The Year in Review: Sport

2020 – The year sport paused but battled on

By Craig Ray 29 December 2020

BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA - OCTOBER 10: General view of empty stadium during the Super Rugby Unlocked match between Toyota Cheetahs and Phakisa Pumas at Toyota Stadium on October 10, 2020 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. (Photo by Frikkie Kapp/Gallo Images)

Only World Wars have done to modern sporting events, leagues and tournaments what the global coronavirus pandemic did to sport in 2020 – forced most of its biggest events to pause.

If 2020 showed us anything about the global sporting industry, it revealed its resilience, but also its fragility. Like so many other industries that were hobbled by the global pandemic, the sports sector was not immune to the disaster that unfolded and it will take years to recover. In some cases, there might be no recovery at all.

Across the planet, once the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, sport was forced into retreat. What started out as a year of hope and potential growth, ended up being a year of survival and battle.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were postponed to 2021 – something that last happened as a result of World War 2. The 2020 European Football Championships were also postponed for a year while football leagues in France and the Netherlands were called off without the full 2019/20 campaigns being completed.

In tennis, Wimbledon 2020 was cancelled altogether while in golf, The 2020 Open was also cancelled. Two of sports biggest, most iconic events, were simply scrubbed off the calendar. There will forever be an asterisk next to those tournaments as a consequence of Covid-19.

The Masters was postponed from April to November, the first time ever since its 1935 inception while we had the odd sight of major sporting events played to the sound of echoes in cavernous, empty stadiums when they returned.

Wimbledon cancelled: Federer and Williams denied a realistic swansong

The absence of fans and their guttural, tribal roars have been replaced by the sound of players shouting, the thwack of a ball, or the thud of a boot. That was the soundtrack to sport for the last part of 2020. And it might be on repeat for the first half of 2021 as well.

Lost income and survival

Players lost contracts and livelihoods, teams folded and tournaments and competitions were suspended or cancelled altogether. Between March and July, the months of hardest global lockdown, sport went into a holding pattern. Only those with enough fuel in the form of reserve funds, or the ability to rework their business models, were able to survive with relatively little damage.

But everywhere there is damage. In a study released before the onset of Covid-19, the World Economic Forum calculated that the global sports market value would reach $471-billion in 2018 and that growth continued through 2019.

But it recalibrated that study this year, estimating that the value had dropped to $207-billion. The sports industry lost more than 50% of its value in the first half of 2020.

Even though the industry is expected to claw back some ground over the next three years, a 35% reduction in broadcast rights fees for major sports and more for smaller sports in that cycle is predicted. The damage is long-term and these models were based on ‘normalisation’ of sport by early 2021. That scenario remains unlikely so the downward spiral might not have reached the bottom yet.

Professional sport has three major funding models – broadcast rights fees, commercial rights income (sponsorships and advertising partnerships) and match-day revenue (ticket sales).

Generally speaking, organisations that run a league or competition, such as the English Premier League (EPL), the SA Rugby Union (SARU), the National Basketball Association (NBA) are paid by broadcasters.

Those entities then disperse the funds to the clubs that play in their league. But when there is no competition, they are technically in breach of their agreements and the broadcasters can withhold payments. The same applies to commercial arrangements while the effect of no ticket sales is self-evident.

With no actual sport, the wheels of the industry eventually stopped turning and it required positive negotiations from all sides to keep money flowing into sport.

In South Africa, SuperSport, which holds the rights to all cricket, football and rugby broadcasting, did not pull the plug on the sports and continued to pay its fees even when there was no sport being played. It was a crucial reason why rugby and football in particular (cricket derives more of its income from international broadcast rights) were able to ride out the worst months of the pandemic with relatively little damage.

It’s also why there was a massive rush to get tournaments and competitions back on fields, courts and arenas everywhere, even without fans. By playing again, the sports industry could at least derive income from two of its three core benefactors.

But the need to supply a ‘product’ to broadcasters and commercial partners, meant that sport bodies had to be innovative in how they would create bio-safe spaces for competitions to resume.

The bio-safe bio-bubble

In 2020 a new sporting term emerged – the ‘bio-bubble’. This was the all-purpose term used to describe an environment where sportspeople, coaches and various backroom staff were able to continue with their work while mitigating the spread of Covid-19.

There was a general acceptance that a bio-bubble could not be 100% safe, but that if there were positive Covid-19 cases, they could be contained relatively quickly, with minimal spread due to swift contact-tracing because participants were in a controlled environment.

The starting point for a successful bio-bubble was massive screening. In global sports events, millions of Covid-19 tests were carried out. Formula 1, which only started in August after the first half of the season was wiped out, conducted 76 000 Covid-19 tests alone.

Even the short and ill-fated England cricket tour to South Africa saw 600 tests conducted on approximately 100 people over three weeks.

