When West Ham United host Manchester United at the London Stadium on Saturday evening, it will be the first Premier League match to be played in front of paying spectators since March.
Back then, the coronavirus pandemic shuttered sports grounds in the UK and around the world. Top tier English football matches restarted in June, helping to maintain the Premier League’s £9.2bn in broadcasting contracts and its position as the wealthiest domestic competition in the sport. But its 20 member clubs have lost well over £1bn in revenues because of games being played “behind closed doors” since June.
This weekend’s fixtures are the first since Prime Minister Boris Johnson replaced a national lockdown with a system of regional restrictions.
Local variations explain why two earlier games on Saturday — Burnley versus Everton, and Manchester City versus Fulham — will not have any supporters in attendance. Both games will take place in Tier 3 locations, where the virus risk remains at its highest, and where fans are still prevented from entering the grounds. Half of all Premier League grounds will face these curbs.
The other half are in Tier 2, where the capacity is set at 2,000 supporters or 50 per cent of stadium capacity — whichever is lower. In Tier 1 locations the capacity is set at up to a maximum of 4,000 fans, but there are currently no big professional teams in these areas.
While the steady reintroduction of fans has been broadly welcomed across the game, the biggest sides have large stadiums that are costly to operate and uneconomical to run with so few allowed to attend.
“Our ambition remains to work with the government to increase attendance to more substantial levels . . . [as] our clubs will continue to operate matches at a financial loss,” said the Premier League in a statement.
However, many teams are well prepared to welcome fans back. Before the second national lockdown in November, clubs undertook complex scenario modelling to work out how to have stadiums up to a third full, while sticking to government protocols, such as maintaining social distancing between supporters and avoiding over reliance on public transport.
For most clubs, season ticket holders will be given priority in a ballot to gain entry to individual matches. Tickets will be provided digitally, fans need to complete health questionnaires in advance, arrive at staggered times, pass temperature checks and wear masks at all times inside a stadium.
The reintroduction of crowds will have a greater financial impact at the 72 clubs that form the English Football League, the professional tiers below the Premier League. These rely more heavily on match day revenues, and can have a higher proportion of the stadiums filled as they tend to be smaller.
A FT analysis of data collated by Off The Pitch, a football finance research group, finds match day revenues accounted for 14 per of total revenues in the Premier League, which have the cushion of huge broadcast deals.
For clubs lying lower in the football pyramid, match day income becomes a more vital stream, ramping up to about 31 per cent for those in League One and Two sides that post detailed figures.
For these sides, an unprecedented financial crisis across English football is set to be exacerbated by a growing north-south divide created by the tier system. Stadiums in Wales and across the North of England are expected to remain closed to spectators for weeks yet.
Championship clubs Reading and Blackburn make more than a fifth of revenues from gate receipts, yet it is the latter team based in Lancashire forgoing this money. For Blackpool and Lincoln City, gates receipts in the past year account for two-fifths of revenues.
Under pressure from ministers who refused to include professional men’s football in a £300m taxpayer-funded bailout of UK sporting bodies, the Premier League agreed to a £250m rescue package this week with EFL clubs.
Clubs in the Championship, the tier immediately below the Premier League, will be able to tap a £200m interest-free loan facility to cover liabilities until June next year. Meanwhile, £50m in grants will be available for teams in League One and Two, the bottom divisions, to cover revenue shortfalls created by the lack of fans.
“Our overarching aim throughout this process has been to ensure that all [lower league] clubs survive the financial impact of the pandemic,” said Rick Parry, EFL’s chair.
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