Premier League Plan to Bring Back Fans Stalled

Like nearly all professional sports leagues this year, the Premier League was forced into a months-long hiatus by the outbreak of Covid-19. The league’s “Project Restart” began in June, with strict rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including strict testing for players and coaches, mandatory masks for players on the bench, separated dressing rooms and a ban on group celebrations. 

But the most visible Covid19 related policy from “Project Restart” was the prohibition on fans attending games, leaving the stands of famous football grounds ominously quiet. When league champions Liverpool lifted the Premier League trophy for the first time ever in July, their typically-rocking home ground, Anfield, was utterly silent. Legendary ex-Liverpool captain Graeme Souness, who himself won several trophies at Anfield,  “felt sorry” for the current squad for not getting to experience the celebrations they deserved.

Over the summer, it looked as if the United Kingdom had successfully flattened its curve, with around 700 new cases a day in August, much lower than March and April’s average of 4,000 daily positives, when the Premier League was first suspended. As a result, some clubs in areas with a low positivity rate were allowed by the U.K. government to bring back a limited number of fans for preseason games.

At an exhibition match between Premier League sides Brighton & Hove Albion and Chelsea played at the former’s home ground, 2,500 fans came to view the 1 – 1 draw. The spectators were spread out across the stadium and were required to wear facial coverings at all times when they weren’t seated. The success of this trial seemed to bode well for the U.K. government’s plan to allow some fans to return to Premier League grounds for official games beginning Oct. 1.

Fans’ hopes were soon dashed, however, as the U.K. now faces a second wave of Covid-19 cases, with the nation averaging over 5,000 new daily positives last week. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new government regulations on large gatherings that will push back the Oct. 1 deadline indefinitely.

The government’s original plan had suggested 20 to 30 percent capacity for , while also banning visiting fans of away teams from travelling to watch games. It was additionally rumored that there would be a prohibition on singing and chanting during matches, to prevent the spread of droplets that might contain the novel coronavirus.

In a statement, the Premier League announced that it was “disappointed” over the new rules from the government, and said that “the football is unsustainable” without fans, citing the £700 million lost by clubs last season. The league also pointed to the other European leagues, which have all begun reintegrating fans into the game, as examples of a safe model to bring some revenue back to teams. At the current pace, the league claims its clubs are cumulatively losing £100 million a month, threatening the financial viability of football in England.

While the lack of fans does jeopardize the finances of top flight clubs in England, it will likely decimate lower-level teams, who are more reliant on revenue from ticket sales. The heads of the lower leagues and the head of the national Football Association argued on Wednesday that the expected six-month extension of the ban on spectators would be a “devastating blow” for smaller clubs.

Sports leagues in the United States have taken different approaches to the issue of allowing fans into the stadia. The National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League both resumed their seasons in “bubbles,” eliminating the need for travel by teams, referees, announcers and journalists. Both bubbles do not allow fans to watch in person. 

Meanwhile the National Football League, whose season is three weeks in, did not pursue a bubble strategy, instead allowing teams to travel between cities to play games. Each team has a different policy on fans depending on state regulations, with teams like the Seattle Seahawks going fanless, while others, like the Dallas Cowboys and the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, have allowed several thousands of fans to watch in person.

The debate about fans and sports mirrors a larger debate across society about the feasibility of pursuing “life as normal” before an effective, widespread vaccine becomes available. The boom and bust cycle between lockdown and no restrictions are unsustainable, but is implementing half-steps like 20 percent stadium capacity any better? For the British government at least, it was a step too risky to take.