Op-Ed: Miller on the risks of sport's return

14 May 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

As the sport industry prepares to resume behind closed doors amid the Coronavirus lockdown, David Griffiths of Sport Industry Awards 2020 Category Partner Miller take a look at the event management and risk assessment considerations that organisers need to factor into their planning.


With reports suggesting that global revenues for 2020 will be halved and that some clubs and events may not be financially robust enough to survive a continuing revenue hiatus, there is an understandable desire to get sport up and running as soon as possible.

But the impetus behind discussions to re-start sport is not driven solely by commercial considerations. Lockdown has emphasised the importance of sport in national life and its return will deliver a much-needed morale-boost to millions.

Consequently we are witnessing an active and public dialogue as the world’s biggest football leagues – Spain’s La Liga, the English Premier League and Italy’s Serie A – look to conclude the 2019/20 season while Formula 1 has also advanced plans to race again by creating a ‘biosphere’ COVID-19 free zone around its events.

Elsewhere Korea’s professional football and baseball leagues are already back, with a reported 3.4m Twitter views of the K-League restart and a further 234k views on YouTube. The German Bundesliga is scheduled to restart this weekend, whilst tentative steps have been taken to re-start tennis with a minor pro event taking place in Germany. In the United States, Rory McIlroy is among the stars scheduled to play in an upcoming charity golf tournament while Professional Bull Riding - an increasingly attractive TV property – has also held its first event since the introduction of lockdown.

But as different sports prepare to resume, they are all aware that they won’t be returning to business as usual. They face a changed world in which fans – not just a major source of revenue but the living backdrop and soundtrack to sport – are absent. For the foreseeable future, any sport which can take place is highly likely to do so behind closed doors, with an increased reliance on broadcasters to reach fans that are unable to attend in person.

This is uncharted territory with many key factors out of the control of event organisers and clubs. As a result, they face a raft of fresh challenges and new considerations. For events to take place under the new norm, where government advice has to be followed at all times, requires a thorough review and revision of established processes and procedures – in effect a new Playbook. 

Thorough risk assessment and the development of operational and financial strategies to mitigate that risk is central to the planning of any event or the running of any organisation. And while it might be tempting to imagine that events played in empty stadiums would present fewer risks because they have fewer moving parts (no catering, hospitality or retail, for example) and the absence of a crowd reduces the potential for incidents and accidents in certain areas, the reality is very different.

New and different risk

In fact, events staged behind closed doors at a time of tremendous fear over personal and public health give rise to a new portfolio of potential risk which must be factored into event planning and wider commercial considerations. 

Among the key areas of risk is the supply chain on which every event relies. Under normal circumstances the chain is long, varied and complex, covering everything from catering and hospitality through to security, publishing services (programmes) retail, first aid and medical, the list goes on.

While the absence of spectators means that there are fewer components to the chain – there will be no hospitality for example – the reality is that key elements, like security and medical, become more important than ever.

The pandemic has hit businesses hard and all partners may have suffered. Event organisers and managers need to be confident that partner organisations remain able to deliver and adapt their services. The reality is that while some may be in reasonable financial shape, they may have furloughed staff and be unable to mobilise a skilled team in time. 

It’s also essential to be confident that partners are reviewing and revising their own procedures to meet new requirements. That includes staff training and their own supply and procurement conditions, a lot of which is delivered in different (often virtual) working conditions. The duty of care of organisers will mean giving themselves more extensive reassurance that the safety protocols are being followed through the supply chain.

Health and safety

Event organisers have a responsibility for everybody operating on site. These range from ground staff who have to ensure the sporting surface and other facilities are ready for the restart, to the cleaners responsible for the changing rooms and areas before and after events. Then there are non-employed or contracted service providers which include broadcasters and media as well as, possibly, volunteer service providers such as the St John’s Ambulance. 

Naturally, health and safety risks are different to those faced under normal circumstances and many new considerations arise because of the virus and demand a root and branch review of procedures to ensure they remain effective under the new conditions.

Perhaps the most obvious is testing for Covid-19 itself. Without a test clearance nobody will likely be able to operate within the cordon sanitaire around the event. All event day staff, whether employed directly or outsourced will likely have to be tested and cleared. That increases the risk of suppliers not being able to meet their obligations.

Organisers will also have to be confident in the levels of training that all event day staff have received, and in their ability to operate safely and effectively under changed circumstances.

Secure venues

With the possibility of returning sports events taking place at third party venues, another series of potential risks arises. Liaison and collaboration with the venue owners is essential to ensure that their management teams are able to contribute to delivering an event successfully and safely. It is vital to be clear on boundaries of responsibility and liability with other parties involved in staging the event. 

Make no mistake, the sport economy is suffering badly and a return to action is vital for businesses and for millions of fans. 

Reviewing and revising event management and risk assessment processes has an important role to play in aiding that recovery. Demonstrating that processes are fit for purpose under the new normal and achieving a new level of information sharing and communication among stakeholders will give comfort to insurers and help ensure that events can take place to meet the expectations of broadcasters, sponsors and a sports-hungry public.

The world has changed, nothing can be taken for granted and every aspect of event organisation, processes and procedures must be analysed, and the risks assessed through the prism of the new realities we face. That said there is a willingness from all those involved in any aspect of sport to facilitate a return to action. With a diligent approach keeping a close eye on government guidance, there is every prospect of a successful return over the coming weeks and months.

David Griffiths is a senior member of Miller’s Sport and Entertainment team, specialising in the account management of high-profile associations, rights holders and clubs. With an insurance career dating back to 1991, David has held senior positions at a number of global and independent brokers and is a sports sector specialist.