Global Sport Technology

Sport, but not how we know it

After months of waiting, some sports are finally coming back into our lives. The Premier League is kicking off on the 17th June, Test Cricket will start again on the 8th July with England taking on the West Indies, and other sports such as rugby union have started allowing their players back to train again with the intention of starting again in August. With lots of questions surrounding how these sports are going to work in a (nearly) post Covid-19 era, we are looking ahead at the new rules and regulations coming into action in order to keep everyone safe.

The biggest change, although obviously not a rule change, will be the fact that nearly all of these sports will be played behind closed doors. It has been hard enough for governing bodies to secure players’ safety, let alone having to think about tens of thousands of fans pouring into arenas. Playing without fans will, without a doubt, totally change the atmosphere of a match. But, other than New Zealand, who are bringing fans back into stadiums already, closed door events are going to be the new normal for the foreseeable future. Cardboard cut-outs of fans have been used to replicate a crowd (not without controversy), but creative use of the existing big screens is likely to be the most feasible and cost-effective option.

There is also going to be a considerable difference between team and individual sports, contact and non-contact sports and how they’re reinvented. Snooker and horse racing have already started up again behind closed doors and golf is coming soon. These are sports in which most of the government guidelines can be observed. But sports where contact is essential still have a lot of work to do.

In football, Project Restart, which has had input from all 20 Premier League clubs, has concluded that it is safe to continue with the season, as long as clubs and players adhere to a strict health and safety protocol. One of the big changes being made is that now teams will be able to make five substitutions, instead of three, and will also be able to name nine substitutes instead of the usual seven, which has been introduced to protect players welfare. Clubs have also agreed on paper to the use of neutral venues, although the majority of matches are expected to be played in their usual grounds, barring local spikes in coronavirus cases.

World Rugby have approved 10 optional law trails in order to reduce the risk of Covid-19 being transmitted within the sport. This includes reducing the number of scrums during a match, removing the choke tackle, limiting numbers in the maul and speeding up rucks. They have also said that a number of additional hygiene procedures will be introduced to both training and matches, again to stop the spread of the virus. Application of the measures, however, will be at the discretion of individual unions and so will not be strictly regulated from above.

Players and umpires in cricket will still need to practice social distancing both on and off the pitch. Players are not allowed to use saliva to shine the ball and should use a hand sanitiser once they have had contact with the ball, and umpires should consider wearing gloves to handle the ball to prevent any germs being passed around. These amendments to the sport have not come as a surprise and should be easy to follow. The upcoming Test series is being played at Old Trafford and the Ageas Bowl as both grounds have hotels where both the players and officials can stay during the matches. So therefore, with no contact to the outside world, it should make the sport safe for everyone involved.

In other sports boxers have been said to be back in the gym and the British & Irish Boxing Authority (BIBA) issued guidelines ahead of proposed ‘Behind Closed Doors’ Events looking to take place in early July. All of these events will be limited to a maximum of 5 contests and limited to a maximum of 6 rounds with only a Referee, Supervisor and Time Keeper in attendance. PPE will be worn throughout the event by the ringside officials and others in attendance even during the fight. They will be undertaking testing ahead of the events for all people taking part as well as regular taking of temperatures of those in attendance at the venue, however otherwise everything will be the same.

It will be fascinating to see how these amendments to the rules and regulations change our perception of favourite sports. What will be the impact in both the short and long term? For many sports the loss of revenue from broadcasting (sales of media rights), commercial (sponsorship and advertising partnerships) and match day revenue (ticketing and hospitality) had become virtually an existential challenge. It was essential for many sports to salvage what they could, as soon as they could, or face economic ruin.