The Premier League, the English Football League, the FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship have agreed to postpone the professional game until 3 April at the earliest. Professor Wyn Grant from Warwick's Department of Politics and International Studies, explores the ramifications for the sport and society.
The EFL stated that the decision had ‘been taken due to the increasing numbers of Clubs taking steps to isolate their players and staff because of the COVID-19 virus … This decision has not been taken lightly, but the EFL must prioritise the health and well-being of players, staff and supporters while also acknowledging the Government’s national efforts in tackling this outbreak.’
La Liga had postponed its competition on Thursday after Real Madrid players were placed in quarantine. Italy's Serie had been suspended, while games in the Bundesliga and France's Ligue One were being played in front of empty stadiums.
The expert view appears to be that transmission of the virus is relatively unlikely in a large outdoor gathering like a football match, although travel by public transport to the match could be an issue, not least in the confined space of the tube in London. Gatherings of more than 500 have been banned in Scotland from Monday because of the demands they place on emergency services with police and ambulance services required to be present at football matches.
Playing behind closed doors was not really a solution as there has been concern that fans could gather outside stadiums where games were being played behind closed doors. This happened at Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League game on Wednesday this week when thousands of fans gathered outside the Parc de Princes stadium for the match against Borussia Dortmund .
It would be difficult to stop Liverpool fans congregating outside Anfield if their team was winning the title inside the stadium which could have happened at a game against Crystal Palace on 21 March depending on intervening results. Liverpool have not won the title for 30 years and doing so is understandably of great significance to the club’s fans. It would be difficult to control the consequent public disorder as they gathered to celebrate.
Premier League clubs made £720m in annual match day sales last season according to Deloitte. Most Premier League clubs have insurance policies against loss of ticketing income. The consequences of postponement are far more serious for lower league clubs which are far more reliant on match day income and often have serious cash flow problems.
One football finance expert told the Yorkshire Post that playing matches behind closed doors ‘would be a disaster for League One and League Two as clubs are already living from hand to mouth and are reliant upon those people who are not season-ticket holders, away fans who turn up or just walk-ups. They are also making money from programme and catering sales and so on. Cash flow will ultimately cause clubs to survive or fail.’
He suggested that Premier League clubs could give them financial assistance, but whether they would want to cross-subsidise other businesses more than they do already is a moot point.
The Premier League was resistant to calls for live free screening of matches that kick off at the traditional time of 3pm on Saturdays. Sky and BT Sport pay more than £1.3bn each year to be live broadcasters with each match costing up to £9m.
Cancellation of the Premier League season would lead to substantial financial and legal issues about relegation and Champions League qualifications. 14 out of 20 teams would have to vote in favour of any changes to the rule book. One suggestion is that if Uefa decides at a meeting next week to postpone the Euro 2020 competition until next year, as seems likely, the Premier League fixtures could be completed in early summer.
How non-league matches would be affected is unclear, but many attract crowds of more than 500 if that is the criterion. Cash flow problems for non-league clubs could be very serious. Many of them are losing substantial sums of money. For example, Dover Athletic in the National League lost nearly £500,000 in 2018/19. Billericay Town in the National League South lost £122.000.
Lawyers Brabners have reviewed the complex legal issues that could arise from matches being suspended, for example, what happens to lucrative perimeter advertising deals?
It is more than likely that postponements will extend beyond 3 April leading to a complex set of legal and financial issues that will not be easy to resolve.
13 March 2020
Professor Wyn Grant is an expert in British politics with an interest in comparative public policy with particular reference to the European Union and the United States. The main policy areas he is interested in are economic policy, trade policy, government-business relations, agricultural policy and environmental policy. He also has a long standing interest in the study of pressure groups. He is also interested in the political economy of football.
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