Football may seem like a trivial topic to discuss when there are so many other very serious things that are happening. The sport, however, which is really popular, has always been a sort of mirror that reflects current issues at stake in our world. Furthermore, football is a major economic activity, and it is among the very few activities where the rules are set on a global scale and evolve in the same manner in the biggest English professional clubs as, for example, in the smallest amateur club in Senegal. As such, the evolution of football during this pandemic tells us a lot about what awaits not only for the other live events but also the rest of society.
If the pandemic disappears completely and quickly, we will return to, in two years at best, the previous state of things and forget about what will follow in this article. Unfortunately, that is unlikely.
If the pandemic disappears slowly and if the current social distancing measures are maintained, smaller clubs, at the amateur or professional levels, will find it very difficult to survive because of a dip in membership fees, local government grants and sponsorship revenues.
Moreover, it is hard to justify, under the current circumstances, allowing players to touch each other if spectators are not allowed to do the same. A group of European supporters’ organizations has just voted to maintain the closure as long as spectators are not allowed in the stadiums—even for the bigger clubs.
The bigger teams will be the only survivors in football. And it appears that they are determined to find an economic model that will allow them to continue playing—even without spectators.
There are many questions that arise: in which stadiums will they be able to play? Will they have spectators in attendance? How will these teams be able to make a profit from their activities?
This year, teams have lost out on transfer fees and ticketing revenue. Although these teams still have a revenue stream from broadcasting rights, the broadcasts will feature empty stadiums. And perhaps spectators outside the stadiums, though it was and will remain a serious mistake to do so. The bigger professional clubs, and the media entities that broadcast the games, which depend on this source of income for survival, are pushing in this direction.
The broadcast needs to be attractive. For that to happen, microphones and cameras will be closer to the players, who will now be heard, just as the noise of the ball will be heard. Viewers will be entitled to more statistics. That is what Sky and the Bundesliga have already planned for the reopening of their league next Sunday. Virtual spectators will applaud at the various stages of the game; that is if it is possible and if the time of reaction can be very fast. The pre-recorded applause will be triggered and calibrated with the reactions of the online spectators.
These changes will make football become a spectacle that is increasingly similar to video games, which are the main competitors of the sports channels. And here is the question that consumers will have to ask themselves: will they want to pay to see real players play in an empty stadium (and soon in stadiums without bleachers, which will become useless) with virtual spectators, or would they prefer to play themselves, using increasingly realistic consoles to play virtually with athletes that represent these same players?
Video games will suffer from claims for compensation by the real players, and some have already made such claims, notably to be paid for the use of their image in these games. If this scenario comes true, only the teams owned by high net worth individuals or firms will survive for some time, and they will play in a closed league; at least for a while, since the clubs in this league will not be able to be replaced by clubs from lower divisions, and the players will not be able to be replaced by starlets from smaller amateur clubs, which will have disappeared.
In other words, if our rights to play and watch the spectacle of football are restored, football will return to its current state. However, if these rights are not restored, they will disappear and be replaced by more realistic video games.
What does this tell us about the rest of the world? It tells us that there is a great risk that the world will continue to shift from the living to artefacts. Furthermore, the line between one and the other is increasingly blurred. In the same vein, we must remember that one of the very first massive pandemics of the modern era was developed, in 2005, by the characters of a famous video game, World of Warcraft.