A record number of coronavirus cases and the expectation of more postponed matches are fuelling fears that England’s Premier League will not be able to complete its already curtailed season.
With the playing calendar shortened by a late start and the need to finish ahead of the rescheduled Euro 2020 tournament in June, the Premier League is putting faith in tighter safety measures to avoid the punishing financial losses that would come with a “circuit breaker” or outright cancellation.
The league wrote to clubs on Friday to reinforce existing protocols designed to minimise the risk of infection among players and staff, including stricter rules on wearing masks and requiring teams to use a minimum of three buses instead of two for travelling to matches.
Clubs are required to sign off the revisions at an upcoming meeting but the Premier League has asked them to observe the revised protocols with immediate effect.
Yet one club executive warned that the situation was precarious: “If infection rates go up through the roof and the vaccine goes out slower than needed, we potentially have a problem.”
There is division about the right course of action. Steve Bruce, manager of Newcastle United, said on Friday that while it was financially right to play on “morally, it’s probably wrong”, though several of his peers backed plans to continue.
Already bereft of match-day revenue — each month without fans equates to £100m in lost ticket sales across English football — suspending or cancelling the season risks further hefty rebates to broadcasters, which clawed back £330m when fixtures were suspended in March last year.
Meanwhile, Manchester United, the commercial bellwether for the division, has said that sponsors have been staggering payments because of their own financial difficulties during the pandemic.
“The reliance on broadcast income is very severe,” said Kieran Maguire, a lecturer in football finance and author of The Price of Football. “[Clubs] are just ripping up budgets and restarting with more zeros . . . everybody will have written off this season now.”
The squeeze on clubs in the world’s richest domestic football competition appears to be tightening. Arsenal this week borrowed £120m from the Bank of England loan scheme, joining London rival Tottenham Hotspur, which borrowed £175m last year. The club said it needed the cash “to assist in managing the impact of the revenue losses attributable to the pandemic”.
“I’m a little more nervous now than a month ago,” said the executive.
Numerous players were criticised and fined by clubs for breaking lockdown rules over the holiday season, prompting the Premier League to introduce stricter measures.
Players and staff are being tested twice a week and those close to the league say that while the 40 positive tests between December 28 and January 3 marked a new high, the overall number of cases remain low considering more than 1,000 people are tested every week.
But Aston Villa confirmed a significant outbreak this week, leading to the closure of the club’s training ground, although its FA Cup match with Liverpool went ahead on Friday.
Southampton’s FA Cup tie against Shrewsbury Town on Saturday has been called off because of rising cases at the League One club. So far, four Premier League matches involving Aston Villa, Burnley, Manchester City, Everton, Fulham, Newcastle and Tottenham Hotspur have been postponed, and must be rescheduled before the season is due to end on May 23.
Across the lower tier of the English Football League, 52 matches have had to be cancelled because of positive tests.
“Our objective is to complete the season as scheduled,” said a person close to the Premier League. “A circuit breaker isn’t something we feel is an option.”
Clubs are hoping the tighter protocols will help them avoid financial calamity amid mounting losses.
“If it means we keep playing, that’s fine. Losses are being funded by our owners,” said the executive. But he added “that can’t go on indefinitely”.
Another club executive warned that the sport was “under constant review by the authorities” despite heightened measures, and that “it’s another industry the government are going to have to support” in a worst-case scenario.
Yet the sport’s billion-pound revenues and hefty salaries have convinced the government that football must fix its own financial woes. That has excluded top-tier clubs from furloughing workers to minimise their costs. Many mainstream lenders avoid the sport altogether as exorbitant wages and transfer fees create credit risk, increasing the reliance on existing shareholders.
“When do we get a break? That’s why we pushed [last year] so hard for fans to come back,” said the executive. “It’s slightly galling that some clubs were hugely criticised for using the furlough scheme. British Airways furloughed thousands of staff but kept paying for new planes.”
The shift in tone since last year is palpable.
“We’re not immune, literally or metaphorically, to what’s going on around us,” he added. “I suspect we’ll be put under even more scrutiny.”
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