Inside the new world of sports in a bubble

TAMG Season 02, Episode 03: Father and son duo Partha and Atreyo Sinha explore how the pandemic has changed our relationship with sports, and how we're likely to experience the game differently as sports fans

Founding Fuel

For the last four to six months of the lockdown, live sports almost disappeared from our lives. It is now gradually starting to make a comeback, but in a very different avatar.

In this episode of Talkin' 'Bout My Generation (TAMG) father and son duo Partha and Atreyo Sinha, both diehard Arsenal fans, talk about how the game is changing.

Partha moved in as President of The Times of India group just two days into the lockdown. Atreyo joined Visa in New York in the middle of the lockdown after completing his master's in analytics from Duke.

They are special sports fans. They think and care deeply about the games they follow, have a very interesting point of view, and are well placed to explore this theme—Inside the New World of Sports in a Bubble.

Their discussion, anchored by Founding Fuel co-founder Indrajit Gupta, covered three broad aspects of sports fandom:

  1. Their generational difference in approaching sport
  2. Reality versus simulation
  3. The Covid bubble in sports, which is a new form of hierarchy.

Edited excerpts:

The live experience

Atreyo: My favourite memory of a match is actually in a stadium. The 2003 TVS cup, India – Australia, where Australia made 286 for 8. Looking back, what was more exciting for you at the time, was [former Indian cricketer] Farokh Engineer sitting there explaining the game of cricket to us as it happened live.

Partha: He was calling out the wides, even before the umpire… at some point, I asked him, how do you know? And he said, you got to look at the body language of the wicket keeper, the body language of the batsman… this is what is fantastic for me, watching the game with an expert, that brings out the true colour of the sport...the purity, the calibre, the skill.

Purity vs simulation

Partha: Our generation grew up going to the ground to watch a match. We are part of the setup. The players were in the arena enacting something epic. There was really epic about the match. Television turned epicness into everydayness.

Atreyo: As someone who's grown up watching it on TV, the lack of angles, the lack of close ups… even when you're in the box watching a cricket game, most people's eyes are on the TV anyway. Having that sort of detail that you can see during the game—Hawk-Eye, goal-line technology, in tennis you can see where the ball landed—that's interesting to think about. Because users now want to be able to see the game in different ways.

Also, users want to be able to control some of the outcome. That's simulation.

When I'm on the PlayStation, I'm in the game. When I'm playing FIFA, I’m managing it and I’m making my own tactical tweaks. That changes the way I engage with the game. It’s taken my fandom and my relationship with my team to a very different place.

Partha: We accepted the fact that we are outside the game. Your generation can't accept the fact that you outside the game.

Simulation in live sports

Partha: Something that I'm really uncomfortable about is the simulated noise during this post-Covid live sports. There are no people on the stands, and they simulate the noise. The collective sigh, when somebody has missed a goal or dropped a catch—it's actually one guy playing a button or worse, an algorithm.

Our generation will take a lot of time to accept simulation as a part of the game.

What it means to be a fan and the hierarchy of sports fandom

Atreyo: This is hopefully temporary. Hopefully we'll have fans back in the grounds. But then it also makes you think about what it means to be a fan at the ground.

There’s a hierarchy of sports fandom. Back in the day, it was a little bit more affordable for local supporters to be able to go watch a game. But for me to try and watch a game at Wankhede without somebody’s invitation—it’s just not a thing I can do.

There's been a lot of complaints from Premier League fans and even NBA fans, that a lot of tourists come in and like make a trip to Arsenal.

Even when we went [to London], we're not from London, we don't have any ownership over that relationship with the club. But we love Arsenal and we are fans. It’s just a hallmark of the modern game that you're going to have global fans.

Obviously, the guy who's commenting on Twitter, posting on Reddit, doesn't have the same status as somebody who's a season ticket holder.

The Covid ‘sports in a bubble’

Partha: But did you notice another thing? Covid itself has created a hierarchy of sorts.

The players have a kind of Covid privilege—they get tested, and after that they're kept in a bubble in North London, or Sharjah or wherever. They play contact sports. But you and I, we can't even go to our grandmother's or a friend's house watch a match.

Even on the ground, the players and the coach hug each other, and the officials sit far up on the stands. They are somewhere else altogether.

