COVID-19 has hit the sporting world pretty hard.
Over the last two months or so, sporting events of all disciplines and sizes have been postponed or cancelled – from club cricket to the Olympic Games – as the novel coronavirus has swept the planet and brought everyday life to a grinding halt.
Every nation in the world has been affected, but one or two smaller, and particularly island nations have avoided infection. Vanuatu is one of those. A pre-emptive lockdown and closure of the nation’s borders meant that the virus never made in onto the southern pacific archipelago. Whilst the borders remain closed, the lockdown has been eased and normal life is resuming.
With the rest of the sporting world still all but shut down, Vanuatu Cricket CEO Shane Deitz and his team spotted an opportunity. The local Women’s T20 league had been suspended by the lockdown with two games to go and could be now be completed. It would likely be the only organised cricket event happening anywhere. Perhaps the only real-world sporting event on the planet. What an opportunity then, to set up a broadcast and showcase cricket in Vanuatu to the whole world.
Vanuatu’s national broadcaster had never covered a cricket game before. 4 rookie cameramen and crew set up what the first games ever streamed from the island: the women’s finals and a men’s 10 over exhibition match. The stream received 350,000 views live and at the time of writing has been topped up to nearly half a million – nearly twice the population of the entire country!
An overwhelming success, covered as far away as by the New York Times, has put Vanuatu centre stage in the cricket world, and whilst they were by no means slouches on the international stage – battling it out in the Cricket World Cup Challenge League (the third tier of men’s 50 over cricket) – their presence on the cricketing map has been elevated.
For Deitz and his team, this simply opens the gate to bigger things. Vanuatu’s economy is already highly rigged towards tourism, but now there is opportunity for cricket to add to that. Cricket tourism – in which amateur club teams take a holiday and play a few cricket games along the way – is already helping to elevate the game in nations like Spain but Vanuatu now has the opportunity to do the same by attracting teams from Australia and New Zealand.
Equally as important is the broadcasting side of events. Such a high viewer count, particularly helped by sports betting in India, means that there is a great potential for sponsors and advertisers to come on board – any company in Vanuatu that deals in the tourism sector or trades with India, Australia or New Zealand could be hoping to get their name on the action. It’s likely that this is not the last time we’ll see cricket live from Vanuatu.
It’s clear that Deitz and co. are aware of this. Next on the cricket calendar was supposed to be a men’s 40 over competition, but that has now been postponed in favour of running a T10 tournament, likely with the aim of broadcasting it worldwide. Naturally this well have a huge boost for cricket on these islands, televising the game will help to expand the audience and participation numbers across the nation.
The start of May should be seeing the start of the domestic cricket season in Europe, particularly the club and county seasons in England. However, since the UK is one of the worst effected countries worldwide, there’s likely not to be a ball bowled outside backyards for at least two months. This is a huge opening for cricket in nations that have outperformed the UK on their coronavirus response to steal the spotlight.
Among these are Denmark and the Czech Republic. Two nations at different stages of their cricketing journeys but united by a strong coronavirus response, both are aiming to start their domestic seasons in the coming 4 – 5 weeks. If they’ve paid attention to Vanuatu’s story, they’ll be fully aware that a livestream could put them squarely in cricket’s spotlight whilst the rest of the cricketing world is in their off-season and England is out of action.
This might also readdress the focus of these games, particularly towards T10 cricket. A format already gaining traction in smaller cricketing nations, as well as the preferred format of the European Cricket League and the UAE’s franchise competition, it’s quite possible that dedicated club T10 leagues are launched across the world this year. Particularly, this will be the case if the games are livestreamed/telecast such that domestic viewers are retained, especially those who a new to the game, as well as those from overseas markets.
Turbulence creates opportunity. The sands of the game were shifting already as professional cricket moves towards a market more based on domestic and franchise cricket. But for those further down the ladder, there is the opportunity both to expand their own markets but also to make noise whilst others are kept quiet. This will come with shorter games and more livestreaming.
Who will seize the gauntlet?