“When you’re going through hell, keep going.” Winston Churchill might not have had the coronavirus pandemic in mind when trotting out that particular gem, but trust him to find the right words almost a century before the fact. The Churchillian equivalent of “keep calm and carry on” is a mantra embraced by much of society right now, and sport is no different.
While health remains the primary concern in all walks of life, sporting bodies the world over have found themselves engaged in sessions of radical thinking to stave off looming economic ruin. In what predicament other than a global crisis could the term “NRL Island” be anything other than a genius concept for reality television?
Stationing all NRL players and staff on an island off Queensland has, thankfully, remained nothing more than an interesting idea. Other domestic codes such as AFL and netball can now also begin to plan for brighter times ahead, but most sports are still mired in the dilemma of what to do next. And desperate times are calling for desperate measures.
Cricket, both in Australia and overseas, has been left financially bereft by the Covid-19 crisis. Cricket Australia has already lost tens of millions of dollars and the damage could run into the hundreds of millions if future series fall by the wayside. The England and Wales Cricket Board, too, is in distress, this week assessing a $730m hole blown into the coffers. It has been reported the ECB wants Australia to tour in September to help claw back some of its lost pounds.
Quite how wise it would be to leave the safety of home and travel to the UK, now second only to the United States in terms of Covid-19 deaths, is open to debate. But stranger things have happened. “Hopefully there’s some cricket played in England this year,” said the Australia batsman Marnus Labuschagne. “I’m itching to play cricket so if they come up with a match anywhere, it’d be nice to play.”
Possibly the boldest idea – or craziest, depending on your viewpoint or grip on reality – to get a competition back up and running has involved England’s Premier League, which has been dormant since 13 March. While the league’s own Project Restart has been musing over a six-week “festival of football” to play out the season’s remaining 92 matches, wheels have been spinning elsewhere to take the whole kit and kaboodle to Perth. Perth, Western Australia. Not Perth, Scotland.
First mooted by the WA businessman John Higgins, the proposal to bring players and staff of the Premier League’s 20 clubs to Perth is being championed by the player agent Gary Williams. “It would involve about 1,500 players and officials coming into the country and spending a couple of weeks in quarantine,” Williams told The World Game. “As long as the safety aspects are dealt with properly then there’s no reason it wouldn’t be sanctioned. There’s a lot of positivity about from the clubs we’ve spoken to.”
WA has recorded 0.03% of coronavirus-related deaths so the idea has merit on the health and safety front, but WA’s closed borders would present a significant hurdle to overcome.
Germany’s Bundesliga will be the first major European football league to make a comeback after officials this week announced a 16 May restart date. But the Germans have been beaten to the punch by South Korea, the K-League having resumed on Friday. The restrictions are predictably austere: no fans, no bottle sharing, no emission of bodily fluids. “Excessive spitting or blowing of the nose is prohibited and players should refrain from close conversations,” said the K-League communication officer, Woo Cheoung-sik.
Baseball was the first sport in South Korea to resume competition, this week’s first match between SK Wyverns and Hanwha Eagles being played in front of a cardboard crowd, masked cheerleaders and with a strict no-tobacco-chewing policy.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship this weekend becomes the first major United States sporting body to return to action with the staging of UFC 249 in Florida, an event that will feature US-based fighters only. But it is what is to come that has fans of mixed martial arts drooling.
The UFC president, Dana White, might not be given to mimicry, but there is a sense of parallel between the NRL Island concept and his strategy to return international fighters to the octagon. White claims to have secured a remote island – he isn’t saying where – that could host fights as soon as next month. “The infrastructure is being put in now. This place is literally going to be a UFC Fight Island,” White told Sports Illustrated. “We’re gonna use it a lot until the world gets normal again. We’re gonna need it for our international fights — a place where people can fly in and out easily, without needing a bunch of visas and red tape.”
It might seem like the world has gone mad, but it is no more than needs-must at a time when the cost of Covid-19 can be expressed in dollars per second. “Time and money are largely interchangeable terms.” Thanks, Winston.