In my first blog post in late August I wrote about how eerie and soulless football was without fans after being among forty-odd people watching QPR play Sheffield Wednesday: “The likelihood is that this will be the way matches are going to be played out for the foreseeable future. Josh Scott, QPR’s Operations Manager, told me that there was an expectation that limited numbers may be allowed back in soon. ‘In consultation with the government, who are keen to get fans back into the stadiums, we are looking at around 25% capacity initially, which is around 4,500. The most difficult part for us is ensuring social distancing not only in the seats but more importantly in the access points.’”
Alas the idea of getting fans back into the ground has been well and truly quashed. The Guardian’s opening paragraph on Tuesday could have hardly been much bleaker for sport in general and especially football: “The government has dealt a devastating blow to sport by pausing its plans for the partial return of fans to stadiums on 1 October because of the rapid spike in Covid-19 cases. It will add to growing fears that clubs could go out of business due to lack of gate receipts for potentially months more to come.”
Those tiny green shoots of recovery, which had tentatively poked their heads above the scorched earth, when a limited number of spectators were allowed back into seven EFL stadiums over the weekend, have been scythed down within a few days. There was not even enough time to digest the findings of the trials from Carlisle to Charlton before the gates were shut again for the foreseeable future.
Michael Gove made it abundantly clear that even the limited crowds experienced last Saturday will not be allowed. He told BBC Breakfast: “We do want to, in due course, allow people to return to watch football and other sporting events but it is the case that we just need to be cautious at the moment and I think a mass reopening at this stage wouldn’t be appropriate,” the Cabinet Office minister said. The impact of the tighter restrictions to combat the second wave, announced by the prime minister earlier this week, has led to speculation that the demise of Macclesfield Town last week will be the first of many more.
There have already been a string of redundancies announced amongst sports bodies including the FA as reported in the Independent: “The Football Association is to make 82 employees redundant and sacrifice 124 jobs in total due to the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, with England’s governing body expecting losses of around £300m.”
The Premier League wrote to the government this month to warn that football stands to lose £100m a month while games are played behind closed doors and the lower down the league pyramid a club is, the worse it is going to be. Those lower league clubs are more reliant on matchday income mainly through ticket sales but also in areas such as merchandise and catering whereas broadcast revenue is minimal. They are desperate to have even a trickle of people attend their games to bring in a modicum of income but that now seems unlikely.
By contrast, Premier League clubs are a different kettle of fish. For example, according to 2018/19 accounts the proportion of Crystal Palace’s total income derived from matchday is £10.6 million which is less than 7% of total revenue whereas broadcast is £121 million, representing over 80%. Clubs like Palace can survive for a while playing behind closed doors as long as those games are televised, which they will be as has been the case since English football resumed back in June.
The projections for the 2020/21 season for all Premier League clubs forecast total revenues of £5.5 billion with matchday income contributing £360 million or just over 6%, broadcast revenue is predicted to be £3.8 billion or 69%. The average Championship club (without parachute payments) receives a relatively paltry £7.5 million and of course League One and League Two much less. It doesn’t take a financial Nostradamus to predict what the outcome will be for many of the lower league clubs if people cannot attend matches.
Solutions seem to be in as short supply as income. In a letter signed by the leaders of more than 100 sports organisations, including the FA and the Premier League, they have urged the government to set up a “comprehensive support package” to help the sports industry as a whole. “We are united in our concern that at a time when our role should be central to the nation’s recovery, the future of the sector is perilous,” the letter states. However, sport is not the only sector suffering catastrophic loss of revenues and every sector, from hospitality to theatre, is seeking financial help and there is only a limited amount of money available.
In a speech to the Sport & Recreation Alliance annual conference on Monday, the sports minister, Nigel Huddleston spelled out the short-term future and it does not provide any solace: “It’s no exaggeration to say that the pandemic has profoundly affected the sporting landscape, and will continue to do so for many months to come.” As an exercise in expectation management that was a masterclass.
On Wednesday Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP for Mansfield raised the issue in Prime Minister’s Questions: “Mansfield Town is a fine example of a club that both works with and invests in our town but many sports clubs around the country have found that their hopes of welcoming fans back to stadiums have been dashed. Given that many football league clubs are so reliant on gate receipts to be viable can my Right Honourable Friend assure me that he’ll do everything possible to support these clubs both as businesses but for the communities that rely on them too?” Boris Johnson assured him “that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is in active consultation with clubs across the country to see what we can do to help.”
What exactly that help looks like is anybody’s guess but what is certain is that the very foundation blocks of English football are facing financial Armageddon. As one of the clubs that held the limited access for fans trials last weekend, Carlisle United were hoping that this would offer a silver lining, but as their chief executive Nigel Clibbens said in an interview this week, any such silver lining has been extinguished: “However you look at the figures, we face a £1.2m hole in our finances if we are locked out until March 2021.”
Since 1921 when the number of Third Division clubs was doubled with the creation of the North and South sections, there have been around 90 clubs in the Football League. Almost exactly a hundred years later, the future of a league structure featuring that many clubs is in serious jeopardy.