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Sports Broadcasting in the era of COVID-19

* Written by Sanjeev Ramakrishnan



Introduction


The lockdowns imposed in almost all countries to contain the spread of Covid-19 brought the sporting sector to a grinding halt as the governing bodies of various sports leagues were required to cancel or postpone live matches. This article shall discuss the approaches taken by certain leagues and broadcasters to navigate through the crisis posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and shall also determine the effectiveness of the approaches they have adopted.


A Virtual Approach


Broadcasters such as ESPN and Star Sports are dependent on telecasting live sporting events to earn a major portion of their revenue. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a fall in the “viewership of sports channels by 67% and overall, the advertisement bookings reduced by 13% compared to the first half of 2019”[1]. Since many games were cancelled as a result of the pandemic, broadcasters argued that as per the force majeure clause, they were not obligated to honour their TV rights agreement with sports leagues. Thus, many leagues lost a large part of the revenue that they usually earn from broadcasting tournaments. For instance, the Australian Football League was on pace to lose two-thirds of its revenue.[2]

Hence, it is possible to construe that the cancellation and the postponement of live sporting events caused a significant dip in the viewership of sports channels in India and had a detrimental impact on the revenue of leagues and broadcasters.

In order to tackle the repercussions of the pandemic, boost the viewership of sports channels, and keep the respective fan bases engaged, several leagues and broadcasters began to broadcast archival footage of various tournaments.[3] For example, Ten Sports broadcasted old cricket and wrestling matches, and Star Sports broadcasted the footage of IPL matches that were hosted in the past decade.

A similar approach was adopted by the National Basketball Association (“NBA”), wherein it removed the paywalls of “NBA League Pass” and allowed its subscribers to view videos of archival matches.[4] Furthermore, the league streamed classic games and noteworthy performances of players on YouTube. A total of 65 videos were uploaded under the hashtag #NBATogetherLive and the videos posted include “OT Thriller in South Beach” and “Stockton leads Utah to Finals.”

Though the approaches followed by both the leagues were similar, it proved more effective in improving viewership for the broadcasters of the NBA than it did for those of the IPL due to the following reasons:

  1. Being a larger league, the NBA had hosted more than 50 seasons and thousands of games prior to the pandemic, allowing the league to pick and stream a classic game from many options. On the other hand, the IPL had hosted just 12 seasons with a little more than 200 games in total, due to which the league had fewer options vis-à-vis classic games.

  2. Many of the classic games that the NBA streamed were played in the 1980s and the 1990s, and the footage of these games are not easily available for viewing to the next-generation fan bases. However, since the IPL is a more recently founded league, the footage of the games that were re-broadcasted was not only easily available on online portals but was already viewed by a significant proportion of the fan bases.

  3. The NBA created chat rooms while streaming old footage of classic games on YouTube, which connected fans across the globe and allowed them to engage with each other while watching the matches. Whereas, re-broadcasting of old IPL matches on television did not provide any medium for the fans to engage and proved inefficient in improving viewership.

It is also important to acknowledge the role of the NBA in the release of “The Last Dance”, an award-winning 10-part documentary series that covered the career of one of the greatest NBA players of all-time - Michael Jordan.[5] The series was released in April 2020 when most live sporting events were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The documentary used rare footage of games owned by the NBA and Jordan to present his career and his last championship run with the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. Additionally, the interviews of players such as Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen were used in the documentary to provide a better perspective on playing alongside and/or against Jordan.

The Last Dance drew a positive response from the media, the basketball community and the fan bases for its direction and editing.[6] It allowed the next-generation fans to witness and experience the dominance of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the series is a “tremendously engaging, ridiculously fun assemblage of spectacular basketball footage and reasonably introspective interviews with almost everybody you'd hope to hear from on the subject".[7]


An Innovative Approach


The restrictions imposed and the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic emphasised the need to adopt innovative methods to help improve viewership, retain advertisers, and reduce the losses incurred. Here, I shall discuss the innovative measures adopted by the NBA to host live matches amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

The NBA devised an innovative and unique method in which players, coaches and other team personnel of 22 teams were brought together and isolated at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. The teams were asked to play their games behind closed doors at the ESPN World Wide Sports Complex. Only limited media members and team executives were allowed to watch games from the stands. All the teams and their members were required to adhere to strict guidelines throughout their stay at the “NBA Bubble.” They were asked to follow social distancing protocols, regularly tested for Covid-19, separate practice schedules, etc.

