Enabling sports events during Covid-19

he commercial pressure on sporting organisations, clubs and athletes to resume training and competitions has been growing significantly in recent months. Creative solutions such as those found for the English Premier League or the NBA may show the way forward.

Some global events such as the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo and the T20 Cricket World Cup in Australia have also been postponed as navigating the worldwide liability risks became too complex for organisers and governments involved.

The impact on the community and on professional sport has been enormous. Every part of the sporting value chain has been affected, from athletes, teams and leagues, to the media that broadcast and cover games. In 2018, the global sports market was valued at approximately $471 billion (USD), according to data from the World Economic Forum (opens a new window). Like other large industries in these uncertain times, and to achieve success as they rebound from the pandemic – sports (and athletes) need to develop their understanding of relevant risks, engage experts and be flexible in their planning. 

For the Premier League, where financial losses from cancelled games and potential lawsuits from broadcasters were threatening the viability of clubs – stakeholders were able to find a compromise. The same was accomplished for the NBA in basketball.


The solutions

Introducing social distancing rules for athletes in contact sports such as the rugby codes, football or basketball matches is of course impossible, but there are multiple other measures that leagues and their clubs can take to protect players, support staff and entertain fans without spreading the virus. 

England’s top football event returned in mid-June with Aston Villa facing Sheffield United after a long pandemic induced break since early March.

The most visible change in the Premier League is, of course, that matches are taking place without or with only limited crowds. Other measures may be less noticeable but by no means less important. 

As part of the strategy and to boost confidence among players, football clubs have introduced Covid-19 tests twice a week for athletes. Referees and assistants needed to pass two rounds of testing before the restart of the league. Further, clubs put in place a strict hygiene plan. 

The pitch and the area immediately around it is limited to a maximum of 110 people and to enter everyone must present a valid clinical passport, which shows they have tested negative within the last five days.

Pre-game handshakes, huddles, face-to-face confrontation with opponents and officials, and group scoring celebrations should of course be avoided. If a player needs treatment for an injury, the club’s medical staff needs to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). The number of player substitutions is limited. Athletes do also face travel restrictions and quarantine protocols. 

In Australia, the leading competitions for higher participation sports – such as Super Netball, National Rugby League (NRL) and the Australian Football League (AFL) – have decided to relocate and isolate teams. The New Zealand Warriors in the NRL for instance, have relocated more than 2,200 kilometres from Auckland to New South Wales for more than three months to continue in the competition.

The Australian Open tennis organisers have already released a plan (opens a new window) for a ‘bio-secure bubble’ system to be opened in five locations across the country, allowing players from around the world to get Down Under and bypass the nation’s quarantine measures.

In basketball, NBA players and coaches have also been isolated in a “bubble” away from their families to train and play. A reduced recovery time between games aims to maximise broadcast revenues. This may, however, lead to a higher rate of injury for players. In addition, experts have warned about an influx of hamstring, knee and ankle injuries as professional athletes and weekend warriors return to sporting fields. While they may have run or cycled to keep fit during the closure of training facilities this is no substitute for skills like tackling, kicking, sprinting and pivoting, according to the Australian Physiotherapy Association (opens a new window).

Potential mitigating action includes a gradual and controlled return to training through load monitoring, wellness type questionnaires as well as effective management of player rotation during matches, increasing the number of changes allowed, where efficiency in injury incidence needs to be analysed, according to experts (opens a new window).

An article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (opens a new window) suggests that athletes clinically recovered from a proved infection (even those with mild disease, without cardiac symptoms or hospital admission), may present a subclinical myocardial injury. The authors therefore recommend a medical evaluation before the athlete resumes trainings, eventually with exams as transthoracic echocardiogram, maximal exercise testing and 24-hour Holter monitoring to exclude subclinical disease.

To ensure the safety of players in all disciplines, coaches, participants and fans, all stakeholders need to work closely with local, state and federal governments as the nature of restrictions can change quickly. Each sport and club needs a comprehensive plan with contingencies if infection rates increase to ensure the safety and wellbeing of players leading up to and during their return to sport following the Covid-19 disruption.

The US College Athlete Unity (opens a new window) (CAU), an organisation representing the student-athlete rights, has compiled a catalogue with safety proposals in response to the Big Ten Conference’s plan. While it was created with college sports in mind it does contain recommendations that are also applicable to professional sport competitions. 

The list includes the recommendation to instruct a third-party service provider to administer Covid-19 testing and to enforce all related health and safety standards. It also suggests the introduction of penalties for noncompliance, as well as a mandate for athletics personnel to report suspected violations. Further, the CAU recommends mask-wearing in and around athletic facilities by coaches, staff, players, vendors, press, and visitors. In addition to regular testing and clear quarantine rules for everyone who tests positive, the organisation recommends contact-tracing protocols for anyone who comes into contact with college athletes and team personnel who test positive. 


Taking the appropriate decisions

In this global pandemic, we’ve all been asked to make sacrifices and sportspeople are no different. Like athletes when they are competing, boards and sports administrators are needing to make informed decisions in a rapidly changing environment. There is extra pressure on leaders to navigate the multitude of risks.

Who would have predicted that the US PGA Golf Championship (opens a new window) would be played in front of no fans? Or the Indian Premier League Cricket tournament (opens a new window) would be moved to the UAE? 

With so much change across the global sports industry and amongst other challenges, we’re seeing: •    Athletes investigating ways to protect their income and families; •    Clubs looking to protect their various revenue streams, assets, players, officials and fans; and •    Leagues and sporting bodies negotiating with governments whilst managing scheduling and other commercial conflicts.

Tailored insurance solutions need to be integrated in the overall risk strategy. In a hardening insurance market, smart decisions and effective risk management from leaders and professionals in sport will contribute to the eventual return of community sport and engagement across the industry. Whilst adjustments are being made to maximise commercial opportunities that have been severely compromised by Covid-19, the key is to prioritise the safety of those involved with each sport. This is particularly important to avoid potential lawsuits if athletes (or any or the many stakeholders involved in sport) face complications from coronavirus.

For further information, please contact our Lockton offices (opens a new window).