Image Description: A humble few basketball fans sit scattered around a court, waiting for a game.
For many North Americans, the first signs of COVID-19 impacting them actually came via the NBA. What was supposed to be an ordinary Wednesday night of basketball suddenly turned into breaking news when Utah Jazz superstar Ruby Gobert tested positive for the virus. Immediately after this news, league commissioner Adam Silver called for an indefinite, league-wide suspension. What added salt to wound was that Gobert had joked about potentially having the virus just a day before his diagnosis; meanwhile, the virus spread to several of his Jazz teammates, including All-Star Donovan Mitchell. This fiasco was certainly of no help to the NBA’s image going into the countrywide lockdown.
Eventually, the world’s premier basketball league returned on 30th June, inviting all 22 teams not yet eliminated from playoff contention for a round-robin tournament, followed by a regular playoff format. The catch? All of the teams played at a neutral, fan-free setting in Orlando’s Disneyworld, with customised facilities and hotel rooms for all participating players.
Though many people compared the look of the games on TV to YMCA scrimmages, the committee attempted to create an “authentic” ambience. They took a variety of approaches, from showing fans on Zoom through big screens around the gym to utilising sound effects from the NBA 2K20 video game! Nevertheless, the NBA’s television ratings implied that people just weren’t buying it. The league’s Neilsen ratings had dropped by 40% from just two years ago, and the Finals series between the Lakers and Heat garnering the lowest ratings for an NBA Finals in over 35 years – the league had been hit especially hard by the pandemic. However, many speculate that the NBA’s viewership decline also finds its roots in politics. At the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, the NBA confirmed a league-wide allegiance to the cause, with teams kneeling during the national anthem and players writing messages of social justice in place of their names on the backs of their jerseys. It constitutes a move said to have alienated many fans, and the consequent decline of the NBA might be viewed as symptomatic of the divisive political climate found in the United States today.
Elsewhere in the world, basketball’s other premier leagues didn’t reopen as quickly as the NBA. The EuroLeague (basketball’s equivalent to the UEFA Champions League) was suspended, as were all domestic European competitions. As with their football league, the Turkish federation took longer to eventually shut its doors, though this was supposedly on account of Istanbul club Andalou Efes leading the EuroLeague tables before its cancellation. With the Chinese CBA and Filipino PBA also suffering cancellation for the year, perhaps the saddest tale came from Africa, as the recently launched BAL (a pan-African basketball club tournament) was not able to commence its inaugural season due to the pandemic. From the NBA to the BAL, China to Chicago, Turkey to Tanzania, it seems that COVID-19 has prevented (or at least postponed) a potential worldwide growth in basketball.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
MMA entered the decade with thunderous momentum from the 2010s, with television viewership growing more than six-fold between 2010 and 2017. Further, thanks to the advent of celebrity figures like Anderson Silva and Conor McGregor, it seemed like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) had nowhere to go but up. That is, until the pandemic hit, and public consciousness came alive to the consequences of continuing such a physical, full-contact sport. COVID-19 also caused a Public Relations disaster for the UFC back in January of this year, in the build up to UFC 248. Before the strawweight showdown between Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Weili Zhang, the former stirred controversy when she posed in a gas-mask behind her Chinese opponent on the fight’s mock up poster. Jędrzejczyk’s insensitivity and trivialisation didn’t age well going into the spring of 2020, and it seemed the UFC would have a difficult time winning back fans.
Even during the peak of the pandemic, UFC President Dana White remained bent on bringing MMA back to live television post haste. His plan to continue with the UFC 249 event on 9thApril was met with harsh criticism, so much so that the government of California had to step in and convince the UFC’s broadcast partner, ESPN (Disney, inc.), to call off the event. Although White did back down, he remarked that this controversy is only helping his cause, as “any publicity is good publicity”.
Matters became even more serious in May, just before UFC 249 (the first sporting event to take place live during the pandemic), when Brazilian grappler Ronaldo “Jacaré” Souza tested positive for the virus along with his two cornermen. Despite the scare, UFC President Dana White announced that “the show will go on” after the other 23 participants all tested negative.
While White’s decisions were inherently risky, the UFC continued to host 3 more pay-per-view events to date, with no surge in cases coming as a result of the return. Rather, the real surge came in the form of viewership numbers! Since January 2019, the UFC has produced 19 pay-per-view cards under ESPN – three of the five most viewed have come during the COVID-19 era. What’s more, the latest iteration to date at the time of writing, UFC 252 on 15th August, was the first event to officially outperform MMA’s biggest market competitor: the headlining Miocic-Cornier fight outperformed Top Rank’s boxing ticket on the same day.
MMA is therefore one of the few sports to actually see a surge in viewership amid the pandemic – ironic, given the sport’s physical nature. But President White insisted that one of the main ways to keep up community morale during tough times is through continuing the entertainment industry. His move was a gamble, but so far it seems to have paid off.
It wasn’t just contact sports bearing the brunt of COVID-19 cancellations – one of the world’s most popular non-contact sports, and arguably the most socially distanced of them all, was also subject to various disruptions at both international and domestic levels. The greatest collective lament around the cricket community came with the news that the 2020 T20 World Cup in Australia would be postponed to 2021. The delay came as a particular blow to the defending champions, the West Indies, and their 40-year old leader, Chris Gayle, who was hoping to retire in style at the end of the tournament. Nonetheless, Gayle shared his plans to play for several more years, saying “45 is a good number. Let’s talk 45”.
While many cricket leagues closed their doors in March and April (mainly due to a surge of cases across South Asia), the richest of the lot, the Indian Premier League (IPL), announced that their season would run from September to November. The move was controversial, considering India’s rising number of COVID-19 cases. The solution? Play the tournament behind closed doors in the UAE, home to one of India’s largest diasporas.
Closer to home, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) were hard struck by the pandemic, as it meant the cancellation of their new startup league, “The Hundred”. The ECB wanted to take advantage of England’s breathtaking World Cup win last summer by implementing a new league to attract many of England’s football-mad youngsters. Unfortunately, the experiment will have to wait until 2021 at the very earliest.
As for women’s cricket, 2020 began as a dream, with a record-breaking 86,000 people coming to the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch Australia beat India in the T20 World Cup final. The pandemic, however, checked the momentum of women’s cricket, and few believe it will be able to build it back up again any time soon. The great shame finds itself in the lost opportunity for up-and-coming female players to shine in the game, such as teenage phenomenon Shafali Verma. Indian women’s captain Mithali Raj had this to say of the young prodigy: “It’s true that if these matches were to go ahead, a few more gems like Shafali Verma would have been unearthed,”. (Source: The Times of India, 2020; https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/sports/cricket/news/womens-cricket-remains-low-on-list-of-bccis-priorities/articleshow/77177049.cms)