Covid-19: It’s a political football

FOOTBALL continues to be divided over the timing of fans’ return to the stadiums. From a business perspective, no paying spectators is a disaster for most clubs, but the game still suffers from the ingrained perception that it is not a very important segment of society. Equally, there is a lack of widespread acknowledgement that culturally, football has a key role to play in maintaining public morale. 

There is a growing belief that suspending football and its resumption behind closed doors, was a decision based purely around politics rather than necessity. Although the game is the biggest crowd attraction among virtually all major sporting events, the historic sentiment suggested it was frivolous, inessential and, after all, merely a game. That may have been true in 1914 and perhaps 1939, although the mood around football was very different in the second world war, but in 2020, football is an industry enjoyed by millions, bringing meaning and enhancement to the lives of many and also generating huge sums of money. It is certainly no longer frivolous.

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A group of academics[1] recently produced a paper on the subject of Covid-19 and the return of the fans, calling for the UK government to reverse the decision to prohibit spectators from attending football matches. Covid-19: The return of fans is published by the journal, Managing Sport & Leisure.

The report underlines that since the financial crisis of 2007-2012, a chasm has developed between supporters and the football elite. Fans have been taken for granted yet the game has become a socially constructed product. “A football club provides an identity, a cultural icon, escapism and a focus for social interaction,” says the paper.

Yet there are still examples of politicians failing to understand football’s true position in society. Conservative MP Jake Berry, speaking in the House of Commons[2], said the game was at the heart of the community in the north of England while in the south, opera, ballet and the theatre fill that role. He added that clubs like Accrington Stanley, Barrow and Carlisle United are the northern equivalent of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Such a comical view is very worrying for an industry that contributes so much to the whole nation.

It is clubs from League One and Two, not to mention the financially fragile Championship, that are most vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19. As the report reminds us, matchday income accounts for a high percentage of overall income, 30% for League One and 34% of League Two. The Premier League derives 13% of its revenues from matches and the Championship 20% but Scotland is even more vulnerable with 46%. 

Behind closed doors football has provided the public with its opium and although the Premier League can survive with this arrangement, thanks to the still sizeable broadcasting revenues, lower down, the clubs are in a precarious position. Gary Sweet, the CEO of Luton Town, told the BBC that football cannot survive a year without supporters and that if clubs tip into trouble, “there’s not really a queue of people willing to buy football clubs”.

The Chairman of the EFL, Rick Parry said the league’s members would lose £ 50 million in gate revenues and a further £ 250 million if no fans were admitted in 2020-21. “Such a hole in club finances will inevitably lead to insolvency for some…there is somewhat of a Darwinian feel around football if this impasse is not reversed, with the strongest clubs getting stronger and the weaker clubs perishing along the way,” said the academic paper.

Capitalism

We may have already witnessed the first attempt at exercising a power grab, something the paper suggests will happen if the current situation does not change. The “bail-out” of the EFL by the top Premier clubs, which would come at a cost, may have failed, but the problems may not have gone away. “This is how capitalism works,” said the research team. It is difficult, however, to see the modern game as anything other than a product of capitalism, which doesn’t bode well for those that want to see a more democratic football universe.

In a recent interview with POLITICO[3], the Premier League’s CEO, Richard Masters, hinted the Premier’s top clubs cannot afford to cut spending – the top six clubs spend more than £ 1.5 billion a season on wages – to support smaller rivals. “The Premier League is the most competitive in the world and you can’t stand still, you have to continue to compete and have to continue to invest,” he said. Meanwhile, some MPs have called for the Premier and the EFL to reach an agreement over any bail-out “for the good of the game”. There’s also pressure from the fans, some 200,000 of which have signed a petition for crowds to be permitted after the current lockdown. 

It is not just matchday revenues that have suffered from the pandemic, commercial revenues have also been compromised. The value of sponsorship is certainly diluted by a lack of supporters in a stadium. Broadcasting, too, may feel somewhat short-changed. PP Sports of China did not pay the Premier League its £ 160 million instalment for the 2019-20 season, resulting in the league terminating a lucrative £ 523 million deal two years ahead of schedule.[4]  The Premier League still manages to earn more than € 1.9 billion through the sale of TV rights.

The academic team cautions that “while we argue spectators need to be allowed back to games to ensure football survives, there are things clubs can do”. This includes more creative thinking around monetising of assets, perhaps suing technology to better effect. Clubs also need to make tougher financial decisions. The paper concludes: “Football is more than a business… if the UK government do not change their policy and allow spectators to return, they threaten the sustainability of our entire football infrastructure.”

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA Images


[1] Alexander John Bond, David Cockayne, Jan Andre Lee Ludvigsen, Kieran Maguire, Daniel Parnell, Daniel Plumley, Paul Widdop, Rob Wilson. “Covid-19: the return of football fans”.

[2] The Independent, “Tory MP mocked after saying northerners like football but southerners prefer opera”, report by Colin Drury, November 12, 2020.

[3] POLITICO, November 9 2020: “Political Football: Premier League braces for scrutiny amid Covid deadlock.”

[4] Football Benchmark, “Season one after the Covid Outbreak” – September 15, 2020.

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