Nations race to become global sporting leaders

May 30, 2020 | 10:00
The importance of sport as an avenue for social interaction, relaxation, and to maintain mental and physical wellbeing has never been as profound as in today’s world. With that, countries including Vietnam are exploring all the options available in order to kick-start competition.
1943p24 nations race to become global sporting leaders
F1’s global touring schedule does not mesh well with international airline shutdowns, Photo: Le Toan

In these times of strict lockdowns and social distancing measures across the world, people from all walks of life have had to get their sporting kicks from new, and often downright bizarre, sources. While some true sporting events have taken place across the world in the past month or so, many fans can’t bring themselves to stream football games from the likes of Belarus or the Faroe Islands. However, they have in part turned to online “sports” seemingly created for quarantine.

Among the unconventional events going viral are Russian competitive slapping, wife carrying from Finland, and marble racing from the Netherlands, which has gotten such huge coverage that American sports channel ESPN is broadcasting it, and popular HBO show Last Week Tonight has decided to be its main sponsor.

Experts and fans alike say that the clamour to watch simply anything competitive is clear evidence that the human race wants and needs conventional sports to get back up and running as quickly, and as safely, as possible. As countries across the world are at varying stages in the coronavirus pandemic, some are playing the part of guinea pig to find out what does and does not work in terms of logistics and safety of sporting competitors.

In Asia, places with stellar pandemic control such as Taiwan and South Korea have restarted their football leagues, albeit in eerie and empty stadiums. And in Europe, the German Bundesliga is by far the biggest football league to have kicked off again. In order to do so, a raft of strict safety measures have been put in place, from a ban on hand-shaking and sharing meals and team buses, to making players dress and shower at home instead of in the stadiums.

Here in Vietnam the V-League is slated to resume on June 5, although as yet there is no confirmation on whether fans will be allowed into the stadiums to watch their team.

A delicate ecosystem

Dr. Leigh Jones, an immunologist based in Vietnam, last week spoke to Soccer HUB on Asian football after COVID-19. “The reaction of each country in restarting football depends on how each of them are coping, and also in testing facilities. Players will likely have to be tested frequently, and Germany and South Korea are already doing this,” Dr. Jones said. “Vietnam would have to make sure that either they have enough tests to do that, or are happy that community transmission will remain so low that they don’t need to go down the regular testing route.”

Compared to the riches of the Bundesliga or the English Premier League, national leagues in Southeast Asia are in a more precarious financial situation. In Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the huge fanbases are there but fan engagement is often lacking and TV deals for clubs in these nations are not in the same stratosphere as the top European leagues.

“In England they look more to their sponsorship and media revenue, that’s where their money is mainly coming from,” said Richard Harcus, CEO of Harcus Consultancy Group in Vietnam. “Whereas in Southeast Asia it’s usually local TV networks and larger media companies such as FOX Asia. Merchandising in this region is on the increase as people have a need to feel closer to their teams.”

Harcus added that football in Southeast Asia is “a delicate ecosystem” that has had many teething problems over the years. “It wasn’t that long ago that people were being paid to go to football matches in Vietnam because TV revenue was only going to pay a certain amount depending on how many fans were actually in the stadium. Now, the V-League is working hard with a new strategy to rebrand and bring more fans to the games, which it actually started before COVID-19.”

While Harcus does not want to disrespect the damage caused by the virus by insisting it is full of opportunities for sport in Asia, he admits its part of his job to do so. “As a whole on the commercial side in the region, I think clubs are going to make more money because fans are desperate to get back to games. South Korea has benefited greatly because Europeans were desperate to watch football – countries can sell their product to people who wouldn’t usually watch it and I certainly hope that Vietnam will be able to capitalise on that.”

Another major sport with great interest to Vietnam this year is Formula 1 racing. Disappointment reigned in Hanoi earlier in 2020 when the pandemic forced the suspension of the first-ever Vietnam Grand Prix, which was due to take place on April 3-5.

Mercedes star Lewis Hamilton was due to begin the defence of his sixth F1 championship in Australia but that and all subsequent races were either postponed or cancelled altogether.

The Vietnam Grand Prix could theoretically still happen in the next year, although there are a myriad of issues. Race bosses are first looking to start the event calendar in July with the Austrian Grand Prix, followed by completing the 12 other races that were already scheduled.

Options include rescheduling events to fit the calendar, or hosting two races on the same track in certain countries, such as Silverstone in the United Kingdom.

Vaccine dependent

However, the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is waiting on a decision on whether certain sports will be granted exemptions from government plans to impose a 14-day quarantine on entry into the UK. DCMS is arguing in favour of F1 personnel being given dispensation to travel freely, subject to specific requirements. If the quarantine restrictions were imposed it would make the British GP untenable and planning any calendar difficult.

With the decision looming, F1 made its position clear on Tuesday. “If all elite sport is to return to TV, then exemptions must be provided,” a spokesperson said. “A 14-day quarantine would make it impossible to have a British Grand Prix this year. Additionally, it has a major impact on literally tens of thousands of jobs linked to F1 and supply chains.”

Formula Money, the sport’s industry monitor, posted a series of tweets last week on its stance on resumption of F1 races, especially street races like Hanoi. “It is clear that COVID-19 won’t be fully eradicated so having spectators at sports depends on a vaccine. How long will that take to test thoroughly, fund production for large enough quantities, convince people it is safe, and vaccinate the majority of countries?”

The monitor also noted that without spectators, F1 stands to lose between $600 million and $1 billion in annual revenues. “This threatens all of the teams,” it said. “Street races in particular seem impossible – their business model is designed around drawing in spectators who drive economic impact.”

F1 boss Chase Carey said, “We expect the early races to be without fans but hope fans will be part of our events as we move further into the schedule. The health and safety of all involved will continue to be first priority and we will only go forward if we are confident we have reliable procedures to address both risks and possible issues.”

In the meantime, options are nevertheless beginning to open up for fans of any kind of competition. Despite severe coronavirus damage in the United States, the state of Florida eased restrictions in such a way that both UFC mixed martial arts events and WWE pro wrestling have continued to broadcast live events throughout the crisis.

With social distancing now the order of the day, golf is also one such suitable sport that could see a rise in interest, with its open spaces and lack of intense social interaction.

And for those unable to yet leave their homes, there is always the option to watch famous sports stars compete as themselves in video game tournaments on YouTube.

By Quang Bao

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