David Owen

COVID-19 has changed the world; I am not so sure it has changed the world's thinking.

I want to look this week at two situations which might nudge you towards this conclusion, one in the realm of sport and business, the other sport and politics.

There can be few if any sports businesses which have not lost revenue in the past 18 months.

An impressively thorough new report from UEFA, the European football body, estimates the overall impact of the pandemic on European club revenues over the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons at between €7.2 billion (£6.2 billion/$8.8 billion) and €8.1 billion (£7 billion/$9.9 billion).

An analysis of the expected impact on revenues of the top 15 European football leagues over the same period indicates that revenue shortfalls of anywhere between eight per cent and 35 per cent are possible.

Sports body after sports body now seems to be reacting to the depredations wrought by the pandemic on turnover and cashflow by hatching plans to launch more of its particular product onto the market, notwithstanding the already jam-packed international sports calendar.

This, after all, has been a fruitful approach, at least for the most popular sports and events, for over 30 years, as broadcasting rights valuations have escalated and escalated.

In doing this, sport has successfully subverted one of the fundamental laws of economics, that when supply increases price falls.

I have a feeling that this law may be about to reassert itself.

Technical innovations in media have worked broadly in sport's favour up until this point, since the proliferation of channels and platforms, has, in effect, increased demand.

It is by no means clear that the brave new world of streaming will have the same effect.

Yes, it is easier than ever, since we all carry a screen on us at all times nowadays, to devote one's entire life to watching sport; a few probably do, particularly given the privations of lockdown.

The sheer volume of football coverage makes it difficult for other sports to compete ©Getty Images
The sheer volume of football coverage makes it difficult for other sports to compete ©Getty Images

For most of us though there is a limit to the number of hours we either can or want to while away in this manner.

And this is why I think another change facilitated by streaming is so important.

Increasingly it is possible to decide which bits and bobs from that saturated global sports calendar we want to watch and when we want to watch them.

The tyranny of broadcasting executives who used to wield full control over content and scheduling is largely over, even if the frisson of watching sport live has been reinforced by the interactivity that new media permits.

This poses a problem for fringe sports - which, by the way, some would interpret as everything bar football.

When I was a kid, rationed to TV highlights of the sum total of two, perhaps three, football matches per week, you could not help being exposed to other sports.

And since much of the programming - Grandstand, Sportsnight, World of Sport - was portmanteau in nature, you often had little idea ahead of time which specific sports you were in line to be exposed to.

Nowadays, me and billions of others know that we can watch high-class football literally every waking hour.

How do other sports get a look in under those circumstances, no matter how much content they churn out?

Yes, the relatively sparse scattering of rowing nuts or archery aficionados can spend their days watching their favourite sport too.

But if the uncommitted have no effortless way to sample unknown pleasures via the likes of Grandstand, minority sports risk preaching to, and striving to extract income from, a small, perhaps even shrinking, coterie of the converted.

All of this has coincided with, indeed perhaps helped to cause, a plateauing out (at best) of broadcasting rights fees.

The more imaginative sports decision-makers have supplemented what I am going to call this Andrea True Connection approach to content creation ("More, More, More") with a pivot to esports, whose growth has been unimpeded by the pandemic.

As a look at FIFA's recent financial results would verify, this looks a more promising strategy, even if you run the risk of turning more potential sailors and hockey-players into gamers than vice versa.

Perhaps the smartest strategy of all in current hugely unpredictable conditions will turn out to be to recognise, as the International Olympic Committee has done, that the identification and development of new revenue streams is highly advisable.

Successful sports businesses in 10 years' time may, I fancy, be considerably more complex than they were 10 years ago.

Turning to politics, I know from social media that the present situation in Japan is mystifying a lot of people.

They find it hard to fathom why Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga remains so apparently set on staging the Summer Olympics and Paralympics as now scheduled between July 23 and September 5 when opinion polls delineate the extent of the opposition almost daily, and when he faces a party leadership election by September and a general election by October 22.

Pulling the plug on the Games so late in the day would, I imagine, have financial consequences, but I cannot think they would be onerous enough to make that the decisive consideration. 

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is pressing ahead with Tokyo 2020, despite public opposition and an election looming ©Getty Images
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is pressing ahead with Tokyo 2020, despite public opposition and an election looming ©Getty Images

Perhaps more to the point, saying no would look weak and involve massive international loss of face, which could impair the Prime Minister's election prospects every bit as much as pressing ahead even in the teeth of public opposition; that is provided, of course, that the panoply of Games-related precautions works and the event is not blamed for increasing infections.

I wonder too whether Suga's calculations have been influenced by that old belief that reflected sporting glory, in this case Olympic gold medals, spawns the sort of national feelgood factor that can help sweep politicians back to power.

Certainly, host nations nearly always do well at the Games, and it is tempting to think that all the pandemic-related disruption may accentuate this home advantage.

I cannot believe though that even an epic Japanese gold rush would inspire voters as much as evidence that Suga's Government had got well and truly on top of the pandemic.

How much does sport really count in elections anyway, even in normal times?

For years I, er, laboured under the misapprehension that the English football team's World Cup win on home soil in 1966 had powered Harold Wilson and his left of centre party to electoral victory.

That was until I finally noticed that the poll had comfortably predated the tournament.

It could be argued, indeed, that if England's footballing fortunes influenced any general election result, it was four years later - though perhaps not in a way that Suga would wish to dwell on.

The Labour politician Denis Healey wrote in his autobiography, published in 1989, that England's defence of the trophy had been considered by Wilson when mulling the optimal date for an election.

"Wilson was worried that, if [England] were defeated just before polling day, the Government would suffer," Healey recalled.

However: "On learning that the match would be shown on television very late at night he decided to ignore it."

In the event, England were beaten by West Germany on June 14 and Labour by Ted Heath's Conservatives four days later.

Was there a causal connection? Impossible to say for sure.