Image: SABC

Ireland’s jockeys are set to  return to the track on Monday, with horse racing there becoming the latest in a growing list of events globally to resume after a sudden halt in March as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.

In the past two weeks football fans have had options besides the Belarus league, which briefly became  the world’s most watched. Germany’s Bundesliga returned in the middle of May and Portugal last week, with Benni McCarthy’s former team Porto resuming its annual fight with Benfica for top honours.

The English Premier League, the world’s richest and most popular, is due to return in the middle of June — to the relief of Liverpool fans, who may yet see their team become champions three decades after they last ended a season at the top of the league.

As the world takes a tentative step back to live sport, it is also worth noting that Liverpool’s experience provides a cautionary tale that demonstrates why we are not going to be seeing fans filling stadiums soon.

One of the last public events to be held in England was a (European) Champions League match in which the team hosted Atletico Madrid. The game was attended by 52,000 fans, including 3,000 who travelled from Spain when that country had already imposed a partial lockdown. The game has been linked with a spate of infections.

As SA’s soccer authorities seek a way to get players back on the field and the season finished, it is clear that “the new normal”, at least in the short term, will look different, with games played without the fans and their singing, which does so much to make the game an attractive spectacle for sponsors and broadcasters.

The economic role of sport is often underestimated, and the pandemic’s devastating impact on its finances could be permanent. A Reserve Bank deputy governor put the contribution of sport and entertainment to GDP at between 1.5% and 2%. In the Irish example, the Financial Times reported that racing was important to a horse industry that is valued at €1.8bn (R35bn) and that employs about 29,000 people — in a country with a population of about 5-million.

With the impact on the value of sports sponsorships to corporate brands still uncertain, it might seem that Absa’s decision to end its sponsorship of the Premier Soccer League (PSL) came at an opportune time. But the statement issued by the parties indicating that the bank is keen to stay involved with the sport indicates otherwise.

Absa’s call predated the Covid-19 outbreak and was made in 2019 after former CEO Maria Ramos retired and before her replacement, Daniel Mminele, was appointed. It’s possible that the new boss, who unlike his predecessors has been seen attending games, might have decided differently. With the pandemic set to potentially disrupt the commercial basis of live sports, he might still be grateful for a cheaper way to stay involved with the game.

That Absa wants to retain its links bodes well for SA football. Indications in the marketplace are that despite the uncertainty of the timing and nature of the sport’s return, the PSL will not struggle to find another sponsor. It remains to be seen if it will be able to match the R500m that Absa paid for the last round.

It might sound counterintuitive, but the lack of fans may not even hurt the sport’s appeal too much, or its finances. Outside the games involving the Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, matches do not usually attract big crowds, meaning television remains the most important form of fan engagement.

If football is the opium of the masses, this pandemic has been particularly cruel, depriving the nation of a soothing antidote to the health, economic and social ravages of Covid-19. And when it comes back, it will be to an uncertain world. Perhaps the masses will need it even more. And the sponsors will come.