In the face of a global pandemic it might seem irresponsible to be lobbying aggressively for the return of fans to live events, but without them many elite sports are facing the risk of financial oblivion
Tim Jotischky
Tim Jotischky is director of reputation at the PHA Group, a leading London PR agency, which he joined in 2014 after a 25-year career in UK national newspapers, including four years as sports editor of the Daily Mail.
Sports leaders should stop playing the safety card
1st October 2020, 08:32

Back in June, when I hosted an expert panel to discuss the impact of coronavirus on the sporting landscape, there was little cause for optimism. One by one, every major sporting event, from the Euros and Wimbledon to The Open and the Olympics, had been cancelled and broadcasters resorted to repeating past triumphs and disasters on endless loops.

In the UK, Philip Bernie, head of TV sport at the BBC, wrestled with the challenge of injecting atmosphere into soulless, empty stadiums; Nick Bitel, chair of Sport England, was worried that leisure facilities would go out of business; and Simon Kemp, medical services director for England’s Rugby Football Union, pondered whether the laws of the recreational game might need to be reinvented for it to survive. 

Then came the happier days of high summer: the Premier League’s Project Restart was a resounding success, despite initial scepticism; the England and Wales Cricket Board hosted fiercely contested test matches and one-day internationals, featuring three visiting countries, in a biosecure bubble; and a select group of spectators enjoyed the spectacle of horse racing’s Glorious Goodwood.

Now, the early autumn optimism has dissipated. Supporters will not be allowed back into grounds in October and the government is embroiled in a row with the Premier League, whose members are losing more than £100 million ($129 million) per month, over its responsibilities to clubs outside the top flight, which face catastrophic losses of more than £200 million. Meanwhile, the European Club Association is predicting €4 billion ($4.7 billion) in lost revenue over the next two seasons across the 20 top leagues. 

For other sports, the picture is bleaker still. Richard Gould, chief executive of Surrey, has warned that English cricket’s most commercially savvy club, with a turnover of £30 million, might be reduced to paying its players ‘beer money’. Rugby union chief executives talk of ‘Armageddon’ with clubs going out of business and the future of the second-tier Championship in peril. 

So, can the sports industry fight back – and, if so, how? In the face of a global pandemic it might seem irresponsible to be lobbying aggressively for the return of fans to live events, but without them many elite sports are facing the risk of financial oblivion.

The first thing to say is that sport needs to be aware of its economic power. The global sports market is estimated to be worth $756 billion annually, of which $250 billion is generated in Europe, where one in every 37 of the continent’s employees earns their living from the sports industry. That is purchasing power that no government can afford to ignore. 

Secondly, sport needs to show it can deliver events safely. Not only that, but it can be part of the solution, not the problem. The Premier League offered to help contribute to the government’s testing programme and prove that it is possible to host thousands of supporters on match days without compromising public health would have a positive impact beyond the world of sport.

Sport is missing the passion and authenticity that fans bring to live events; supporters are missing the rawness of real experiences

Ironically, football grounds are a good deal safer than most high streets as Henry Winter, chief football writer at The Times, noted, having spent an evening at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge, where protocols were scrupulously observed, and then witnessed people spilling out on to London’s King’s Road, jostling to get into bars.

But simply playing the safety card will not be enough. Sport must make the positive case for the return of spectators. Shared experiences define us and enrich us; we are social beings and the virtual world is not real life as we know it. Screen time is a poor imitation of the real thing – 2020 has been the year of Zoom Doom, 2021 must offer something better. Sport is missing the passion and authenticity that fans bring to live events; supporters are missing the rawness of real experiences.

Live sport is part of the £84 billion UK events industry, which is uniting under the banner of One Industry One Voice to promote the economic contribution made by more than one million committed professionals with world-leading expertise. They boost trade and generate employment – but, more importantly, they create experiences that educate and inspire us, and have a positive impact on our wellbeing. Deprive us of social interaction and our mental health suffers.

While coronavirus restrictions have become a fact of life throughout the world, the UK is lagging behind other countries where spectators have gradually returned to stadia. In Japan, supporters have been attending J-League matches since July with every other row kept empty, two seats left vacant on either side of each ticket holder and the entire ‘away’ section of grounds unoccupied.

In Germany, Bundesliga clubs have been given permission to fill 20 per cent of their stadia in a six-week trial period; the experiment has been backed by more than six out of 10 supporters. Some 1,000 spectators watched the semi-finals and final of the Italian Open tennis tournament. In Hungary, football has been open to fans since the beginning of June and 15,500 spectators were present at the Uefa Super Cup in Budapest. The Brazilian authorities have announced their intention to fill their stadiums to a third of capacity, meaning up to 25,000 people could attend matches at Rio’s Maracanã.

These may be hesitant first steps, but they do at least reflect a simple truth: we need to live with coronavirus, not suspend every vestige of normal life until we have seen off the global pandemic – whenever that might be. 

Sports leaders need to go on to the offensive and argue that public safety is a given, but not the only metric – supporters should be allowed to return, not simply because they are vital to the economic survival of elite sport, but because, without shared collective experiences, we are living a pale imitation of life as it should be lived.