As sports clubs and associations in England face up to the bleak prospect of six further months without spectators after plans for a fans’ return next month were scrapped, Westminster’s Chaplain for Sport has suggested one novel idea to keep finances flowing.
“Sport’s future is as uncertain as that of the arts and its actors, dancers and musicians. To survive, they all need financial support,” Mgr Vladimir Felzmann told The Catholic Universe.
The chaplain’s comments follow the announcement that further nationwide restrictions to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic would prevent the return of fans to stadia.
Many venues had been due to re-open on a socially-distanced basis from 1st October but Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement put paid to those plans, which would have allowed between 25 and 35 per cent of capacity in the grounds.
The Prime Minister’s suggestion that the new measures would remain in place for “perhaps six months” mean that it is almost certain that the sports sector will need some financial support from the Government to prevent an unprecedented loss of professional and grassroots clubs from the landscape.
Speaking about football in particular, Mgr Felzmann suggested: “To show their support for and solidarity with others in the beautiful game, wouldn’t it be lovely if the mega-salaried Premier League stars clubbed together and decided to pay half their salaries into an FA managed fund to support lower league clubs in serious trouble.
“The FA would then have serious moral leverage – and get the public on their side – to put pressure on HMG to match these considerable sums.”
Following the announcement of the new measures, sports governing bodies held an emergency meeting with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden to discuss the impact of the delay in spectators returning and it is understood the talks will move at a fast pace and seek to identify where the help is most urgently and critically needed.
The plight of EFL clubs has been well-documented, with its chairman Rick Parry stating they would lose a collective £200million if the entire 2020-21 season had to be played behind closed doors. Talks continue between the EFL and the Premier League over a rescue package, and it is understood the Government’s position remains that the English top flight should be the ones to provide financial aid to the EFL.
Dale Vince, the chairman of League Two club Forest Green, said the loss of fan revenue was “a major additional impact that many clubs will not be able to withstand”.
He called on the Government and the Premier League to work out a rescue package for the EFL between them.
However, the Premier League said the continued absence of supporters was starting to have a “devastating impact” on its clubs and their communities, and that a safe, swift return of spectators was vital just to enable it to continue its existing obligations to the football pyramid such as solidarity payments.
The league reiterated that its clubs lost £700million due to the pandemic-related disruption to last season, and that English football would lose a collective £100million a month every month without fans.
Meanwhile, the Rugby Football Union has warned of “severe consequences” for its clubs and community game and called for Government aid. The RFU estimates a loss of more than £100million from a lack of crowds at Twickenham for autumn internationals and Six Nations games alone.
Chief executive Bill Sweeney added: “Premiership and Championship Clubs will face significant financial hardship. Our grassroots rugby clubs, many of which run grounds at the heart of their communities, are under threat.
“From the outset we have been clear that an autumn without crowds would leave us with little choice but to approach government for financial help.
“Unfortunately, we are now in that position. Without support we are in danger of clubs at the heart of communities across England, as well as players and volunteers, disappearing forever.”
Premiership Rugby chief executive Darren Childs revealed that the English top flight too was requesting state aid. “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,” Childs said.
English cricket also revealed it had lost £100million as a result of the pandemic, and that could double with further disruption next year.
The England and Wales Cricket Board said: “The impact of having to stage cricket behind closed doors again next year would be severe. Many clubs will also face a significant financial impact if they are unable to host conferences and events over the coming months.”
And Rugby Football League chief executive Ralph Rimmer said it was likely that “with losses at up £2m a week across the sport as a whole, and continued uncertainty, there will be job losses across the sport”.
Dowden has promised to work with sports to try to limit the damage. He tweeted: ‘I’ve just held a meeting with major spectator sports to discuss today’s decision to help contain the virus through winter.
‘We agreed to work together to help them through this difficult period.’
DCMS confirmed that clubs at the seventh tier of the football pyramid and below will still be able to admit spectators, provided venues are Covid-secure.
Mgr Felzmann said amid the current financial climate, sports clubs and associations could do with a helping hand from some of the world’s wealthiest fans.
Again commenting specifically on football, he said it “might encourage the billionaires that claim they love the game – and I have heard quite a few support Chelsea – to open their wallets and do their bit”.
The chaplain provided one example of a particular footballer that has previously gone above and beyond in showing his love for the sport.
“I know for a fact that while at Manchester United, from 2016-18, without any publicity whatsoever, Zlatan Ibrahimovich used to send half his salary to support youth clubs in Malmo in Sweden where he spent his youth. For all I know, he might still be doing that from Italy.”
Mgr Felzmann stressed that – although there may be a bleak prospect of a further six months without fans being able to cheer on their teams in person – fans, sports stars, clubs and associations must all work together to ensure a brighter future for all of sport.
“Together we not only can, but will!”
Picture: A general view of play in front of empty stands during a Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. (Laurence Griffiths/PA).