been held. A call from the Victorian government shut down Cricket Australia’s activities in the state. Similar was happening throughout Australia. The New Zealand men’s team flew home from Sydney, the rest of its scheduled tour cancelled, to beat the border closure. A rolling series of crises unfolded for cricket, a sport which, unlike domestic codes which were also thrown into chaos, had to take account of international travel bans. “It didn’t matter who you spoke to,” Eddings says, “there was no authority who could tell you how to handle this.” After a year of constant adjustment, cricket is starting a new season, from clubs and schools up to the remarkable achievement of getting an Indian men’s team safely into the country for a full series. “We’re going to wonder one day,” Eddings says, “how we managed to do this.”
There is no sugar-coating the difficulty of a pandemic year for professional and community sports. Cancelled or postponed were the Tokyo Olympic Games, Wimbledon and the British Open, the World Surf League, rugby tournaments involving the world champions South Africa, marathons and triathlons around the world, not to mention countless mass-participation community events, university, school and amateur competitions.
Some sports survived the existential threat in reduced circumstances: the AFL, NRL, overseas football leagues, cricket, American basketball, football and baseball leagues, and international golf were able to resume after lockdown but only under heavy restrictions. Some will emerge mildly modified, while others will be changed forever.
What will remain from 2020? Should a vaccine tame the pandemic, we can hope to see the end of full biosecure hubs, audience noise operated by a commentator’s pedal, virtual crowds and cardboard-cutout spectators. These will be historical curiosities belonging to a year when sports had to be played before empty stadia.
In terms of health and medicine there will be lasting legacies from the pandemic, much like the treatment of bleeding wounds (variations of the “blood rule”) has carried over from the HIV epidemic.
Sports doctor Peter Brukner, who has worked for decades with AFL clubs and the Australian cricket team, says the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the already growing awareness of mental health challenges for professional sportspeople. “The AFL has been emphasising psychology services even more than physio services, and hopefully that will continue,” he says. “Hub life has been a test for everyone, and some have handled it much better than they thought they would, while others have struggled. This has helped to emphasise the importance of building resilience.”
Physical resilience has also been tested, with AFL teams playing as often as every fourth day rather than once a week. “Everyone was very fearful about how players would cope mentally and physically,” Brukner says, “but a lot of lessons have been learnt about how much they can do, and how happier they are playing than training.”
A benefit of hub life has been managing players’ alcohol intake and socialising, Brukner says, which will carry lessons into the future, as will changed habits on hygiene. “Clubs have long been careful to isolate players with gastro or colds, and now there is greater awareness about sharing drink bottles and towels and being careful about spitting, so hopefully that will all change for good.”
A “saliva rule” has been applied to cricket, stopping players from using bodily fluids when shining the ball. “There was some initial pushback from bowlers who thought they’d be disadvantaged,” says Eddings, “but it’s something the game will be looking at over the long term. In cricket, the ball is sacrosanct, and you can’t just keep replacing it if it goes into the crowd as they do with baseball. It might be down to ball manufacturers to come up with solutions, and it’s certainly an issue at lower levels, [how to enforce a saliva rule] when you can’t afford to keep replacing balls.”
Mental health care will also be one of the pandemic’s legacies in cricket, Eddings thinks. “Hub life is hard for some, and you can’t expect players to perform week-in, week-out without caring for their mental health. There is already too much sport on the calendar and if this means that individuals have support networks in place inside and outside the hub, they can all find a way to thrive.”
Eddings has been one of many sports chairmen whose operations expanded into executive-type functions during the pandemic emergency. CA cut its chief executive officer, Kevin Roberts, during the year, as did the National Rugby League and Rugby Australia. In each case, the board and chairmen took increasingly active roles, giving rise to concerns about good governance. The chief executive of the Governance Institute of Australia, Megan Motto, says: “Good governance around the relationship between the CEO and board is crucial at all times, with any issues more likely to be exposed during times of crisis. The board is responsible for setting strategy, while the CEO manages the business. Ultimately though, the board is responsible for managing the CEO’s performance – and for their hiring and potentially their firing. Now will be a time for reflection for many organisations and their boards as they move to the next ‘chapter’ and consider whether their processes stood up to the test during the pandemic – and what they could have done differently.”
Eddings says the pandemic has been a case of “when the tide goes out and you find out you’re swimming naked. If there are weaknesses, they will be exposed… If a result of the crisis is the board jumping in and involving itself in executive matters, then either the board has to go or the management does”.
Underpinning this is the reality and prospect of falling revenue. The rugby codes saw a decline in TV viewership through the year, while the AFL saw a small uptick. Cricket has enjoyed strong early-season ratings but is embroiled in a dispute with its free-to-air broadcaster, Seven Media, which wishes to renegotiate its funding for cricket, as has happened with nearly all other televised sports.
Sporting bodies have come to rely on broadcast rights the way universities rely on full fee-paying overseas students – pull out the plank and the whole building comes down. That became a problem this year when broadcasters faced one of the worst advertising market downturns in history. They responded by making wholesale spending cuts, including to one of their single biggest costs – rights fees for sport. It’s a move they would never have contemplated before.
