Jack Anderson: Sport should know when to fold 'em and walk away

Last week, it was easier to list those sports that were still going rather than those who had stopped, writes Jack Anderson.

Standing Apart: Jockeys Rachael Blackmore, Phillip Enright, Davy Russell, and Paul Townend maintain social distancing in the parade ring ahead of the Pierce Molony Memorial Novice Chase at Thurles on Saturday. Horse racing is just about the only sport in Ireland still operating at present. 	Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Standing Apart: Jockeys Rachael Blackmore, Phillip Enright, Davy Russell, and Paul Townend maintain social distancing in the parade ring ahead of the Pierce Molony Memorial Novice Chase at Thurles on Saturday. Horse racing is just about the only sport in Ireland still operating at present. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Worldwide it seemed that there were only three types of professional sport left operating — some of the football codes in Australia, such as the AFL; horse racing in Ireland and a limited number of jurisdictions elsewhere; and still, potentially, the Olympics in July.

All three categories offered various reasons as to why they sought to remain active in a pandemic-threatened world.

The AFL’s argument was that by quarantining players, they could continue to play games, albeit behind closed doors. 

Indeed, the AFL completed its first round of games this weekend, though the announcement yesterday afternoon of inter-state travel restrictions means that the season is suspended until May. 

The AFLW competition, featuring many Irish Gaelic footballers, was simply abandoned at the semi-final stage.

Given the monopoly of attention that the AFL had at the weekend, it is unsurprising that the TV audiences were massive.

For many, the ability to watch ‘Friday night footy’ gave some degree of comfort or normalcy, at least for an hour or two.

Playing the games inside empty stadiums — the MCG in Melbourne can hold 100,000 — gave the impression of games played in a concrete, industrial wasteland. 

The language on the field from the players, which echoed in the hollowness, was equally industrial. 

The TV companies appeared happy enough to have something to broadcast and were equally happy that there was a 10-second delay on the live broadcast.

The social good and routine associated with sport in Australia, as elsewhere, had however to be balanced against the fact that as Australians’ lives and their nation’s economy had no choice but to contract in the last week, football elected to forge ahead.

Aggravating this was the fact that while the AFL played on, Australia state governments struggled to get across the message on the need for social distancing; for instance, an otherwise packed Bondi Beach in Sydney had to be forcibly closed by police on Friday.

For all the reminders by the AFL that players would be operating in a sanitised environment and that they would, for instance, be encouraged only to elbow bump in celebration of a goal; AFL as a contact sport is clearly not a game premised upon social distancing.

The problem for the AFL last week, and now for any sport, such as racing in Ireland, that insists on going ahead, is that by doing so it is giving a similarly sloppy message on social distancing to its wider public.

Until last weekend, the feeling in many parts of Australia towards the virus could be encapsulated in Australian slang — she’ll be right.

Even the most powerful of Australian sporting codes realised yesterday that it won’t be right and for quite some time.

For horse racing in Ireland and in Australia where the sport continues behind closed doors — the richest two-year-old race in the word, the Golden Slipper, took place in Sydney on Saturday — the argument is similarly that precautions can be taken to allow it continue and that a total shutdown would have a grave impact on the wider industry and the employment it sustains —- 29,000 jobs in Ireland alone, according to research commissioned by Horse Racing Ireland.

Nevertheless, and even amongst the largely sympathetic sporting public in Ireland and Australia, there is the view that the real reason that racing is continuing is the fact that it is an adjunct to the betting industry.

While last week Irish racing was uniquely the focus of the racing tips of the day segment on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme — Thurles replacing Taunton — it again reinforced the feeling that you don’t really, well, have to wager a guess as to why racing carries on.

Revenues derived from betting activity are vital to the viability of racing in Ireland and Australia and similarly the reluctance of some tracks in the US to shut down is revenue-related, but it is also one of relevancy. 

Since a US Supreme Court case in 2018, all states in the US have been given the right to legalise gambling on sport. Where once horse racing was in effect the only sport in the US on which you could bet legally, outside of places such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City; now punters can bet, and are betting, in large numbers on the major league sports such a football, basketball and baseball.

Many horse tracks in the US have already conceded that the only way to keep racing going is to turn the facilities and stands at tracks into gambling and casino hubs — the parade ring of horses being replaced by a plasma ring of screens for punters.

In the third category, the International Olympic Committee has adopted a policy of wait and see and hope that the world might have stared down the coronavirus by July when the Games are due to begin in Tokyo.

The policy has been increasingly questioned by athlete representatives worldwide and the CEO of Sport Ireland, John Treacy, has rightly also called for a postponement.

It is a difficult time for athletes seeking to qualify, and it would, of course, be great if the Olympics could go ahead because it would be a sign that that the virus is on retreat, but it all seems rather unrealistic now.

The tumult of the 20th century meant that only five countries have been represented at every Summer Olympics — Greece, Great Britain, France, Switzerland, and Australia.

If the Games were to take place this month or next, no athlete from those five would be present, and in all five the lockdown has tightened over the weekend.

Last week, the president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, sounded a bit like King Canute trying to hold back the tides and soon even the Olympic movement will see “how empty and worthless is the power” of its rings.

Bring it back home for a moment and imagine if back in 1992 the wishes of the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Gay Mitchell — that the city might host an Olympics — had come true and they were scheduled for July.

Would it be reasonable for anyone to ask Ireland this week to accept an influx of 11,000 athletes, officials and thousands of fans in a couple of months’ time? 

They’d be told take a hop, skip and a jump and rightly so.

Outside of the Olympics, all professional sports have turned to thinking about how they can financially survive a hiatus of no fixed duration.

For most, the coronavirus has rapidly turned from a cashflow issue to one that is eroding the very revenue base on which these sports survive.

This financial insecurity is understandable in less well-resourced leagues and clubs but it is less comprehensible to see such swift instability at the elite level — the NRL here in Australia and the Championship in England being prime examples.

Some clubs in the NRL and Championship seem to operate as if part of the gig economy. 

In the real gig economy workers operate from task to task but for some professional clubs they seem similarly, if much more wastefully, to operate from TV deal to TV deal.

While government support for causal workers is welcome and needed, the case for professional sport clubs to be assisted, especially at the highest level, is difficult to justify.

The collective groan that greeted leading NRL administrator Peter V’Landys when, in pleading for government support, he announced that an “Australia without rugby league is not Australia” would have silenced any other sports administrator, but the already tone deaf V’landys carried on regardless.

As many countries lock down for at least the next two months, many of us who can are working online. 

Sport is doing the same. Esports, competitive computer gaming, is filling the gap left by traditional sports.

On Friday, Formula One announced that given the virus-affected opening to the season, it would be launching a new F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, featuring a number of current drivers.

And where there is sport, virtual or otherwise, there is gambling and, probably for the first time, esports wagering, featured recently on the front page of the Racing Post.

Finally, while sport has generally been postponed or cancelled, there are a hardy few who, even in the face of ever tightening public health-led restrictions, play on.

They would do well to heed the words of one of Kenny Rogers’ most famous songs, called, appropriately, The Gambler.

Some sports such as Irish racing say that they must continue to hold meetings because otherwise many in the industry might fold but really now’s the time to walk away; there’ll be time enough for countin’ when this Covid-19 deal is done.

And that deal is far from done.

Stay safe.

Jack Anderson is professor of sports law at the University of Melbourne.

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