Football Other Sport Rugby

Premiership Rugby, League One and League Two football need fans to return soon

The thought of fans being allowed back into UK sports stadiums in October may seem too soon for some people – but for many clubs the fear is it could be too late.

While it conjures images of stadiums packed to the rafters with 50,000 plus spectators, the reality is that would not be the case – most sports organisations in the country could only dream of such a following and capacities would be reduced anyway under plans announced by the government.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he hopes that crowds could return by the autumn if pilot events – the World Snooker Championship, Glorious Goodwood Racing festival and two cricket friendly matches – prove successful when he revealed his plans for restrictions to be lifted as the UK comes out of lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This appears to apply to sport at the elite level but what is not clear yet is what it means for lower league football or rugby, or other sports that do not normally draw in huge crowds.

Outside of Premier League football and international competitions which attract hugely lucrative TV deals, clubs in all sports rely heavily on match day income and cannot possibly survive for long without it.

Of course, people’s health is most important and it must be safe for crowds to return whenever that happens.

But the coronavirus pandemic has also caused a financial crisis throughout the world and sport is certainly not immune to its impact with much of it ground to a halt since March.

Not only have many games already been lost but the uncertainty also makes selling season tickets and memberships virtually impossible so the sooner there is a clear picture of what will happen next the better.

In recent weeks we have seen parks and beaches packed, thousands gathering on the streets for protests and more recently pubs and restaurants reopening.

It could be argued there would be a lower risk by allowing fans to return to reduced capacity grounds sooner with certain measures in place, such as social distancing, hand sanitiser stations and the use of face masks.

It needs to be clear what constitutes a crowd in the sense Boris Johnson was talking about. Clearly we’re not going to see the levels of the 50,000 fans that attended Liverpool’s Champions League game against Atletico Madrid or the 250,000 that went through the doors over four days at the Cheltenham Festival on the week the coronavirus outbreak officially became a global pandemic.

It was hoped that smaller crowds would be possible at professional football and rugby games in September, although this now seems unlikely.

With Premiership Rugby restarting in August behind closed doors, being allowed up to 5,000 spectators would have helped club coffers, just as it would for football at levels below the Championship in England that are due to return in September after going months without games.

Last season, nine League One clubs had average attendances at 50 per cent or less of their capacity, while in League Two that figure was 17. It would seem entirely plausible that clubs at those levels could operate with significantly reduced capacities and in some cases get close to their normal attendance levels while making their grounds covid secure.

There has been some guidance on the return of competitive football leagues from September but as yet there is no mention of how many spectators would be allowed with current restrictions not allowing gatherings of more than 30 people while social distancing.

How many semi-professional football or rugby clubs that rarely get attendances above 1,000 can wait until October to have crowds? Such a limit could enable non-league football and National League rugby to welcome spectators in a safe way. A 500-person limit could allow the early rounds of the FA Cup to be played for the smaller non-league clubs that need the revenue.

Hopefully a solution can be found soon to get fans back in stadiums in a safe way and allow leagues and clubs to prepare for the future. It could even save some from going out of business.