Return of Fans to Grounds Offers Lifeline to Lower League English Football

Sports clubs owners across England will have breathed a sigh of relief earlier this week when the government confirmed that up to 4000 fans could return to sporting events held at stadiums in areas where there is a lower risk of Covid-19 transmission.

English Football League chairman Rick Parry expressed delight at the news, stating that it provided a “lifeline” for clubs lower down the league pyramid. The EFL was anticipating moving some fixtures from Tuesday December 1 to the following day in order to have some crowds present.

That will present logistical issues, with many matchday staff still on furlough, especially as sport as a whole was not anticipating any kind of return of crowds until after Christmas. But the news is tremendously encouraging for a sporting community in England that has seen its future existence placed in some doubt for a lengthy period of time.

Figures from a range of UK sports had expressed serious concerns for the future of clubs when a new lockdown was mooted in September. That was when a pilot programme of trial events was cancelled, as new restrictions came into place to control the spread of coronavirus.

More funds for sports

The governing bodies of rugby union (RFU) and rugby league (RFL) in England expressed major concerns at that time about the damage a lack of spectators would do. Earlier this month, the RFL had to take out another £12 million loan in addition to the £16 million already borrowed from the UK government to keep the sport alive.

That amount looks pretty pitiful when compared to the amount the government has distributed to rugby union, however. It was part of an overall package of £300 million that was distributed across sport as follows:

  • Rugby union – £135m
  • Horseracing – £40m
  • Football (Non-league and women) – £28m
  • Rugby league – £12m
  • Motorsport – £6m
  • Tennis – £5m
  • Netball – £4m
  • Basketball – £4m
  • Ice hockey – £4m
  • Badminton – £2m
  • Greyhound racing – £1m

A point has clearly been reached now where much professional sport will wither and die without some kind of return of crowds. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has commented that the inconsistencies in approach between other events and sport played a part in the new regulations being decided.

Many campaigners had pointed out the basic unfairness when it was allowed to watch a film at a cinema but not attend a sports event at a stadium. Clubs do not just miss out on ticket revenue, of course, but have also been deprived of crucial revenue streams from catering and merchandising that cannot be properly exploited without fans in grounds.

What is clear is that professional sport is struggling to deal with the effects of the pandemic. The effects of the Covd-19 restrictions are tugging at the fabric of the sporting infrastructure. While the doom-laden predictions of a mass of clubs ceasing to exist have not yet come to pass, there have to be serious worries about some sports.

Rugby league, for example, will be in a perilous state if no fans are allowed to return when the new season begins in spring. The Championship and League 1 clubs in that sport will be especially nervous, though many Super League clubs rely on matchday revenue to keep them afloat.

The economic consequences do just affect players or administrators at clubs. Event stewards, car park attendants, retail workers, catering providers and more have all had their livelihoods destroyed by the pandemic.

Those people are central to the matchday experience – no game can take place without a legion of support workers in place. Many of these workers have been on furlough for much of the year or have lost their jobs entirely.

Situation is different in Scotland

The situation will be different in Scotland too, with the country set to have different restrictions in place than those that will apply in England. While up to 4000 spectators will be allowed into stadiums in low-risk areas of England after December 2, the figure will remain at 300 for Scotland.

Scottish football’s losses are currently estimated at around £70 million this year, and that figure is expected to rise to £100 million before the pandemic ends. Around 43% of Scottish clubs’ revenue comes from gate receipts, a figure that is 15% higher than the average across Europe.

Even Glasgow giants Rangers have not been immune, with the Ibrox outfit losing an estimated £10 million. Aberdeen have lost around £5 million. The Scottish rugby union governing body, Scottish Rugby, has lost around £18 million, largely as a result of not being able to pack fans in for Scotland internationals at Murrayfield.

Pubs, restaurants and cafes located within walking distance of venues such as Murrayfield and Ibrox are also reporting hugely reduced revenues as a result of not being able to open for fans. While their equivalents in England can look forward to at least some mitigation of the situation with the scheduled limited return, things look grimmer for the likes of Kadir Kavak, who owns the Roseburn Cafe in Edinburgh.

The cafe is within walking distance of both Murrayfield and Heart of Midlothian’s ground Tynecastle in western Edinburgh. When Scotland are playing at Murrayfiled, takings will double and treble from a typical Saturday. Not anymore, according to Kavak, who told the BBC: “When there’s a game, we’re much more busy than is usual. But these days it’s just another quiet, lockdown day.”

Whether Kavak and thousands like him will be able to rely on matchday revenues in Scotland any time soon remains to be seen. His English equivalents may soon face a return of restrictions too, given that scientists are already warning about a third wave of Covd-19 hitting the UK after Christmas.

Limited spectator numbers are definitely a step forward for sport but it looks like this is only a first step on what could be a long and torturous journey back to ‘normal’. Sports fans should expect a rocky road to recovery.

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