Football without fans is like a match without goals, tackles or pies. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that. It has affected all areas of life, and football has been no exception. But has the pandemic added the final nail in the coffin for supporters control of their beloved clubs?
The world of professional sport has been altered considerably during these times, and everyone has been forced to stop and reassess the status quo. Major sports leagues right across the were brought to a standing stop when the pandemic hit.
As soon as athletes across different sports were reporting positive for Coronavirus, the immediate fallout affected media coverage, sponsors, and pretty much all walks of life. Entire events were shut down, with everyone questioning when and even if we would ever be able to return to normality.
While the Premier League offers a certain cushioning from broadcast revenues, many clubs, particularly those in lower leagues, those clubs had and still are relying heavily on match-day income in the form of gate receipts, merchandising sales and corporate hospitality. The continuation of the 2020/21 season being played behind closed doors vastly impacted the structure and sustainability of clubs lower down the leagues, some of which are England’s most oldest and proudest clubs.
Perhaps most damaging on clubs below the Premier League. Most have been in financially struggle long before the coronavirus pandemic, with the knock-on effect of fans not being allowed into grounds having pushed some clubs to the very brink of collapse.
“We’ve totally and utterly been forgotten about over the last year. Those were the words of Nigel Kingston, who has Chair of Wycombe Wanderers Supporters Trust for over 40 years.
“This has been happening for a long time though. The Coronavirus situation has underlined how drastic the situation actually is and a complete overhaul is urgently required.”
“Unfortunately, I doubt we’ll see change once this dreadful pandemic is over. Their self-interest and agenda will outweigh any new proposal to see power back to the fans.
“Without a doubt having to play matches without fans has been a huge problem. We cannot play without fans in attendance. The structure of our league makes that almost impossible without the revenue of the fans coming in. It has been a struggle for both the fans who haven’t been able to see their teams and for the Clubs who have lost a major source of revenue.”
After much public disarray, negotiations and continued tension between the government, the Premier League and the EFL, they eventually settled on a £250m rescue package for football league clubs.
However, with another round of multimillion-pound transfers this past Summer and Winter, the perception that football is a sport awash with money only continues. Clubs in English football’s top two leagues claimed a total of at least £13m in the first four months of the government’s job retention scheme alone. This overall equates to £40m over the full year.
North-west EFL clubs have been particularly been struggling financially, even long before the Covid-19 pandemic. Bolton Wanderers, Bury, Oldham Athletic and Macclesfield Town and Wigan Athletic have all entered administration in the last eighteen months alone.
The amounts published by HMRC December alone show both Newcastle United and newly promoted Leeds United claimed between £100,000 and £250,000 each. Despite this, Leeds spent over £95m in the summer transfer window whereas Newcastle spent £35m. Arsenal, who spent over £50m during the Summer, did not claim any furlough, but did make 55 of its staff redundant.
Despite this, clubs below England’s top tier began the restructurings of their clubs to cushion the blow of the pandemic. It started with wage cuts and deferrals, and a heavy uptake of the government’s job retention scheme – which has been leaned on to pay players, as well as non-playing staff.
Broadcasters have expanded the ways they can bring sports directly into people’s homes, with free-to-air content increasing in popularity. However, the stadiums full of fans should still hold an important place when we imagine a post-pandemic world. Stadiums play a significant role in sport. While they are obviously a place to play the sport, they are a place which house countless emotions and memories for people. Live sport is an essential feature of the lives of millions of people across the world. The stadiums are a site for this dynamic to play out, signified by flags, symbols, and chants. Watching a match isn’t just an exercise in supporting your team, it contributes to a larger idea where people have a common space to come together and share an identity.
However, as the longer-term repercussions of the pandemic have been laid bare, clubs lower down the pyramid are trying to be proactive and think up innovative ways to keep up some level of cashflow. While using stadiums as wedding venues, or for conferences and concerts are the sorts of non-football activities that has generated money in the past, clubs have come up with genius ways to create some revenue.
The most creative idea for raising income came from eighth-tier Daventry Town, of the Southern League Division One Central. The Northamptonshire side have been showing new and classic films using a 10m x 8m screen on their pitch to generate loss of funds due to the pandemic.
The cost of live sport was in danger long before the pandemic hit, with the rise in ticket prices across the most popular leagues increasing every decade. This was coupled with rising costs of a subscription to watch on television or online. While the pandemic has opened up new roads where people have been able to access matches in new ways, it also puts into perspective how important fans are in the overall running of the clubs, many of whom have been struggling without gate receipts.
The bringing back of football has been a priority for those fans at home, but the bigger focus has been around how investors, sponsors and others will get their money back. It is arguably the fans that are the most important stakeholder in a club. Stadiums without fans should not set a precedent for the future and should be considered nothing more than a stopgap until the pandemic is over. Sport is simply not the same without fans, and as the world deals with what seems like the end of the pandemic, the future should now turn its attention on improving access to live sport.