The NBA managed to complete its season in one venue – Orlando’s Disney World – with relatively few positive tests. Other sports such as the EPL, golf tours, tennis and MotoGP could not keep participants in one venue, all the time. But they managed to mitigate major Covid-19 spread through strict protocols and lots of testing.

The fact that by September, almost every major sporting event was back on the field was a testament to some good planning and management and sheer desperation. Some did it better than others, but the ability to crisis manage has been one of the positive outcomes for the global industry.

Let the games begin

Against this backdrop, there was actual sport in 2020, albeit in a different guise as before.

The Australian Open in January, tennis’ first Grand Slam of the year, was played in front of crowds, but also through thick smoke. The worst recorded bushfires pulverised large swathes of Victoria and it took its toll on some players who battled to breathe when it was at its worst during qualifying. It was an ominous precursor of what was to come in 2020.

American Sofia Kenin won the women’s title for the first time in a tough three-set victory over Spain’s Garbine Muguruza. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic had to work even harder to claim his eighth men’s singles title in a five-set thriller over Austria’s Dominic Thiem.

In February Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal turned out in Cape Town for the charity Match in Africa at the Cape Town Stadium. The event, which included Trevor Noah and Bill Gates in a set of doubles, drew a record 51 954 crowd for a tennis match.

As lockdowns eased midway through the year, professional tennis resumed and Thiem captured his first Grand Slam when winning the US Open, while Rafa Nadal won a record 13th title at Roland Garros. At times in the final against Djokovic, he touched perfection, even taking the first set 6-0 over the world No 1.

Nadal touches perfection at Roland Garros

Poland’s Iga Swiatek was the surprise winner of the women’s French Open while Japan’s Naomi Osaka claimed her second US Open title.

The early part of the year also saw the Kansas City Chiefs win their second Super Bowl title with a come-from-behind victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Kansas quarterback Patrick Mahomes gave a brilliant fourth-quarter performance as the Chiefs rallied from 20-10 down to win 31-20. Mahomes was the game’s MVP.

That was practically the last major sporting event played in front of massive crowd as the cloud of Covid-19 gradually passed over the sports industry

The LA Lakers, led by LeBron James, won a record-equalling 17th NBA title to become the first team to win the title the year after failing to make the playoffs.

James was also one of sports strongest voices in the Black Lives Matter movement, as sport became a rallying point for anti-racism protests across the globe. The resurgence of the movement was sparked by the brutal killing of George Floyd by police, which was captured on video.

The most symbolic gesture that came out of the movement was for teams and players to drop to one knee before the start of play to express solidarity for BLM. Of course, it also became a controversial touch paper, especially when some players opted not to take a knee.

In South Africa it gave rise to tough questions about racism in sport, especially in cricket, where several former black players and coaches came forward with stories of discrimination, which they faced.  

Super Rugby, with South Africa’s Sharks winning six of their first seven games, was cancelled by March and resumed in various guises in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa later in the year. 

The Six Nations, which was suspended in March, eventually came to a November conclusion with England winning. The All Blacks meanwhile, may have suffered two losses out of the six Tests they played in 2020, but they still managed to retain the Bledisloe Cup and win a hastily revamped Tri-Nations played in Australia.  

The Springboks declined to travel to Australia because the longer-than-expected ban on the resumption of play meant that South African players were in no condition to compete at that level. It meant that Boks, who won the 2019 World Cup, did not play a single Test as world champions in 2020.

The Proteas cricket team enjoyed a One-Day International home series win over Australia following a difficult summer of on and off-field drama. The Proteas lost a Test series to England while Cricket South Africa (CSA) chief executive Thabang Moroe was suspended in late December 2019. That action started a chain of events that eventually led to the entire CSA board being ousted in October with an interim board put in place to root out the rot. Their work remains ongoing.

Tours to India and the West Indies were cancelled before England returned for six-white ball matches in late November and early December. England won the T20 3-0 but the ODI series failed to start because of a positive Covid-19 test and two false positives in the England camp saw the tourists refuse to play. It led to rancour between CSA and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) as England’s players exited the bio-bubble to play golf on eight occasions.

Slimmer, independent interim board to steer CSA to calmer waters

Back in March the South African women’s cricket team made it to the semi-finals of the T20 World Cup thanks to a thrilling group stage victory over favourites England. They fell at the penultimate hurdle against hosts and eventual winners Australia but showed massive improvement.

In football Liverpool dominated the EPL, eventually winning their first title in 30 years with seven games to spare. They were romping to the title when the season was suspended due to the pandemic and there were anxious moments that they wouldn’t be able to complete the job.

But eventually, the campaign restarted and Jürgen Klopp’s team duly completed what had been a four-year project under the inspirational German manager.

