Dismay from UK sports bodies as crowds ruled out for up to six months
Leading sports bodies have expressed disappointment after the UK government ruled out the return of spectators at matches next month, warning that this threatens to have a severe financial impact on top of that caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
With pilot events having been held in recent months, it had been anticipated that larger crowds would be permitted at stadiums and other venues from 1 October.
However, a rise in Covid-19 cases across the UK has prompted the government to impose stricter rules on social gatherings, meaning this is now on hold.
With prime minister Boris Johnson suggesting that the restrictions could remain in place for six months, it could be late-March before spectators are able to return, denying much-needed matchday revenue for the domestic sports industry.
On Monday, more than 100 UK sports bodies wrote to Johnson asking for emergency funding because of the impact of the pandemic, which wiped out schedules for three months, and in some cases longer, this year.
There are reports that a rescue package worth more than £1 billion ($1.3 billion) is being negotiated for the most needy federations and leagues, but this will not include soccer’s English Premier League and English Football League, according to the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Some of the leading leagues and federations met with Oliver Dowden, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, yesterday to discuss the situation, and, while acknowledging the support of the government, are dismayed that fans cannot be admitted to matches for the foreseeable future, believing this could have been conducted safely.
The Premier League has pointed to the fact that its clubs suffered £700 million in losses last season, and that the domestic game is losing more than £100 million per month, with lack of matchday income a significant factor.
In a statement, it said: "The Premier League is certain that, through league-wide guidelines and a code of conduct developed with scientific experts and agreed by the government's Sports Ground Safety Authority, fans in stadiums will be as safe or even safer than at any other public activity currently permitted. This is already evident in other European leagues.”
The league added: "We are confident that Premier League clubs, using innovative ways to get supporters safely back into grounds, will enable revenues to return to all levels of the game, as well as maintain solidarity arrangements, current tax contributions and financial support for local and national economies."
The EFL calculates that its clubs will collectively lose £200 million if spectators are excluded for the rest of the 2020-21 season, after a £50 million deficit in the last campaign, and is seeking support from the Premier League.
EFL chairman Rick Parry said today that the league was "deeply frustrated" that plans to admit fans had been suspended, and wants to see a "roadmap" from the government for their return, and for financial issues to be addressed.
He concluded: "I am encouraged that the Government has recognised the need for urgent financial assistance for sport and discussions will continue with DCMS and the Premier League. We remain optimistic that a solution will be found but we should also be very clear that if it is not, then the outlook for many clubs in the period ahead will be very challenging."
Tuesday’s announcement was also a blow for England’s Rugby Football Union, which was pressing for crowds of up to 20,000 to be allowed to attend the national team’s forthcoming Autumn Nations Cup games at Twickenham stadium.
RFU president Bill Sweeney said: “With no fans this autumn we will see a £122 million reduction in revenue resulting in a loss of £46 million and with no fans for the Guinness Six Nations we will see a £138 million reduction in revenue with a loss of £60 million thereby preventing investment in areas such as the women’s elite game and community rugby.”
Darren Childs, the chief executive of England’s top-tier Premiership Rugby, added: “The announcement that supporters will not be allowed into stadiums for up to six months cuts off crucial revenue for the Premiership Rugby clubs who have already suffered significant financial losses from suspending the season and playing matches behind closed doors since March.
“We believe the lack of supporters in our grounds could cause irreparable damage to our clubs and the communities they serve so must find a way forward to avoid this. As we seek solutions we look forward to working with government on a rescue package for professional club rugby in England and we will continue to seek innovative ways to overcome these challenges to ensure Premiership Rugby and its clubs have a future.”