At what point will the powers that be, those with a (financial) interest in the game wake up and realise that the vast majority of the population have no interest in an artificial crammed, behind closed doors, end to a season destroyed of relevance by a global pandemic? Football like so many other aspects of life has been impacted by the virus. It’s time to accept that this season is finished and focus on what are the conditions upon which football can return in some meaningful form for season 2020-21.
At what point those that run the game, will they realise they are custodians? Custodians of a game dear to most of us. A game which despite having been ripped apart by financial behemoths with little or no thought for the spectating public is still played to full stadia of adoring fans. At a time of crisis, the role of a custodian is to protect, not add additional risk to our national game. Their role is just not about revenue protection, it is about taking the correct and sensible short term decisions to ensure that the game maintains the support of fans, the wider public, sponsors and broadcaster. Life approaching normality post Covid-19 is going to be hard enough for football, we don’t need to make ridiculous decisions now to compound matters even further.
Reward obscures risk
Football (in this case the Premier League) can survive the relatively short term financial hit of an incomplete season. It could in desperation, address the problem immediately by confronting its cost base. It cannot, however suffer a catastrophic hit to its reputation, relevance and possibly worse through an untimely dash for a dirty, seemingly cheap solution.
It ought, if has the appropriate management teams and the right relationships with sponsors and broadcasters be able to mitigate much of the potential losses.
They must start from the point that they have little to gain but a great deal to lose by forcing an end to the season. The problem is that in business as in life, reward or the potential for reward obscures risk.
The risks of starting football too early are lengthy and considerable
Health and safety
The first duty of an employer to their employees is health and safety. On what basis can football clubs ensure the health and safety of players, their management, coaching and medical staff, those involved in staging the game, and the security and stewarding teams
Then we have the health and safety of all the external agencies involved in running a game behind closed doors and broadcast publicly as a result.
Testing and potential use of medical resources
How is it possibly justifiable for football clubs to use testing resources and facilities when front line staff, doctors, nurses, domestic and porters, GPs, district nurses, care operators, key workers like social workers, bus drivers and supermarket employees do not have access?
There is no defence for football to waste a single resource that could be used by those charged with the responsibility of serving the nation and its public.
Additionally in the event of serious injury during a game, is it appropriate for any football club to (i) put their employees at risk and (ii) use already stretched medical resources?
How do we police the public response to matches being played behind closed doors? Why do we put the police and security personnel around any stadium staging a game at potential risk? How do we stop social gatherings, how do we stop the inevitable mass celebrations of a League title win or escape from relegation?
Why would we risk a change in public behaviour with all its consequences?
Why would we risk allowing the possible breakdown of public discipline vital in controlling Covid-19 before immunity is created through extensive vaccination? The potential consequences are huge.
The semblance of normality
The short term financial pressure and the potential of political pressure for “the semblance of normality” are not good reasons. Any semblance of normality which the Government might wish to bring about does not need football to deliver it, certainly not prematurely, as may be the case.
The value of games behind closed doors from a fan perspective
With the exception of many Liverpool fans and those involved in a resumed relegation battle, what appetite is there for games played behind closed doors from the fans? Almost every regular match-going fan expresses little desire to see games played in their physical absence.
The potential reduction in commercial value of the game
Premier League football, in sporting terms at least, is a prime broadcasting asset. It has huge value to the Premier League itself, the individual clubs and all employed by them, the broadcasters, sponsors and commercial partners.
It is priced as a premium product both to consumers and indeed the rights’ holders. Playing nearly a quarter of the season with all remaining games being broadcast live in the UK as well as many overseas markets potentially threatens that premium. Especially, if as is likely the case, all the remaining games are shown free to air including the removal of the Saturday 3pm blackout. This is a difficult genie to get back in the bottle.
Additionally games played in an empty stadium, perhaps at odd times to accommodate the congested fixture list, and bar only a small number of clubs, very little to play for will be a very different product than the usual fare offered by Premier League matches. I would argue that it may be very brand dilutive. If so, the premium aspect, or more precisely the lack of it, may alter the views of sponsors and commercial partners possibly to continued involvement, or certainly, the value and therefore the cost of involvement.
Can the sporting integrity of the Premier League be maintained when 92 of the 380 games are played in circumstances very different to the previous 288? Motivation levels will differ, squad fitness levels may differ, matches played in empty stadia will certainly alter the balance between home and away teams – home teams will lose most if not all of their competitive advantage. Especially for those clubs threatened by relegation, some may be advantaged, others disadvantaged but it is unlikely to be equal in its distribution. Personally I believe this to be a very important reason not to restart the League
Fitness risks to players/contractual implications
Based on the potential short term use of 5 substitutes per game, there must be concerns over players ability to remain fit and remain free of injury, condensing 8 or 9 games into a short period of time after a long and unplanned lay off.
Additionally, players at the end of their contracts, or perhaps on a short term extension face significant risks to their future employment should they receive and injury in this period.
Blindness to risk
One would hope the desire to get football started again is not just driven by the “money men”
It is really important that all the risks to starting again are considered and not just cast aside by the desire to meet contractual obligations. Commercial history is full of stories of businesses that decided to ignore known problems or risks to the product or service they sell. When they chose the wrong decision in these circumstances then the costs can be huge.
Do the thing that ensures the best future for the game not minimises short term financial losses. The reason? because if you get this wrong, you kill the geese that keeps laying golden eggs.
The goose is not the Premier League itself. It has long since lost its appeal as an institution by most football fans. We love our individual clubs, we love the game, we all want to be League Champions, but the institution itself has no value to most. The geese are the clubs themselves.
The Premier League has to show leadership and show that rare quality in football, a true sense of its worth. Football and individual clubs have huge value to its fans, we wouldn’t all be so nuts about it if it didn’t.
But the Premier League and its constituent members, the clubs themselves, have to make the right decision. There is little to gain, but an enormous amount to lose by a short term dash to a finish line that no longer has any value this season.
Let’s be gracious, responsible and reflect on the wider picture, the much greater issues that face us all in current times. Then, perhaps we can come back later in the year for a new season and a new start to football, wiser and with a national sport that will have retained its integrity.