Steve English Blog: Sport is back, but is it a blueprint for the future?

Wasn’t it amazing! Football, motorsport and golf were all back on television. There is a God and His name is Live Sport In Your Living Room! Suddenly instead of endless re-runs and memories (I’m as guilty as everyone else) there was now new memories, new moments and a new norm was being constructed before our eyes.

The cost of not returning to football to finish the 2020 season could cost over €6bn worldwide. Whether it’s the Premier League having to pay out over €750m or the loss of gate receipts, the effect of the shutdown could be profound. The German Bundesliga at least shows that it is possible to host a game, and the TV coverage wasn’t noticeably different.

The lack of a crowd, substitutes evenly spaced along the sideline, and the muted celebrations are strange but you grow accustomed to it. Why can the Bundesliga return and other countries can’t? The German government took steps before other nations to limit the outbreak and now they’ll also act as a guinea pig for how football can return.

Strict guidelines are in place to ensure that social distancing is adhered to, by those off the pitch, and quarantining the entire squad is also in place. The extent to which this will take place was shown by suspending Heiko Herrlich, the Augsburg manager, for leaving his hotel to buy toothpaste. Was it an action of malicious intent? Of course not. It was a simple moment of brain-fade, but one that saw him banned from the match. His team lost 2-1 to Wolfsburg after an injury time winner.

Starting over

Project Restart has false started on numerous occasions in England. Can football resume? It can’t until it’s safe to do so. The United Kingdom is splitting apart at the seams with conflict over the coronavirus. Government proposals for reopening the country have been rejected by the devolved parliaments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, because they feel more people are being put at risk. The Bundesliga was facing a much surer footing for their decision to reopen than their English counterparts.

In the United States decisions are made on a Federal and local basis. Some states are enforcing stricter guidelines and others make it possible to host events behind closed doors. Florida was the first to do so by hosting a UFC fight. Major League Soccer are looking at ways to play their games at a neutral venue in Orlando where all teams will be quarantined. Lockdown is bad enough, but up to ten weeks away from their families and the possibility of a 50% pay cut is making the Florida option very unappealing to players.

Start your engines

While Florida could provide a refuge for fighting and football, the Carolinas will offer NASCAR the same. On Sunday night racing returned for the first time with the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway. It was fitting that the first race back following a ten week shutdown forced by a virus running rampant was held at a track that’s proclaimed “too tough to tame.”

To allow the race to go ahead NASCAR limited personnel numbers significantly. There were 16 crew members permitted per car (bringing a total of 640 members of staff). Media was kept to a minimum, with one pool reporter from the Associated Press (Jenna Fryer) emailing updates from the venue. In addition to Fryer there were three other reporters on-site. Reporters were limited to the media centre and forbidden from pit road and talking to team members face to face. Their only contact was via telephone and zoom conferencing. The only interviews taking place face to face would be provided by Fox Sports for broadcast, and their reporter (former driver Regan Smith) was conducting these at a safe distance.

While media representation was kept to a minimum, NASCAR did go to lengths to ensure that media could cover the event. The pooled reports were an obvious example, but a virtual media centre was also set up with live timing and zoom calls arranged for the the aftermath of the race. Additional pooled content was also sent to reporters.

There were photographers at the venue to provide coverage that was pooled by NASCAR. This change actually had a bigger impact than you’d think. Typically during a race, teams will have their own photographer whose job is to spot damage on the car and remotely send the pictures to the team to analyse whether they need to stop or not.

For the broadcast Fox Sports had half their typical staff present. This meant that cameras options were limited, but the use of a drone was now a key benefit for the broadcaster. Regan Smith was on-site as their roaming pitlane reporter, but the ex-racer was now covering the job of four people! The gallery were based in Los Angeles and the commentators in North Carolina. The return for NASCAR came in the shape of three locations.

Team screen

For the teams and drivers this weekend was very different. Rolling into the circuit at designated times for each team, all personnel were temperature screened and allowed to pass through. Once the trucks were in place a deep clean took place to sterilise everything and work could then begin. The wearing of masks was enforced at all times for everyone.

Contact between the team and their driver was limited to video conferencing, with the racers all self-quarantined in their motorhomes until the very last moment. The first time they saw their team was as they were strapped into the car. It was a surreal experience. With no practice or qualifying, the formation laps behind a pace car was their only experience of the track and the car before the start of the race. Inevitably there was a crash on lap one.

Who's next?

NASCAR’s return offers a map towards understanding what we can expect from other series when they make their step from the shadows. It’s easier for a domestic championship to return than a World Championship, but given the close links that MotoAmerica has with Dorna you can expect some protocols to be similar when MotoGP and WorldSBK return.

The American series will return in ten days at Road America. The Wisconsin track has a vast paddock that ensures social distancing is easier than at some venues. With the support classes also present there will be 1,000 people in the paddock, but the goal is to minimise any risk. For Wayne Rainey the goal was to “give hope to people.” It’s definitely something that’s needed in a country that suddenly has over 35m people on the unemployment line.

