Sports Crisis Over Empty Stadiums

August 25, 2020

- Grant Whittington

When the global health crisis caused sports events to screech to a halt in March this year, Pep Guardiola said his team wouldn’t want to play without its fans there. But the Spanish Manchester City Manager may have to grin and bear it for some time yet. Empty arenas look likely to remain as the new normal for a while. 

But there has been some forward progress. Closed-door events, including Horse Races, Premier League Football games, and Test Match Cricket matches have been reintroduced.

But the central issue remains. When will fans be allowed to return to the United Kingdom’s stadiums? Seeing some of the biggest Football teams in the world, like Fußball-Bundesliga, Manchester City, Manchester United, and the Wolverhampton Wanderers, playing in empty stadiums is bizarre. And everyone’s champing at the bit to get back to arenas chock-full of screaming supporters.

We’ll be able to get a better picture of what the future holds when the results get back from more events that have allowed spectators. The recent Australian A-League alert, which resulted after one fan tested positive, did no one any favours, especially since there were very strict restrictions in place in terms of attendance. Rules are going to have to be respected, too. The Scottish Premiership was ruined when players ignored restrictions regarding their movement.

High Hopes for October

The Government has announced that fans will hopefully be allowed back to watch big events from October 1, 2020. But only a fraction of normal attendance numbers will be tolerated thanks to social distancing guidelines being in full force.

Suggestions are streaming in about how to ensure people’s safety, including temperature testing stations being placed at stadium entrances. This app-based system checks for symptoms and would work as a type of medical passport.

Everything was on track as of the middle of July and several experimental programmes paved the way for trial returns. The list of events included a Cricket County Championship match, the Qatar Goodwood Festival, and the World Snooker Championship.

But a sharp rise in people testing positive saw the scheme deserted after just a fortnight and massive costs were incurred. The abandoned Goodwood Racing event lost £100,000 and the World Snooker Championship seven times that. These huge financial losses were somewhat mitigated by fans still being allowed to bet online, however, and a return to live sports events by October is still on the cards.

Current targets remain low, however, with suggestions being that operations scale down to just 30% attendance capacity and that tickets only be sold in packs of six. But there has predictably been a wave of opposition to the introduction of these safeguards. Expecting people to arrive in groups of six or not at all seems a bit optimistic.

A Question of Survival

But everyone wants to give it a try and it has to be said that the whole industry is facing the kind of problem that could bring it to its knees.

Closed-door games and matches are somewhat satisfying the desires of fans, and the Premier League has proven that compromise is possible. The problem is that smaller clubs from places like Bury, Clapton, Leyton Orient, and Wigan face extinction without their fans. Huge investments are also called for if newer sports like female Football are going to survive. Especially when you take into account the fact that Football Clubs are often the single largest asset in any town.

Lower-league FCs are almost totally dependent on the income they get on match-day, which includes catering, merchandise, and ticket sales and small amounts of hospitality work. They don’t have the lucrative TV deals that bigger ones do to fall back on.

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