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Sporting events under COVID-19: Innovation needed to work around obstacles, say experts

Sporting events under COVID-19: Innovation needed to work around obstacles, say experts

Empty feeling: Only 1,000 fans a day are allowed in to Roland Garros AFP/Thomas SAMSON

SINGAPORE: While events like the Olympics have been put on hold and football matches are being held without fans in attendance, there remains a demand for sporting events in the pandemic world, experts told CNA.

To meet that demand, organisers will need to leverage tools such as virtual reality to be successful, they said.

Speaking to CNA, Mr Chris Robb, who has authored a book on mass participation sporting events, noted that the demand for sports has grown during the pandemic.

"(There’s) absolutely no doubt in my mind that there's going to be a higher demand. People are craving for live sport to go and watch their teams, people are craving to participate in mass participation (events),” he said.

In particular, Mr Robb pointed to the “phenomenal” growth of running and cycling.

“You know, people are rediscovering these fundamental things of running and cycling and I believe that that's going to transfer into this massive demand of people participating in events and the analogy that I'm using is the running boom of the 70s and 80s, (when) running first exploded,” he explained.

However, he noted that the pandemic has hit the sports industry hard and there may not be enough events to support this growing demand. This is because of the constantly evolving nature of the pandemic and the lack of a “one size fits all” approach to organising events.

“I think it's a long path back. It's gonna be a real roller coaster - the commercial models are broken in almost every instance,” he said.

“You're going to have high-profile disappearances, big companies are going to go out of business in the sports industry,  teams are going to disappear."

As such, there is a need to innovate, and the pandemic has given organisers and sports teams this opportunity, said Mr Robb.

“There are some people that are saying: this presents an opportunity for us to start afresh. If we're creating our event tomorrow, how would we do it? They've got this amazing opportunity to have this blank canvas and have a complete reset,” he noted.

“So I think some people have been kind of bold and courageous and saying let's kind of start afresh, others are sort of saying well we've always done it this way. Let's adjust here ... and see what we come up with at the other end.”

READ: IOC gets official look at simplification for Tokyo Olympics

Mr R. Sasikumar, who is the founder of sports marketing agency Red Card Global, said that one way event organisers can innovate is to make use of virtual reality technology.

“It's a very interesting time ... because they really, really need to pivot and think about new ways to replace the match day revenue, because I think that's the big one that's missing. That's the big gap,” he said.

“The thing about human beings, we always evolve. Eventually, we find a way. And that's why our species as a whole, we survive. So business is the same - eventually, we'll find a way to replace what is lost. So people are already thinking about how to recreate the whole stadium atmosphere, at the comfort of your house, which now people are experimenting with virtual reality.”

Mr Sasikumar gave the example of Kpop group BTS’ virtual concert in June, which saw over 750,000 paid viewers.

“They have already experimented and shown the rest of the sports and entertainment world that this is the direction to take - if you don't get there fast, or soon enough, you're going to fail to exist,” said Mr Sasikumar.


Mr Sasikumar noted that it would remain difficult to have such international events held in Singapore, as it would involve a large group of competitors, entourages and spectators entering the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a number of sporting tournaments slated to be held in Singapore in 2020 cancelled. These include the International Champions Cup football tournament as well as the annual Singapore Grand Prix.

READ: 2020 Singapore Grand Prix cancelled due to 'continuing nationwide restrictions' brought about by COVID-19 pandemic

But he noted that the pandemic can provide countries which have managed COVID-19 cases relatively well to host “local-centric” events, said Mr Sasikumar.

“To think ‘insular’ is the way to go in the sense that if you are catering to your demographic it is okay … In Singapore, I think it is a prime example, we should let people back into the stadium, because I think we have the community cases under control,” Mr Sasikumar said.

The organising of these events should be subject to the standard measures such as wearing masks and safe distancing, he pointed out.

“I think Singapore can take a lead on sports events. We can actually set a very good example on how to do this,” he explained. “On the positive (side), I think we've got a really good opportunity to now maybe even create a playbook for the others to follow.”


Despite the various obstacles, some event organisers are pressing on. For one, this year's Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon will involve a "unique alternative race format" with virtual and possibly "physical components", its event organiser said last month.

Speaking to CNA, Mr Geoff Mayer who is the managing director of event organiser Ironman Group, said that mass participation sports and events like the marathon have an important role to play in the “community fabric”. 

READ: StanChart marathon to allow virtual participation; race format to be confirmed

“As such, we sought to find innovative ways to forge ahead with the race, and show the way forward for the industry. We have been able to work with sponsors, partners and government agencies to offer an alternative experience that would still excite and engage the community,” said Mr Mayer.

Over 10,000 people have already registered for the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon Virtual Club (VC) platform since it was launched, pointed out Mr Mayer.

The platform, which is free to join, includes weekly races and challenges, an online store with redeemable rewards, training and nutritional resources, and performance tracking.

“In the past SCSM has attracted a sizable pool of overseas participants,” he added. “The SCSM VC platform and an alternative year-end race format will continue to allow and open up opportunities for more runners around the world to join the race from wherever they are at, at their own time, even amidst the travel restrictions.”

More details will be announced in due course, including virtual ways for spectators to show their support for the event this year, said Mr Mayer, who also noted that running has seen a “surge” in popularity as people seek an outlet to manage the COVID-19 situation.

“Sporting events have been and will always be an integral part of our society, providing people with a common shared experience to bond and connect through their passions and interests,” he said.

“We hold hope that large-scale sports events will return after the pandemic but meanwhile, the industry will need to be agile and adapt as the situation changes, innovate and adopt new formats and ways to deliver value to participants, spectators, sponsors and partners.”

The CNA Leadership Summit 2020: Navigating the Post-Pandemic World will discuss through a series of TV programmes and webinars how businesses and organisations have reacted to the pandemic and applied innovative practices.

More details are available at:

Source: CNA/mt


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