Marshals will be regularly tested throughout the weekend and forced to remain at their post throughout the day to minimise contact with other personnel. A quick-grid will take place for all races that will mimic the quick restart procedure, where riders will be met on the grid by one mechanic to check everything is OK and then sent on their warm-up lap. Afterwards, one mechanic will be present in Parc Ferme to put the bike on its paddock stand. The podium will be socially distanced with trophies cleaned before being handed to the riders.

AMA Supercross is to resume on May 31st, holding seven races in three weeks. Like NASCAR, the races are to be held behind closed doors, with the added measure of all taking place at the same location, the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Containing the SX paddock in one place makes it much easier to test and monitor everyone involved.

Would similar protocols be put in place for MotoGP and WorldSBK? They certainly reduce the risks compared to having a grid thronging with people.

The Bundesliga, NASCAR, Supercross, and MotoAmerica give us a roadmap of what’s possible. They paint a picture of protocols in a time of uncertainty. Are they perfect? Only time will tell.


This is part of a series of articles published in partnership with RacingLowdown.com, run by MotoMatters.com contributor Steve English.

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Comments

I have maintained and will continue to maintain that we cannot run from this virus. While the old and sick are certainly at risk and should take precautions as they see fit, the people that populate the paddock of any race series for the most part are at near zero risk from this virus outside of cold/flu symptoms which is always true of lots of viruses. While I have been working from home for years now, all three of my college age kids have been working throughout the "pandemic" at jobs that take them out of the house.  They deliver your packages, work a cash register and staff the office at a psychiatric clinic. My daughter was laid off from her after-care job and got another job during all of this. They haven't been sick despite close contact with the general public.  Like me they are incredulous about the changes being wrought on their lives and future without having a say in the decisions. My point is, let the people who work at sports decide if they want to take risks and how much risk they'll take instead of mandating steps and protocols. I don't understand this new world where people seem to suddenly have come to the realization that viruses kill people. Where have they all been living?  Under a rock?

The way to think about infection is not who is fine, but who isn't fine. So yes, it is extremely unlikely that any of the MotoGP riders, were they to catch the virus, would be badly affected. However, if they then went home and infected their grandparents, who are much older, there is a real risk that their grandparents could become very seriously ill, or die. Current estimates of the infection fatality rate in The Netherlands is around 1%.

Also, the riders may be young and healthy, but the paddock itself is full of grey hair. A lot of engineers, mechanics, crew chiefs, team bosses are in their 50s and 60s. Not in the most vulnerable group, but in the group which is much more likely to suffer problems if they were infected. Additionally, those people have parents too, who are in the highest risk group.

Indeed, there are a number of paddock members from Spain and Italy who have already lost family members to the virus. This will also have an effect, and make them much less comfortable taking risks. Some riders have expressed fears of catching the disease and passing it on.

In short, it is not about whether a rider would survive being infected with COVID-19. It is about how many other people would be affected or infected by that rider having the virus.

Your experience is positive, and I am very glad to hear that your kids are doing well. But as scientists like to say, the plural of anecdote is not data.

All about me?  You both missed my point I think.  I probably made it badly.  Let me try again.  No guarantees.

Main point:
I want to make the choices about whatever risk comes my way and I want everyone else to have that right as well.  I don't want the heavy government hand doing that.  Ever.  If I'm one "who isn't fine", then I can stay away from other people at my discretion.  No?  I also would never coerce anyone into doing something they don't want to do.  If you're scared about "passing it on", then self-isolate.  Stay away from those who don't want you nearby.  If there are enough folks to hold a race (or anything else), then hold it.  If not, then don't.  We are all adults here.  We all can make our own decisions without threat of sanction.

The one exception to that was the uncertain initial situation.  So close things for a few weeks to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system.  I get that.  But sell it to me. don't scare me.  Make it mostly my decision.  Don't roll out the police to enforce it.  Then, the minute the crisis passes, lift the restrictions.  That is not what has happened.

Some questions:
1)  Obviously, old folks are more susceptible to all viruses than the young.  But this has always been the case.  Why is this virus different?  Each year, the flu kills many, many people and that number is tempered by the availabilty of a vaccine (of sorts) that probably lowers the total significantly. Yet we don't close the world for the flu, even H1N1 when there was, like here, a degree of uncertainty.
2)  In what economics school do they offer the "Closing the Economy" class?  Where is that taught?  What are the ramifications?Unanticipated consequences?  How does anyone pay for 3 trillion in government handouts (US)?
3)  Very early on, it was obvious that the old and compromised were in a vulnerable position.  How do we not conclude that those are the folks that should be offered isolation (their choice) and not the entire population?
4)  Are national and local governments waiting till nobody dies of this virus to open their respective economies?  If the vulnerable haven't been protected yet or protecting themselves, they never will be.

P.S.  I used the example (anecdote) of my kids to illustrate a kind of two-tiered society that has emerged under "lockdown".  There are the people that sit home, scared or cozy, sheltering-in-place and then there are those that do those folks' bidding.  Bring my food, bring my Amazon junk, prevent crime, collect my garbage blah blah blah.  My kids are in the second group.  I am proud of them.  They don't grouse.  They just go to work.

