COVID-19: Sports and Major Events – an update

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  • Sport and Major Events Risk Management

COVID-19: Sports and Major Events – an update

That beautiful, nearly silent, swish – the ball against the back of the net.
Fans, players, owners, sponsors and the workforce behind the whole experience can’t wait to hear that sound again. Live, and in person.

Whether it’s a football match, a rock concert, an international tournament or the running of an elite horse race, the world of major events is one of the most visible signs of a life lived normally. As businesses and government consider gradually relaxing the restrictions imposed to quash the spread of coronavirus, the world of sport and major events is as eager as the rest to return to business as usual.

But “business as usual” is used here with great caution. The public and private sectors are now deep in consultation, planning just what “usual” might look like in the coming months. It would be wise to anticipate a business landscape full of unfamiliar features.

For the sports and major events business – a business built on activities that typically include large crowds close together – that consultation will require individual and additional consideration and provisions. Some of these provisions will be sector specific. Others will come from public health considerations. 

This means that returning to economic activity for sports and major events will likely require a more phased approach than already under consideration in other sectors.  Add to this the great diversity of sport, from the World Series to Wimbledon, each event will have specific requirements for the resumption of activity.

Governments around the world are legitimately concerned about a second wave of infection in the wake of a relaxation of restrictions. So public health concerns will, in the first instance, point toward a resumption of playing matches behind closed doors and a continued delay in cyclical events. Play in front of live crowds could only come after authorities are convinced that stadiums can adapt to prolonged requirements for social distancing. Prior to the serious resumption of public participation, infection rates will also have to be consistently low, and health care capacity will have to be robust enough to manage a possible second wave of infection.

Control Risks has developed a series of scenarios to help companies and organisations forecast the relaxation – or re-imposition – of restrictions. They are listed below.

Global scenarios (6-9 months)

Scenario 1/ Seasonal disruption

  • Infections fall in China but accelerate outside China. Global pandemic peaks in May 2020.
  • Disruption of production and supply chains remains significant in Q2; recovery starts late Q2/early Q3.
  • Supply chains/transport links recover in Q4; 10-15% of supply chains permanently dislocated.
  • Major events disrupted until containment achieved.
  • Global growth slows significantly.
  • Security situation remains stable, law enforcement under pressure.
  • Govt’s in Italy, Iran under pressure.


Scenario 2/ Prolonged disruption

  • Outside China, pandemic spreads widely and globally. Containment efforts mixed.
  • Concerns arise of a second wave when quarantines ease.
  • Movement of people across borders de facto suspend globally.
  • Goods flow but with major logistical challenges. By Q3 2020, majority of supply chains need repair.
  • Global economy enters recession.
  • Deteriorating security environment in some places.
  • Acute political challenges increase as the economic effects of COVID-19 restrictions is felt by economies and societies.


Scenario 3/ Uneven rebound

  • Developed markets bring pandemic under control, developing markets remain deep in crisis.
  • Lockdowns relax, in stages, in developed markets. Mobility severely restricted elsewhere.
  • Security situation worsens in developing markets; foreigners and foreign companies targeted.
  • Global economy remains in recession; improvement forecast for Q4.
  • On-shoring of supply chains brings political fragmentation and protectionism. Supply and demand markets fail to meet.
  • Geopolitical consequences are significant; inter-state tensions rise.


Scenario 4/ Global rebound

  • Pandemic brought broadly under control and/or WHO announces end of pandemic status. Vaccine is developed.
  • Restrictions on movement of people and goods gradually relax globally. Supply chains, transport links are restored.
  • Business operations resume gradually.
  • Global GDP rebounds in Q4. Global growth averaging 4.4% forecast for 2020.
  • Political risks remain elevated. Rivalry resumes and intensifies between the US and China; international cooperation is fraught.
  • Security risks remain elevated until all economies resume growth and employment levels normalise.


Control Risks’ COVID-19 global monitoring work and scenario planning – which looks approximately six to nine months into the future – places business and the pandemic in a phase called “prolonged disruption.” The features of this scenario include, among others, the de facto suspension of travel across international borders, a global economic recession, challenges to supply chain and logistics, and prominent concerns about a second wave of infection, all of which will have a continued impact on sport and major events. 

We continue to monitor an elaborate set of triggers that will dictate how long we stay in the current scenario, and how quickly we move into potential rebound scenarios. Effective monitoring and scenario forecasting, and a methodological approach to threat and risk management, are critical to emerging from lockdown and resuming economic activity.

Beyond monitoring, the owners and managers of major events are going to have to engage and work closer than ever before with key stakeholders. Nothing can ever be on autopilot again. This engagement should train a laser focus on the transition from dormancy to a resumption of events – but not events as we know them. The entire spectrum of event stakeholders will have to manage expectations, identify new requirements and, ideally, minimise the surprises of the post-pandemic environment. Who will need face masks? Can seating arrangements be reconfigured? What to do about elderly visitors or children at the venue? What if the event is planned for a location that becomes a new hotspot? Identifying the key issues is half the battle.

As complicated as they may be, the public-health considerations cannot be taken in isolation from sector-specific concerns.

Team sport depends on travel: there is always a home team, there is always an away team. Countries beginning to relax their travel restrictions typically start with domestic travel. Activities within national leagues will be able to take advantage, in a limited and highly controlled fashion, of the removal of these restrictions. The return of domestic travel will not mean a local travel free-for-all. We can look to the gradual re-opening of schools as a guide to just how complex and controlled the return of sport may be.

Relaxing the restrictions on international travel is a much more complicated calculation. We anticipate that the relaxation of cross-border travel will be slow, highly fragmented and loaded with conditions. When international travel is more broadly allowed, concern will again focus on procedures upon arrival. Travel restrictions will not only complicate individual match play; the situation will be even more intricate for large, international tournaments, particularly where competing nations are at different stages of recovery. 

And what of the travellers themselves – the players? We can only hope that our favourite footballers have been staying fit at home. Player/athlete welfare and the readiness to play physically demanding sport and avoid injury will take a while to re-establish. 

Like all businesses, sport is under significant financial strain. A large number of leagues, associations and clubs work on tight margins linked to sponsorship deals and broadcast rights, some of which are now withheld or suspended. Clubs who rely on wealthy benefactors will be exposed to a single point of failure, as those individuals themselves will most likely come under economic pressure.

In large countries, league play may begin in one part of the country, but not in another. Major League Baseball in the United States even floated the idea of playing its entire season in a coronavirus-free “bubble” it would seek to create in the state of Arizona. In every sport and in every country, leagues will also have to determine the minimal level of participation that will make a season valid. 

Finally, sport, like every other business, has a supply chain. Most of the links in those supply chains would like nothing more than to get back to business as quickly as possible. Not all of them will be able to. Some businesses will no longer be viable. Others may not be able to resume business as quickly as partners may want them to. Sport must identify and remedy the weakest links in its supply chain prior to even considering a return to full economic activity.

Like all of us, sport will adapt to a new way of working. Some sports will hold matches behind closed doors, some will consider featuring athletes playing solo, some will examine staging a league in isolation. On the less practical end of the solutions spectrum, suggestions of playing tournaments on private islands have come and gone. 


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