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Sports can be the saviour

The coronavirus, which was first reported in November 2019 in Wuhan province in China, had spread to various countries by January 2020. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) as pandemic.

Between January 2020 and March 2020, COVID-19 spread to most countries of the world, with countries imposing international travel bans and regionwide lockdowns, to control the spread of the virus. The imposition of such strict measures had an impact on various businesses across the world, including the business of sports.

Within days, every major professional sports associations in the country — Football Association Malaysia (FAM), Badminton Association Malaysia (BAM), Malaysia Hockey Confederation( MHC) and more —followed suit. Iconic sporting events like SUKMA XX 2020 and Celcom Axiata Malaysian Open were all cancelled or postponed.

That may change soon. As Malaysia is beginning to slowly finding its way towards rejuvenating several industries, the drumbeat to bring back sports grows ever so louder. Minister of Youth & Sports, YB Datuk Reezal Merican recently held a meeting with sports authorities and owners as part of his effort to reopen the industry.

The major ideas being floated to reopen sports all involve playing without fans in the stands. Playing sports in a bubble is far from fool-proof. Some players may decide to sneak out of quarantine or have friends over for visits that defy social distancing. Others, with families, may decide they do not want to be away from their wives, partners, and kids for months at a time.

Games with no fans in the stands will have a distinctly strange and disorienting look and feel even on TV. There will be no crowd noise, no game day buzz, and no such thing as home field advantage.

So, why even do it?

The sports industry’s contribution to the country’s GDP pre-pandemic, reached RM101 million in 2018, equivalent to 7.00% of GDP. Many make a living from sports and sports has become a part of their lifestyle. As stress has become an inevitable in our daily life, Malaysians use sports as a method to eradicate their mental stress.

In relevance to that, bringing sports back would be a big signal that Malaysia is returning to some sort of normalcy. Just being able to watch a “live” badminton or football or golf game on TV would not do a lot to soothe our collective nerves. Even if we cannot have the kind of spectator-based sports we had before the virus, there are several methods that sports associations can conduct to prepare for a reopening.

Moreover, this entails careful preparation and planning that must start now. It means reduced attendance to set up the space seating required for physical distancing, retrofitting stadiums with temperature sensors and redesigning concessions, lineups and seating for required physical distancing.

For example, Malaysian Football League teams that must restart in a bubble can conduct activities to enhance team spirit and the game day vibe. Lots and lots of people watch sports on TV anyway. Teams can develop online portals that can enhance the game day experience at home, through remote watch parties.

Franchises can also eventually help mobilize fan activities like modified outdoor block parties and tailgates, of less than 50 people and appropriately socially distanced, and set up funds to help hire laid-off event staff as to animate these events.

Sports is not just about athletes. It is more than that. It involves team officials, coaches, medical officers, kitmen and many more. Hence, the current halt in the sports industry may have their jobs being under risk of retrenchments and salary deductions.

Something needs to be done. Badminton Malaysia Open 2021, Badminton Malaysia Masters 2021 and various tournaments that can contribute ranking points for athletes eligible for the Tokyo Olympics should be held. Other sports tournaments such as football, hockey, sepak takraw, motoring, rugby, cycling should be held with new norms without forgetting the MSSD, MSSN and MSSM level competitions.

Sport covers every aspect of life. Whether you’re a huge fan or couldn’t care less, the sporting world affects you. From the quality of your child’s education to the number of jobs available in your area, a good sporting industry has incredible benefits.

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