David Kennedy, head of research at Venture Insights, said the pandemic has accelerated an inevitable reset of sports rights deals. “It was clear that the broadcasters were already looking at renegotiating and COVID really was the pretext for them to bring that forward,” he says.
Former Seven West Media chief executive Tim Worner said in 2017 that the days of billion-dollar sports rights deals were over after his company booked a $745 million loss for the 2016/2017 financial year. A week later, Nine Entertainment chief executive Hugh Marks said his company, owner of this masthead, would focus on buying sports rights across multiple mediums such as streaming and free-to-air television. “When you look at what we can afford to pay for free television rights, there has to be a limitation,” Marks told trade media website Mumbrella at the time. “If the market is not growing, you can’t continue to ramp up your cost. There has to come a limit to what you can pay for free television rights, which means I’ve got to re-look at the nature of my relationship with sports if I’m going to bring more revenue.”
The AFL deal cost broadcasters $780 million over five years in 2007. By 2019, that figure was $2.5 billion over six years. By comparison the NRL cost $500 million over five years in 2007. That figure has blown out to $1.8 billion.
Kennedy says the blowout was part of a strategy to reach as many people as possible. Large audiences are appealing to broadcasters because they often attract major advertisers.
“Broadcasters were looking to acquire attractive content which they could use to shore up and consolidate their audiences. The strategy hasn’t succeeded. In fact, the fragmentation [of audience] is worse now than it was and there are diminishing returns to paying more and more for content that fewer and fewer people are watching,” he says. “Before there was a competition for the rights to be given to the big player on the block, but they now realise that’s actually not possible. What [broadcasters] are now looking at instead is reducing cost base. And of course, that’s pretty bad news for the rights holders.”
Analysis conducted by Venture Insights in February said Foxtel and free-to-air broadcasters had reached “peak sport” – they had little or no ability to further increase their spending on sports rights. In the months after the report was published, the financial situation for some broadcasters turned bad, fast. Broadcasters had no choice but to cut costs and the suspension of sports gave them a chance to return to the negotiating table. Kennedy says the days of billion-dollar deals are over – more so now because of the pandemic.
“If you look at the financial capacity of the industry, it just isn’t there anymore. If you look at free-to-air advertising receipts over the last couple of years, growth there is negative. In fact, the decline is accelerating and the cupboard is bare. They just don’t have the money to pay those sorts of prices anymore.”
Some broadcasters were successful in renegotiating deals. The AFL, NRL and Australian Olympics Committee were able to secure new deals with their partners – Foxtel, Nine and Seven respectively. The broadcasters received a reduction in the amount they paid for this year and in some cases extended their relationship without an increase in the total amount paid.
But some sports are so dependent on income from broadcasters that they are reluctant to renegotiate. One of the best examples of this is Seven West Media’s attempt to renegotiate its contract with Cricket Australia. Seven secured the cricket rights as part of a $1.2 billion deal with Foxtel in 2018. Within a year it was forced to write down most of the value of the Big Bash League. Its performance was so poor, Seven offered the rights back to Network Ten before the pandemic took hold. Seven, which has a $481 million debt pile, wants to secure a revised deal and has suggested it is willing to walk away altogether if it can’t.
The pandemic also changed the dynamic for streaming services. Without its 23.5 per cent spike in subscribers which occurred because of the pandemic, Stan would not have been able to launch a sports proposition and secure its new $100 million deal with rugby union. If Stan Sport wasn’t announced, Foxtel would not be trying to lock in as many contracts (including an AFL extension) to deter a rival. Nine Entertainment will look to secure rights across television and streaming in the way Marks predicted in 2017. With streaming services such as Kayo Sports, Optus Sport and Amazon Prime in the mix, sports codes will have more choice when renegotiating broadcast deals.
Most media executives and analysts are not anticipating a large fall in the price of rights beyond this year but they are also not expecting any further spikes.
Media companies will become more focused on the value they get for the price they pay and exclusivity of games will be crucial. “It’s unlikely any free-to-air network would ever consider paying for any sports rights if the digital/streaming rights are not included – the key would be to pay for all the rights once and monetise them across as many platforms as possible,” Morningstar analyst Brian Han says.
The changes to our sports all flow down from that changed relationship. “Sports are going to need to look at their cost bases too,” Kennedy says. “There’s been a hell of a lot of gravy in the last 10 years and that is ending now.”
Cricket’s response, like rugby league’s and rugby union’s, was to replace top management. In the process, each also reduced their head office costs and headcount by significant degrees – Cricket Australia’s employee numbers have been cut from 320 to 270 – a reduction in sporting bureaucracies across the board that will outlive the pandemic.
“Globally, traditional media is under threat and traditional ways of paying for elite sports have been challenged,” cricket’s Eddings says. “We have to think of different ways of reaching our audience. For instance, Netflix might have been seen as a rival to traditional media, but the emergence of Stan Sports suggests that we might see a streaming service as a strategic partner rather than a rival. There will be clear winners and losers, and if you rely on traditional models, you will be one of the losers. There were innovations that we might have been thinking could happen over the next three or four years. But due to the accelerating effect of the pandemic, they really have to happen now.”
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Malcolm Knox is a journalist, author and columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Zoe Samios is a media and telecommunications reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.