Paul Reed, chairman of Enfield Town, celebrated last weekend after his team won their first match of the season in the Isthmian League, the seventh tier of English football.
Just a few days later, he was left contemplating how much longer the club will continue to play after the government introduced new restrictions to halt the spread of coronavirus.
“We’re not alone,” said Mr Reed in the bowels of the Queen Elizabeth stadium, Enfield Town’s small ground in north London, surrounded by football kits hung up to dry. “Other clubs at our level are in the same situation.”
His concern stems from Boris Johnson’s announcement of a “pause” on plans to allow fans back into sports grounds in large numbers. The prime minister said the curbs are expected to last at least six months.
The decision is catastrophic for those outside British sport’s moneyed elite. While the English Premier League, football’s top division, has broadcasting contracts worth £9.2bn to sustain its member clubs through the crisis, gate receipts are the main revenue earner for most other UK sports organisations.
Among those to raise the alarm in the wake of the new measures is the British Horseracing Authority, which said racecourses face a shortfall of between £250m and £300m this year, adding the entire industry is “under severe threat”. The Football Association, the sport’s national governing body for England, warned: “Many [clubs], at all levels of the game, are battling to survive.”
Bill Sweeney, chief executive of Rugby Football Union, said the combined loss of revenues across all levels of rugby union would be worth close to £250m. “We are in danger of clubs at the heart of communities across England, as well as players and volunteers, disappearing forever,” he said.
Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, has held crisis talks with leaders from major UK sports, including football, rugby, tennis, horseracing and motorsports to discuss possible government support for the sector.
In those meetings, sports executives echoed demands made in a letter directed to the prime minister this week — signed by 100 sports bodies, including the England and Wales Cricket Board, and British Cycling — for a government bailout.
The letter called for “investment, tax incentives, and regulatory reform” similar in scope to the £1.5bn package created for the arts and culture sector in July.
While there is expectation that some sort of rescue package will be agreed in the coming days, chancellor Rishi Sunak made no specific allowances for British sport on Thursday in his raft of new measures designed to subsidise wages and prop up the economy.
Regardless of any bailout, sports executives admit privately to being caught out by the new restrictions.
For weeks, clubs have been working towards a partial reopening from October, modelling how their stadiums could adhere to strict government protocols, such as ensuring there was suitable space between supporters in stands and avoiding over-reliance on public transport.
While those discussions were continuing, sports industry executives refrained from criticising ministers publicly, despite rising anger that they were being forced to adhere to requirements for open-air stadiums that were more stringent than other industries, such as airlines and restaurants.
They now plan to ratchet up pressure on the government to reverse course. The Premier League, which faces a £700m shortfall if supporters are unable to return to grounds this season, said it is “certain” that guidelines drawn up by scientists and the government’s own advisers will ensure that “fans in stadiums will be as safe or even safer than at any other public activity currently permitted”.
Mr Dowden said on Thursday that he is setting up a task force chaired by David Ross, co-founder of Carphone Warehouse and non-executive director of the British Olympic Association, to recommend technological solutions that can allow for a quicker reopening of grounds while reducing contact between spectators.
For semi-professional and amateur clubs, such as Enfield Town, the restrictions are less severe than for “elite” leagues, which generate the largest crowds.
Teams belonging to the Isthmian League have been told their grounds can be up to 20 per cent full for upcoming matches. Enfield Town will accept just 250 paying spectators in order to adhere to the required social-distancing protocols.
But this will not be enough to avoid severe financial losses in the weeks to come. Given its fixed costs, such as rent and business rates, the club is considering reducing the wage bill for players who earn just £200 a week on average.
Without additional financial support, Mr Reed said that Enfield Town, which is wholly owned by fans, with no rich benefactor to fall back upon, may struggle to operate.
“We’d all miss the first team playing on a Saturday, but clubs like ours are hubs of their community as well,” he said, pointing to its work running a local football academy for boys and girls and other educational courses for youngsters.
He warned: “Clubs at our level, once they close, it’s very rare that they reopen again.”
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