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Asia's sports business learns how to take a COVID-19 punch

Leagues fast-track digital plans, cut player salaries and prepare for 5G

AKANE OKUTSU, RURIKA IMAHASHI and CK TAN, Nikkei staff writers | Japan

TOKYO/SHANGHAI/NEW DELHI/SEOUL -- The Chinese Super League belatedly kicks off its soccer season on Saturday, becoming the latest Asian sports league to do so, albeit in empty stadiums and after a nearly five-month delay. It will also be without some foreign players and coaches who remain stuck abroad due to China's strict border control measures.

There are no official estimates for revenue losses, but the empty stadiums will be costly. Under normal circumstances, a typical match would attract an average crowd of 50,000, according to local media. Ticket prices are determined by each team's ranking, so they vary. But for one match in November, prices started at 150 yuan ($21).

Watching from home, fans will be treated to an augmented reality experience. While each stadium really will be decorated to suit the home team's identity and sponsors' requirements, the big, loud crowds will be virtual.

Many Chinese soccer fans have expressed a sense of comfort with the news, but there are those who wonder why they should bother. "Since I cannot go to the stadium, I might as well watch foreign leagues," said Zhao Lei, a football fan in Shanghai, referring to English and other European matches. "They are more exciting."

Chinese fans are not alone in wondering about sports' worth during a pandemic. Today was to be the opening of the Tokyo Olympics, and long ago the Japanese government declared it Sports Day, giving everyone a day off work. Part of the idea had been to make room on the city's jam-packed commuter trains for the tens of thousands of visitors heading to and from the opening ceremony.

Now the national holiday serves only as a reminder of how the coronavirus has played havoc with sports calendars, not to mention daily life.

Many of the associations that, like the Chinese Super League, are going forward with games appear to realize that virtual technology will be crucial.

In Japan, well-established companies such as Yamaha Corp. and relatively unknown startups alike are helping teams discover new ways they can digitally interact with and sell to their fans.

In one experiment, fans not allowed into a soccer stadium used an app so their cheers could be heard over the stadium's speakers. Teams are also introducing apps that induce fans to send cash "tips" or "gifts."

As clubs experiment with digital aspects to the fan experience, some leagues are also allowing a limited number of fans into stadiums. Japan's soccer J-League and Nippon Professional Baseball have started doing this, cutting off ticket sales at 5,000 or half of a stadium's capacity.

While sparse crowds are better than a stadium of empty seats, the relaxed measure will still result in drastic revenue drops. Last year, the J-League's Kawasaki Frontale earned nearly 7 billion yen ($65 million), the third-highest figure among Japan's professional soccer teams. This year it expects a 50% drop in revenue, a team representative told the Nikkei Asian Review.

The Kashima Antlers are also used to bringing in about 7 billion yen a year. This season it expects 1 billion yen less.

The July Grand Sumo Tournament began on Sunday, but with one spectator to every four-person box and with a crowd limited to 25% of the arena's capacity. (Photo by Yo Inoue)

Kouichi Wakaki, a professor at Japan's Meisei University says professional teams, regardless of what sport they play, will fall into precarious financial situations if they cannot bring fans to games. "It is hard," he said, "to find alternatives to make up for the loss of ticket sales."

Wakaki also warned that sponsors who are being squeezed by the pandemic might withdraw from their arrangements.

COVID-19 is also threatening the health and lives of professional athletes. When all of Japan's professional baseball teams gave players polymerase chain reaction tests, several of the athletes turned up positive.

And in May, a 28-year old sumo wrestler died of COVID-19.

On Sunday, the July Grand Sumo Tournament began at the Kokugikan in Ryogoku, Tokyo, but the Japan Sumo Association is limiting spectators to about 2,500 a day, about a quarter of the arena's capacity. In addition, each block of box seats, which can accommodate four people, is being limited to one spectator.

Back in China, the 2019-2020 basketball season resumed on June 20, but in a "bubble" that isolates players and operational personnel. All players are tested every 10 days, and strict quarantines have been imposed at designated hotels in Qingdao and Dongguan, where the Chinese Basketball Association's remaining regular-season games are being played.

In the absence of spectators, team jerseys and mascots occupy arena seats, and videos of roaring crowds play on separate screens.

While the CBA has not revealed how much of a financial toll the virus is taking, it is reasonable to expect losses due to ticket and sponsorship revenue declines. The CBA announced in April that executives would take pay cuts ranging from 10% to 35% to "alleviate financial pressures."

The league is urging teams to follow suit and reduce salaries, even those of players, but it is unsure how many of the 20 clubs will heed the call rather than honor contracts.

In Australia, the country's major professional leagues for rugby, soccer and Australian rules football have cut player salaries. "It is really important for the sports to continue even if they don't get crowds, because the major source of income is from broadcast revenue," said David Shilbury, a professor at Australia's Deakin University who specializes in sports management. When leagues had to shorten their seasons amid months of lockdown, their broadcasting arrangements were affected, Shilbury suggested.

