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Paul Garbett | French Open the first ‘land grab’ as the sporting calendar is ripped up by coronavirus

Paul Garbett, associate director at CSM Sport & Entertainment, gives his view on the impact and opportunities of a dramatically changed post-coronavirus sporting calendar.

Shockwaves reverberated through the tennis world last week as the French Tennis Federation (FFT) moved the French Open to September, highlighting the complexities that a revised 2020 sporting calendar will present for rights-holders, brands and broadcasters.

As the BBC’s tennis correspondent Russell Fuller commented, “it is a bold move; or an audacious land grab”.

The clay-court grand slam, usually scheduled in May as the second of the season, was postponed until September 20 on Tuesday due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, which has already seen a virtual shutdown of global sporting events.

It means Roland Garros is now set to begin just under a week after the US Open ends. The new date of the French Open clashes with scheduled ATP and WTA tournaments across the world, including the increasingly popular Laver Cup, which is supported by French Open champion Rafael Nadal.

The unexpected announcement raised eyebrows at the US Tennis Association. In a carefully-worded statement about its own scheduling, it said: “At a time when the world is coming together, we recognise that such a decision should not be made unilaterally, and therefore the USTA would only do so in full consultation with the other grand slam tournaments, the WTA and ATP, the ITF and our partners.”

Whilst other events – including the HSBC Hong Kong Sevens and the London Marathon – have also announced revised dates as part of coronavirus contingency plans, the French Open is the first to generate major controversy, with the FFT criticised by some for putting its own interests ahead of the impact on the sport’s wider calendar.

This balance may be a difficult one for others to strike in the coming weeks, as rights-holders and governing bodies strive to find an appropriate time to fit their showpiece events back into the sporting calendar.

A congested series of events in the second half of 2020 could provide a welcome financial boost for the industry after months of suspension and lost revenues. But this unusual revised calendar will have major implications for rights-holders, sponsors and broadcasters – with the packed schedule leading to competition for the attention of sports fans yet also creating an opportunity to cross promote between properties like never before.

To provide one example, the new timing of Roland Garros – televised across Europe on Eurosport – will see the opening weekend clash with the revised date for one of the network’s other flagship properties, the Le Mans 24 Hour race. The second weekend of the French Open will also share spotlight with the scheduled date for the Ryder Cup (albeit with the latter taking place in a US time zone at Whistling Straits).

Should the worst of the pandemic be over, sports fans in the UK can already look forward to a stunning line-up of major events in July, with the third weekend of the month seeing golf’s Open Championship, the British Formula One Grand Prix and the inaugural weekend of cricket’s The Hundred take place. The Tokyo Olympics and Formula E’s new London season-finale are scheduled just a week later. That’s before the prospect of domestic summer football is considered.

If the threat of COVID-19 subsides, that window of major summer events will present a huge opportunity for sponsors and broadcasters to relaunch and revive campaigns to engage sports-starved fans following a gloomy spring – and may also provide a platform for other brands to join the sporting conversation as they look to bounce back from the impact of the global crisis on their business, customers and employees.

As the sports sector adapts to challenging times, the unprecedented 2020 sporting calendar will present challenges and opportunities for the entire industry in equal measure.

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