Should public health be jeopardised for the sake of a sporting event like the Indian Premier League (IPL)? Will fans willingly paint their faces, wear their favourite team jerseys and watch cricket matches at home because of the corona scare? Should cricketers from all across the world risk their lives to come together to play for this tournament? Will IPL be any less popular if it were played behind closed doors?
Perhaps it will be good for the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket In India) top brass to remember that there's just one answer to all the above questions: NO!
Before they go into the meeting on Saturday to decide the fate of upcoming IPL that's scheduled to begin from March 29, in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak in the country, BCCI should know what they are signing up for and making a lot more people sign up for.
Needless to say that it should have been a no-brainer for BCCI that IPL cannot be organised with the usual fanfare with which it has been happening for over a decade. Currently, India has more than 60 confirmed coronavirus (Covid-19) cases, WHO has declared it a 'global pandemic' and one of the main challenges that several countries are trying to cope with is to stop the virus from spreading. However, until now, BCCI had turned a blind eye to this problem and would have continued to do so, if the Maharashtra government hadn't banned IPL ticket sales, and the Karnataka government hadn't written to the central government requesting to cancel or postpone the tournament to ensure public health safety.
At this point, to have the IPL matches with stadiums filled with crowds seems extremely careless from a public health perspective. Cricket fans' lives will be at greater risk if they gathered in such large numbers, for long hours, because if one person in that crowd happens to have coronavirus, many others can easily contract it. Also, if one person from the crowd tests positive later, it will be a Hercules' task to quarantine others, with whom he/she might have come in contact with while watching the match.
Earlier this week, BCCI chief Sourav Ganguly had said that 'BCCI will take protection (against coronavirus)' during the IPL matches. What he means by 'protection' is unclear, but he did mention that a medical team will oversee the arrangements. However, as the symptoms of the coronavirus can be dormant for days, how effective these protective measures would be is not hard to guess.
One pertinent question to ask at this point is: Why is BCCI so reluctant to cancel or defer or even organise the matches behind closed doors? The answer to this seems fairly simple. The most evident reason seems to be financial.
The brand value of IPL in 2019 was $6.7 billion. If IPL is cancelled altogether, then the losses will be humongous for all stakeholders --- franchise owners, players, broadcasters as well as BCCI. One of the four main sources of income for BCCI is the media rights of the IPL and the cricket board will reportedly earn Rs 4,000 crore from it this year. Star TV currently has the media rights for the IPL and a Business Standard report claim that the channel has spent over Rs 3,000 crore for broadcasting and digital rights, for this year's IPL. Furthermore, the franchisees also offer players very meaty salaries and make money with gate revenue, media rights and sponsors. Perhaps that is the reason why everyone is so tight-lipped about concerns over organising IPL amid coronavirus outbreak because every stakeholder has a lot to lose.
Deferring also doesn't seem like an option at this point, because the cricket calendar is generally quite packed, and there may not be enough weeks at a later time this year to reschedule the IPL, especially with the T20 coming up, later this year, in Australia.
Hence, the only option that might work for them at this point (apart from, of course, paying no heed to people's well being and organizing IPL with usual pomp and show) is to have the matches behind closed doors and broadcast them on television. This would obviously draw record-breaking viewership, as it always does. This option may cost the franchises financially in terms of ticket sales, on-ground advertising etc. But, it is a lesser loss in comparison.
Several sports tournament are currently being played behind closed doors. In the UK, for instance, all premier league matches will be held behind closed doors and the pubs are not allowed to broadcast it, to avoid public gathering. NBA games in the USA are also being organised closed doors and La Liga Matches too, are now happening in empty stadiums. However, the closed-door strategy adopted by the sporting community to overcome coronavirus concerns only exempts the audiences from being affected, not the athletes.
Even if IPL is to be conducted behind closed doors, it will not exempt the players from the risk of contracting the virus from one another. On Wednesday, for instance, the match between Arsenal and Manchester City was cancelled, because all Arsenal players have been quarantined after Olympiakos owner Evangelos Marinakis, who had previously met a few Arsenal players, was tested positive for Coronavirus.
Also, there is a big question mark on whether international players can at all come and participate in the IPL, given that the government has suspended all existing visas, barring diplomatic, official, UN/International organisations, employment and project visas to curb covid-19.
As BCCI take stock of the situation and gears up for Saturday's meeting, it may serve them well to remember that cricket, like all great sports, is a unifying force. It brings people together for fun, entertainment, and some healthy competitions. Let's keep it that way. Let's not bring people together to jeopardize their health, just so that IPL stakeholders can incur hefty profits. Not to be an alarmist, but now is the time to act prudently and avoid those events, or at least try to manage the risks in organising those events, that can make the situation worse.