Bayern Munich won their eighth Bundesliga title in a row but more importantly won the Champions League for the first time in seven years. When the Bavarian hierarchy made the bold decision to appoint Hans-Dieter Flick as coach in late 2019, they couldn’t have wished for a better outcome as Bayern won 29 of his first 30 games in charge, including a record 11 games in the Champions League.

Coman the Heartbreaker puts paid to PSG as ruthless Bayern Munich win Champions League

The latter stages of the tournament were played in a Portugal-based bio-bubble and went off without any problems. Bayern beat Paris Saint Germain 1-0 in the final to add to the German Cup and Bundesliga titles.

Golf managed to stage three of its four men’s majors with Americans dominating. Collin Morikawa won the PGA Championship, Bryson DeChambeau captured the US Open by overpowering the Winged Foot course and Dustin Johnson set a record 20-under score on his way to winning an Autumn Masters.

In the women’s majors the feel-good story of the year came when 304th ranked German Sophia Popov won the Women’s British Open at Royal Troon. Just a few weeks before she had been caddying for a friend on the LPGA Tour.

Koreans dominated the other three majors with Miriam Lee, Kim Sei-young and Kim A-lim winning the ANA Championship, the PGA and the US Open respectively.

Brad Binder gave South Africa its first-ever MotoGP win when he captured the Czech Grand Prix at Brno in August. He was also named 2020 MotoGP rookie of the year.

Lewis Hamilton smashed records on his way to a seventh F1 world title while also becoming the flag bearer for the BLM movement in motorsports. He won a record 11 out of only 16 races in the year and moved past Michael Schumacher on the all-time winners’ list with 95 Grand Prix wins.

The 21-year-old Slovenian Tadej Pogačar became the second-youngest winner of the Tour de France with his dramatic victory over countryman Primož Roglič.

Pogačar’s performance on the penultimate individual stage up the famed 5.8km climb of Les Planche des Belle Filles was the stuff of folklore.

Pogačar trailed Roglič by 57 seconds before the time trial, which started with an undulating 30km before the brutal final climb to the finish. Pogačar not only made up the deficit but ended up taking almost another minute out of his fellow Slovenian to win his second stage and take the yellow jersey by just 59 seconds, after covering 3 484km.

The 2020 Comrades Marathon was another victim of the pandemic. It was cancelled for the first time in 75 years while the renowned Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race was also called off at the last minute.

2020 Comrades Marathon is cancelled, a first in 75 years

Gone but never forgotten

Sport lost several giants in 2020.

The year had barely started when tragedy struck – and it went downhill from there. Former basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gigi were two of nine people to die in a helicopter crash in January. Bryant was only 41.

Bryant won five NBA Championships, was an 18-time All-Star, the 2008 NBA MVP and also an Olympic gold medallist, as a member of the 2008 US team in Beijing.

Football lost two of its brightest lights and two men who defined two World Cups.

Italy’s Paolo Rossi, who was the star of the 1982 World Cup in Spain, which the Azzurri won, died in early December at the age of 64 due to lung cancer.

Rossi top-scored with six goals at the ’82 World Cup, including a memorable hat-trick against favourites Brazil in the second round.

In a contest considered one of, if not, the greatest World Cup match ever, Rossi’s killer scoring instincts sank a star-studded Brazilian team. Rossi scored two more goals in the semi-final against Poland and scored the first in the final against West Germany. Italy won the match 3-1 and took home the World Cup for the third time.

Rossi also won two Serie A titles with Juventus as well as the 1985 European Cup (now the Champions League) among several other titles.

In November, Argentina’s Diego Maradona died of a heart attack nearly three weeks after brain surgery to treat a subdural haematoma. He was only 60 years old.

Maradona was one of the greatest players of all time. He possessed every gift a footballer needed and then some. His ability to imagine passes others couldn’t even see and to have the skill to execute the pass was just one of his stand out traits.

He made his professional debut as a 15-year-old and lived a life in a media storm from then on. In between though, he became the greatest player of his, and perhaps any, generation.

Maradona led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup with a series of blistering performances that included controversy and brilliance. In the quarter-final against England he scored with his hand and minutes later, he danced through half the England team for what is considered the best-ever World Cup goal. It was the paradox of Maradona in a matter of minutes.

Club success at Napoli and another World Cup final in 1990 followed, but his personal life spiralled into a soap opera.

Maradona was far from a perfect human being, but as a footballer, he came as close to perfection as anybody before, or since.

Locally, two celebrated members of the rugby community were victims of Covid-19.

Celebrated commentator and former SA Schools rugby captain Kaunda Ntunja died after contracting the virus at the age of 38. It was a shocking loss to the rugby community. Ntunja had become the voice of isiXhosa commentary in South African rugby and his words that accompanied Siya Kolisi’s first entrance as Springbok captain in 2018, has already reached iconic status.

And days later legendary rugby historian, referee and journalist Paul Dobson also passed away at the age of 84. DM

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