Sports clubs and associations in England are facing up to the bleak prospect of six further months without spectators after plans for a fans’ return in October were scrapped.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that the Government could not go ahead with the planned reopening of venues on a socially-distanced basis from 1st October due to a second wave of coronavirus infections. The plan would have seen venues capped at between 25 and 35 per cent of capacity.
He suggested the measures introduced on Tuesday would remain in place for “perhaps six months”, making it 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.
Sports governing bodies held an emergency meeting with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden late on Tuesday afternoon 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, told the PA news agency 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. It is understood there is no scheduled Premier League clubs meeting this week but a decision will need to be made over the course of the remainder of the month about arrangements to televise all matches in October, now that they too will be behind closed doors.
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 community 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.”
And Premiership Rugby chief executive Darren Childs revealed that the English top flight too was requesting state aid.
“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,” Childs said.
English cricket recently revealed it had lost £100million as a result of the pandemic and that could double with further disruption next year.
A statement from the England and Wales Cricket Board read: “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.’
Dowden also confirmed that pilot events scheduled for the remainder of September had been cancelled. Each event had been capped at a maximum capacity of 1,000, regardless of venue size.
The Premiership Rugby match between Bath and Gloucester was played behind closed doors last night and next week’s showdown between Bristol and Leicester will also be behind closed doors, as will a race meeting at Newmarket later this week.
The Football Association had been hoping to welcome supporters in for England’s friendly against Wales next month.
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.
Picture: Archive photo, dated 19-09-2020, of a general view of Norwich City fans in the stands during the Sky Bet Championship match at Carrow Road, Norwich. (Nigel French/PA).