This is a different kind of hierarchy.

The hierarchy for sportsmen

Atreyo: [The hierarchy] already existed. All that Covid is doing is—pun intended—unmasking this hierarchy.

Some of the sportsmen need [to play during Covid] for their careers—a lot of them are in debt. It's nice to have guys like Virat Kohli and LeBron James, who are clearly elite and champions, and they still choose to come back and play. But at the same time, think about an Alex Caruso, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers. He's made his name during this post-Covid bubble. Likewise, Rahul Tewatia is much more of a household name than maybe he would have been if he'd decided to sit out this post-Covid edition of IPL. And then you've got Bukayo Saka for Arsenal. These are players who had turning points in their careers coincide with the pandemic. So, they haven't really had the option of sitting out. That that's another interesting hierarchy as well.

You have players who can afford to sit out a game. There was a case study in MLB Major League Baseball in the US, and the former chief operating officer came out and said that if you've made 30 million in the last three years, you don't care, playing at that point is purely about the joy of the game. But for a lot of people, you need to capitalize on an opportunity and hopefully make a name for yourself.

Partha: Covid was supposed to be an equal opportunity pathogen. Very quickly, we have created a hierarchy of sorts around Covid. So, if you matter, you're inside a bubble, and if you don't matter, you're outside the bubble.

If you're inside the bubble, you play contact sports. If you're not within that bubble, you have to either segregate yourself, or expose yourself to the pathogen.

Having said that, I'm so grateful that live sports is back. I realised that the only way to deal with Covid stress is the stress that Arsenal gives us as a team.

What is your biggest hope, or biggest fear in the post Covid sports world?

Partha: I am actually fearful that they have by now figured out how to have the game without the fans on the stands—if there's a new business model around sports, where this beautiful game will get out of the hands of common people. But I don't think that's going to be the truth. The truth will always remain that the world of sport cannot live without fan passion.

I'm hopeful we'll have more democratised, less hierarchical fandom

Indrajit Gupta: The in stadia experience of watching a game vs what you get on television. But there's one more facet, radio.

If you've seen some of the Test matches at Lord’s, they have these headphones. They listen into the commentary. I wonder if that's really going to be the shape of things to come the best of both worlds?

Partha: I have grown up listening to radio. The radio commentary reflected the real sentiment of the game versus in IPL there is a permanent cheer.,

How can everybody be 24X7 happy in a game? I realized that is what simulation is.

Indrajit: What would you much rather have less of?

Partha: We need to look at the structure of a sports narrative. Why do we like sport? Because the people who are playing it, according to fans, are superhumans. They can do things which we love, which in our wildest dreams we will not be able to do ourselves, and therefore we thoroughly enjoy it. Now whatever you do to accentuate the human calibre—you don't need extraneous things.

The point is, to make it more inclusive, to get more audience into the fold.

Do 50 things to underscore the beauty of the game, to underline how good the players. Like those free kicks are Messi. When you see it from 10 angles, you realize he's a pure genius. Give me those 50 angles. Don't get three cheerleaders dancing around to celebrate that Messi is good.

Indrajit: You're part of the media industry. And there's been a lot of pressure, particularly from broadcasters, to broaden the audience. Therefore, a lot of gimmicky stuff comes in, which takes away from the quality of the experience.

We need to broaden and bring in new audiences, to make it sustainable. But how do you ensure that there is some amount of purity left?

Atreyo: Instead of trying to pander at the actual broadcasting level, try and create content that potentially everybody in the family will like. From a grassroots level actually improve sports, such that you have all sorts of sports that are played well. For example, in India, if we play sports other than cricket really well, you're going to naturally have more people tune in to watch our other athletes do really well in different fields.

Just create better as in sports, which is more inclusive in its own way.

Partha: Also with existing sport, you can add more points of views. And I will give you an example. It happened right in front of our eyes. Typically, experts used to be people who played the game. And then came Harsha Bhogle. He never played cricket. But he [changed] the definition of expert. I saw a reflection of myself in Harsha. I wanted to ask all these questions. There is a guy who was representing me and asking it. Somebody like Harsha would get a lot more people into the game. Similarly, if we can get different points of views, different perspectives, that will get more people into the game.

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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