P.P.S.  I don't believe much if anything of what I read and just a little more of what I hear and see.  When you have a ring side seat to watch NY State artificially inflate the numbers of deaths due to this virus and CBS News show footage of an Italian hospital while saying it's in Queens, I just don't trust a lot of what any of them say.  And that's a shame.

Thanks for printing my opinion!  I know you don't have to and probably don't agree with me but it's nice to have a discourse that is harder and harder to find these days.

 

I'm supposed to remain in house arrest for the indefinite future because you refuse to take the most simple, basic precautions to prevent spreading disease????? It's that attitude that ensures this won't go away easily and quietly. It will continue to flare up because libertarian fools refuse to act as social animals in a closed system, which they (and we all) are. You enrage me with your irresponsibility. You would make the entire senior population stay isolated and under house arrest for the rest of their lives. SHAME ON YOU and your "I am an island, entire unto to myself with no responsibilities to the 7 billion other people who live with me".

I would really like to use much stronger language but I respect the forum and most of those who participate here. This feels as though you are in the act of killing my mother as the isolation is sapping her will to live. Shame. On. You.

I recall reading the 'States "normally" has something like 11k influenza related deaths per annum. You currently stand at just shy of 100k deaths in what, 3 months? 
And you think it is situation normal? 

I watched the Cup race at Darlington and thought it was pretty good video. I look forward to watching Austin and Laguna live and hopefully at least one AFT event too. Meanwhile my wife and I have been doing our part to avoid contact and not risk spreading the virus to others. My two sons are working from home (one in Boston and the other in Santa Monica), but that will change starting next month. Looking at the JohnsHopkins virus map daily, it appears that regardless of the lockdowns or not (Sweden vs Europe) the daily new case count in all countries seems to have flattened and started a decline. The only counties that stopped the virus quickly were those that forced severe lockdowns upon their populations (China and S Korea). That makes me think that the virus will run its course just like all the ones before it. Still, I'll do my part... 

Everything is a maybe now. Maybe I'm young and healthy enough to survive the virus, but healthy people have died. And every one of them who has recovered has stated that it is nothing to joke about. Maybe the worst of the virus has passed but we in the US have no idea as no one is being tested and the people in charge of all this are either idiots or corrupt. You do not have the right to infect me. I have the right to go to the supermarket without a bunch of unmasked morons putting my life at risk. You people who think like 2CylinderBill are putting the rest of us at risk and you cannot be allowed to do that. Your personal freedom to spread disease ends before that disease gets to me. Suck it up, buttercup, and do your part as I'm doing mine. Stay tf home and QUIT WHINING! What a bunch of babies this world is made up of. WAAAH, WAAAH. WAAAAAAH, I can't have my entertainment, WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! Grow tf up and do your part! Sheesh

All he said was he was incredulous and wanted to make his own mind up. Everyone can do that, including the organisers and circuit owners.

Perhaps the old voting would make it easier to express.....

I'd hate to see this forum descend into a pool of vitriol. There's plenty of that out there already. Nothing wrong with positing a different view to the mainstream, so long as you're okay with respectful critique. As a wise man once said to the younger, smart-arse me, no such thing as a stupid question, only a stupid answer.

For me, there are broadly two ways society can approach the current situation. We can either collectively take shelter until the storm has passed or try to ride it out with our usual, randomised behaviour. No-one knows the answer because no-one knows (yet) quite what we're dealing with. Will there be a surge in 2 or 3 weeks time, or over coming months, due to easing, that dwarfs what most countries have just seen? We don't know. We hope not but many, me included, think this is quite likely. I see yesterdays photos of our popular beaches here in the UK and it could be any other year, any beach on a sunny day. Busy. So I think we're going to find out soon enough. I work within a COVID-19 response unit and, even though it's become way quieter than 4 or 5 weeks ago, we're retaining our full operational scale for at least the next few weeks, maybe months, so that if a surge does come, we can do our bit. The thing is, most UK deaths over the past couple of weeks were the result of becoming infected during lockdown conditions. That's worth thinking about. It almost certainly would have been 10 times worse without lockdown. The stats alone show this, where countries that were really quick off the mark such as NZ (you should be so proud of your leaders) have done so much better than those who hung out for longer.

So where does that leave us in terms of sports, bikes, all the things that make it a life of quality rather than simple existence. And for many, a means of earning an income. I completely get it that we all desperately want these things back. Me too. And that it looks like it's less bad than we feared. But personally, I think it's high risk to get everything running again, even with safeguards. It's not the activities themselves, it's the consequences. With the best will in the world, we will rub shoulders while watching racers rub paint, or while grazing in the now open garden centres or while chewing the cud with our friendly barber, and the risk increases. Look at the beaches. Look at normal human behaviour. Within days or weeks, easing will equate to "its okay folks, we can go back in the water, the shark has gone".
 

There's no certainty here, maybe it'll all be fine, but we basically have zero evidence either way other than looking back at the period of spread pre-lockdown. It's one hell of a gamble to take.