In South Korea, professional baseball, soccer and women's golf have been going ahead without spectators since May. The government on Friday said it will allow baseball fans back into ballparks starting Sunday, with seating limited to no more than 10% of capacity. Soccer fans will be able to come to stadiums from Aug. 1, subject to the same restrictions.

In Taiwan, which successfully halted the virus's spread early on, a baseball game on May 8 became the world's first major professional sporting event to allow fans into the stands amid the pandemic.

New Zealand, which has also succeeded in halting the virus's spread, followed in June, letting fans return en masse to its Super Rugby Aotearoa game.

Other countries are struggling to halt outbreaks. India has been under a strict lockdown since March 25, and the country's most popular sports circuit, Indian Premier League cricket, has suspended its 2020 season indefinitely. Raju Sharma, the head coach for under-19 cricketers in Delhi and a former IPL coach, expects IPL matches to take place in September and October, but without spectators.

If the Board of Control for Cricket in India does not organize an IPL season this year, there will be huge financial losses, Sharma told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Tickets do not generate that much revenue," he said. "Most of the money comes from broadcasting rights. If the board doesn't earn [due to the situation this year, it] will impact state-level cricket associations also as they depend on the board [for a substantial chunk of their funding]."

Repercussions would be felt as far away as Australia. Cricket Australia looks to lose about 300 million Australian dollars (US$209.2 million) in broadcasting and sponsorship money if Team India cancels its planned tour of the country, according to local media.

Wakaki wonders if "digitization and paid streaming can be ways to secure some extra revenue." Online tipping, the Meisei University professor said, could help small struggling teams.

Clubs that have introduced tipping are not disclosing how much revenue it is bringing in.

Online tipping is relatively new to sports. There are different systems depending on the app provider and the team itself. Nippon Professional Baseball's Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles provide content on an app that can also be used to pay for cheering icons as fans watch games.

Kashima Antlers President Fumiaki Koizumi said the COVID-19 predicament is forcing his J-League club to bring forward its digitization plans "two or three years ahead of what we had originally anticipated."

The team streamed footage of past games and interviews with former and current players over something called the Player! app, coaxing viewers to support the team by making payments over the app. The payments are basically donations, and some viewers have paid as much as 10,000 yen, according to a team representative.

Player! is operated by startup Ookami, which is partnering with over 10 J-League teams. "We are looking for it to be a new revenue stream that would follow ticket sales and goods sales," Ookami President Taiyo Ogata said. Fans that tip and donate can earn exclusive rewards, like photo and wallpaper downloads available only to them.

Ogata added that although livestreaming content and encouraging fans to make payments can generate some revenue, this income will not replace that from ticket and merchandise sales.

One J-League team ran a digital experiment in which fans at home sent cheers like, "Go for it," "Come on!" and "Awww!" through a stadium's speaker system. These exclamations as well as applause echoed across the soccer pitch during a Jubilo Iwata practice game against Azul Claro Numazu in mid-June. Despite the noise, the match was played in an empty Yamaha Stadium, in Shizuoka Prefecture.

The hubbub was generated by Yamaha's Remote Cheerer system. Yamaha is the largest sponsor of the second division team. By using the system's app during the game, fans tapped cheer buttons nearly 1.9 million times. And the players heard them. Koki Ogawa, a 22-year-old forward for Jubilo Iwata, said the applause helped to motivate the players.

Joe Taneda, a sports business expert and a professor at Japan's Ritsumeikan University, sees an expanding business opportunity in sports streaming services. "Unlike stadiums with limited capacity," he said, "livestreaming has no limit on the capacity of spectators and enables sports teams to expand their consumer business."

In Asia, there are not many examples of sports leagues following Major League Baseball in the U.S. and introducing their own streaming services. But the J-League has a 10-year, $2 billion deal with British live sports streaming company DAZN. The contract began in 2017, and the J-League evenly distributes the revenue so each of its clubs can count on some stable revenue.

Tech companies like Japan's SoftBank that have been preparing for the launch of 5G services tend to be ahead of the game. The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks Japanese baseball team has been livestreaming games in virtual reality.

SK Telecom, affiliated with the Incheon-based baseball team SK Wyverns, offered a multiview broadcasting service for the club's opening series, allowing fans to watch games from up to 12 angles on one screen.

SK Telecom offers a multiview broadcasting service for South Korea's avid baseball fan.

In China, the CBA in April signed a 2 billion-yuan ($286.3 million) digital broadcasting deal with Migu, a livestreaming platform of China Mobile Communications. The deal gives Migu streaming rights for five years and calls on both parties to develop 5G-enabled features.

Regardless of these moves, teams and leagues are set to fall on hard times unless the virus can be contained, Wakaki said. "Ultimately," he said, "whether sports teams can withstand the current ordeal depends on how well governments [across Asia] can curb new infections and contain risks."

Additional reporting by Kiran Sharma in New Delhi, Kim Jaewon in Seoul and Masaharu Ban in Tokyo.

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