Sport, interrupted: Lights and camera ready but no sign of action

Sound engineer Nandu Mondal says when sport events restart, production companies might make do with fewer technicians. Photo courtesy of Nandu Mondal

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN looks across the country's sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

May is a significant month in India's sporting calendar; it's when the Indian Premier League -- inarguably the highlight of the domestic sporting season -- enters its final lap. It's also when, along with the world's top cricketers, Vinayak Sharma comes under intense pressure. You probably haven't heard of him but he's among the many faceless cogs in the IPL's production wheel that bring the tournament to your living room.

Sharma is an EVS (electronic variable speed) coordinator, converting sporting action -- a near edge, a borderline stumping or a chance of a run-out -- into slow-motion replays in real time. It's a tough gig but one Sharma excels in. "It's a high-pressure situation. You either have the mindset to do it or you don't. You have to be focused for [four] straight hours. It's live so there aren't any second takes," he says.

He hasn't been in a control room this past month, or indeed most of the month before that. But the stress levels have remained, though for different reasons. "All I'm doing is sharpening my dish-washing skills. It's frustrating," he says over the phone from Gurgaon.

Stuck at home

Sharma isn't alone; with sport largely in lockdown mode across the world, the associated television broadcast industry is at a standstill. Instead of being in a control room or an OB van, everyone is at home. Complicating the fact is that the industry in India is overwhelmingly populated by freelancers, who have no salary to fall back on. "If you've taken a 30 per cent pay cut in your job, consider yourself one of the lucky ones. Nearly everyone is a freelancer and if you don't work, you don't get paid," says Hemant Buch, former head of production at Ten Sports.

This empty calendar is an unusual position to be in. "Our calendar is always busy. I'd could be working 300 days in a year. I was in Pakistan for the Pakistan Super League (PSL) and then because this is a [T20 Cricket] World Cup year, there was going to be a lot of cricket coming up. But there's nothing on right now, we're all sitting at home," says Sharma.

Long-timers say the current scenario is like nothing they have seen before. "There have been times in the past where political parties forced IPL games out of Mumbai and Chennai, but the show always went on. I don't think there has ever been a time where there was absolutely no sport taking place anywhere," says executive producer Rajiv Kaul.

In hindsight, Sharma and his colleagues could sense the tide going out. "In Karachi, where I had gone for the PSL, they were doing temperature checks at the airport," says Sharma. And while India entered its lockdown on March 25, sporting events had already started being hit. The final of the Indian Super League [ISL] on March 14 was played behind closed doors. "You usually start preparing with a week to go for the final. For the first three days we were discussing the usual stuff like timings, logistics and preshows. And then over the last four days we realised we can't do this preshow, we can't have unwanted people. Suddenly we realised we'd have to do the final behind closed doors. That was a really hard step," says live broadcast director Dhruv Varshney.

But even while every sign screamed that a lockdown was imminent, no one actually believed it until it was finally enforced. "We are so caught up in airports and hotels and getting from one sporting event to another that we didn't really think about it. Our psyche is such that you think life always goes on," says Varshney.

Forced to sit at home, they have been taking stock. "Just the IPL getting delayed is a major impact on our sector. Nearly everyone in sports production in India works during the IPL. For each season you'd have four crews with about 250 people each. This is just the production crew including the cameramen, riggers and sound engineer. Everyone has taken a blind hit. No one really knows what's in the future," says Kaul.

Bleak prospects

The life of a freelancer is one of feast and famine, and at this moment there looks to be plenty of the latter. Typically, a senior producer would earn Rs 30 lakh in a 100-workday year; an EVS coordinator would earn around Rs 20 lakh and an executive producer, around Rs 60 lakh. Right now, though, those figures are meaningless.

"No one imagines they will be getting work any time soon. Sport isn't anyone's priority right now. All of us are living off our savings. If you have EMIs or a family to take care of, you're in a lot of trouble. I've got enough to get by for a year. Beyond that, I don't know. I've thought about selling my house but who's going to buy anything at this time," Sharma says.

Others are worse off. "I've got enough for another two months," says Nandu Mondal, a sound engineer who shares his apartment in Kolkata with his parents, his wife and child. Someone in his position would earn around Rs 10 lakh a year but not this year. "Uske baad pura khatam hone wala hai (After that's it's going to be entirely over). I sometimes work in the film industry to add [to my income] but everything is shut right now. We are cutting costs wherever we can. For instance, we aren't buying snacks; instead my wife is cooking them at home," he says.

Some are trying to make the best of a bad situation. With Zoom calls to colleagues becoming the norm, Kaul is looking to make the format TV-friendly. "Zoom doesn't really work for TV since the frame window is fixed and you can't do anything with the video itself. The app we are working on will allow the controller to be based in a different city, give artificial camera movement to the person in the video and also create layers in the video where you could add graphics. Me and the IPL graphics team have been trying to come up with this and we are testing it for a week now," he says.

Sport interrupted: Stories on the coronavirus lockdown impact the Indian sport ecosystem

The new normal

Even when they do start, most expect sport events to be impacted by social distancing and other precautionary steps. With no expectation of stadium audiences, there might not be a need to host events at multiple locations either. "The Bundesliga has started, and the EPL might start in some form next month. A lot of us are waiting to see how they go about it," says Sharma.

"We think we will have fewer technicians. There might be some sort of safety dress code. We will probably need gloves and maybe we will have to use our own," adds Mondal.

There is also a belief that the trend towards remote productions -- where only a skeleton crew is actually at the stadium with the rest at a centrally controlled location -- might become the norm.

"We have already had a few games in the Pro Kabaddi League that have been largely remote productions. They save costs and we might see more of that now," says Kaul. With his work as producer spanning both entertainment and sports, Kaul knows remote productions could become widespread. "Shows like 'Big Boss' don't have any cameramen inside the house. All 60 cameras are operated from a control room. In cricket too, apart from the ones that follow the ball, most of the cameras are fixed. Remote productions are already present but their number will increase," says Kaul.

Most also expect wages to crash. "The cost of production will come down. As a freelancer, you would be asked to do the same thing for a lower cost. Instead of Rs 100, they'll ask you to do the same thing for Rs 50," says Kaul.

Buch is more optimistic. "I'd think that when the season starts once again, there's going to be a glut of work. There's only a limited number of days and crew members and every sporting event will look to get under way at the same time," he says.

For now, though, there's nothing to do but wait. "Initially, when we realised there wasn't going to be any sport for some time, someone suggested that I perhaps try to work in the TV news industry for some time. But my job as an EVS coordinator is very specialised. The same machine might not be required in news. It's the same for others too. I doubt there are many people who could shift fields. Honestly, for most of us there's no plan B," Sharma says.