After three months of hosting games in the Bubble, the league was successful in crowning a champion, and no person in the Bubble tested positive for Covid-19. By hosting live sports amidst the pandemic, the league was able to earn a large part of its revenue from broadcasting games and was also able to retain most sponsors. However, the NBA was not able to make up for certain losses, most importantly, the revenue earned from the purchasing of tickets and the in-game spending, which account for almost 40% of the league’s annual revenue.[8] Though the league faced some losses, it was able to operate inside the Bubble for almost a hundred days and host live games, a feat that no other league was able to accomplish. The NBA Bubble also motivated leagues like the IPL to use a similar strategy to host live matches during the pandemic.[9] Therefore, it would be fair to say that the NBA Bubble is a huge success story.


Conclusion


In this article, I have discussed the effectiveness of methods adopted by leagues and broadcasters to deal with the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic. With relaxed guidelines and promising vaccine candidates that are effective against the Covid-19 virus, leagues have begun to make use of available resources to host live sporting events at different venues with a limited number of fans in the stands. However, it is evident that it may take another couple of years to host full-fledged live games with fans in the stands. Therefore, to reduce the losses incurred, retain advertisers, and keep the respective fan bases engaged, leagues and broadcasters must adopt innovative methods such as the one adopted by the NBA to host live sports events amidst the pandemic.


*The author is a Law Scholar from Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.


(The image used here is for representational purposes only)




References:

[1] Laghate, Gaurav. (2020, July 9). TV viewership: Sports’ loss is news genre’s gain in first half of 2020. The Economic Times, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/media/entertainment/tv-viewership-sports-loss-is-news-genres-gain-in-first-half-of-2020/articleshow/76877675.cms?from=mdr

[2] Maqbool, Rafiq. (2020, September 2). How COVID caused chaos for cricket-and may force a rethink of all sport broadcasting deals. The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/how-covid-caused-chaos-for-cricket-and-may-force-a-rethink-of-all-sport-broadcasting-deals-145246

[3] Mehrotra, Aahna & Pandey Pratyush. (2020, December 1). India: Impact of Covid-19 On The Business Of Sports. Mondaq, https://www.mondaq.com/india/sport/1010088/impact-of-covid-19-on-the-business-of-sports

[4] Patel, Sahil. (2020, 18 March). Sports Leagues Offer Free Streaming of Older Games Amid Coronavirus Shutdown. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/sports-leagues-offer-free-streaming-of-older-games-amid-coronavirus-shutdown-11584579826#:~:text=The%20NBA%20and%20Turner%20Sports,classic%20games%20and%20other%20programming

[5] ESPN. (2020). The Last Dance: The untold story of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. https://www.espn.in/nba/story/_/id/28973557/the-last-dance-updates-untold-story-michael-jordan-chicago-bulls

[6] Daniels, Robert. (2020, January 18). TV Review: Michael Jordan Takes No Prisoners in ESPN's Incredible Docuseries The Last Dance. Consequence. https://consequenceofsound.net/2020/04/tv-review-the-last-dance-michael-jordan/

[7] Fienberg, Daniel. (2020, April 14). The Last Dance: TV Review. The Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/last-dance-review-1290260

[8] Uhler, Andy. (2020, August 14). NBA bubble has been a success, but how are the league’s finances? Marketplace. https://www.marketplace.org/2020/08/14/nba-bubble-covid-19-playoffs-league-costs-disney-world-orlando-tv-contracts-ratings/

[9] Scroll. in. (2020). How smart rings, like the ones in NBA, monitor health inside the bio bubble of a sporting event. https://scroll.in/field/973477/how-smart-rings-like-the-ones-in-nba-monitor-health-inside-the-bio-bubble-of-a-sporting-event.