Without trivialising the worldwide economic and social impacts of coronavirus, there is a silver lining to be found.
Around the world, people are being forced to operate outside their comfort zones.
That might be something as simple as doing supermarket shopping online instead of heading into a store.
Businesses, too, are suddenly under pressure to modernise – employees are now being asked to work from home instead of coming into an office, for example.
The changes that have been forced are ones that won’t necessarily go away once coronavirus subsides either – many of them should have probably already been made but have been held back by a fear of the unknown.
Continue reading below…
Now, the rugby powers-that-be are also being forced to innovate – 2020 could be a landmark year for the sport.
Globally, professional competitions have come to a standstill.
The Gallagher Premiership is the latest tournament to be officially suspended, following in the footsteps of the PRO14, Top 14, Super Rugby, Major League Rugby and the Super Liga.
Japan’s Top League isn’t currently operating either but there’s been no official confirmation yet whether the season will the continue any time soon.
This, of course, is coming at a huge cost to the tournament organisers.
No rugby means no ticket sales, limited sponsorship deals and, in all likelihood, refunds being paid out to broadcasters.
The short of it is that there is a very real chance that some unions and competitions could come frighteningly close to going bust due to just one season’s worth of lost revenue.
Even for the competitions and broadcasters that are able to take the hit and ride out the storm, rugby’s popularity will be impacted by the decreased presence on TV screens in 2020 which could have a flow-on effect in the years to come.
Unless, of course, the game’s organisers get innovative.
America’s Major League Rugby, which was one month into it’s third season when the plug was pulled, is the first competition that looks to be attempting some alternative solutions to the problem at hand.
Per the league’s official Twitter account, MLR is launching a virtual competition which will see well-known players duke it out on the Rugby 20 PlayStation, Xbox and PC game with matches streamed live on Twitch.
In addition, all MLR teams have partnered with local charitable organizations to raise funds during the live streams to support their communities during this difficult time. ?
Stay tuned on @usmlr channels for the full schedule and more information.
— Major League Rugby (@usmlr) March 15, 2020
While fans won’t necessarily get to see which MLR team is the best in the business, they’ll at least get to potentially see players like Ma’a Nonu and Mathieu Bastareaud on show in a more casual and candid environment.
There’s no doubt that the players that take part will build up greater followings which will, in turn, encourage bigger audiences to tune into the Major League when it returns.
Sure, the revenue raised from the virtual competition itself might do little to cover for the lack of games, but it’s a step in the right direction.
And while it’s great to see MLR getting innovative – and they’re basically the only league that’s visibly attempting to do so, at least at this stage – it does make you wonder why its not a tactic that the competition has tried to use in the past.
Ignoring the fact that Rugby 20 was only released earlier this year, there’s no reason why Major League Rugby (or any other competition, for that matter) couldn’t have hosted similar events in the past.
Although social media have removed some of the barriers between athletes and fans, there’s still a significant separation and humanising the players can only be good for the game.
Over 15 years ago, EA Sports were called upon to provide game simulations prior to each match of the 2003 Rugby World Cup but that seems to have been when any sort of partnership between rugby and esports peaked.
With teams unlikely to be so caught up with their strict training regimes thank to the lack of actual games, now is the perfect opportunity to get a bit creative and broadcast some behind-the-scenes footage.
Again, anything that the organisers can do to remove the separation between fans and players will benefit both stakeholders.
On a more traditional note, we’ve heard recently that Super Rugby will almost certainly be called off if the competition has to for five or more weeks but there’s little rationale for this.
Yes, the tournament can’t continue in its current format – there’s not enough calendar weeks for the full schedule to be completed, but that doesn’t mean 2020 season has to die.
Provided that matches can be played (even if it’s behind closed doors), tournament organisers must be willing to improvise a bit.
Perhaps that means running local competitions to find conference winners then having those winners play off for a Super Rugby Shield when international travel becomes more feasible but, whatever the case, the show must go on – and other competitions around the world can follow a similar model.
Rugby in the most traditional sense may have come to a standstill, but that doesn’t mean fans should be switching off – it’s just time for the sport to get a little bit more creative and think outside the box in order to engage its audiences.
WATCH: Global Rapid Rugby has taken an especially innovative approach to the game, significantly changing the rules of the sport:
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now