Sport is still clinging on to hope that all stadiums across the country will be partially opened up by October 1. A week after Boris Johnson announced a review of that date, following a surge in Covid-19 cases, here is how things stand.
What is the next stage in getting fans into grounds again?
Middlesbrough’s 34,000-capacity Riverside Stadium is among 10 matches to pilot 1,000 spectators this weekend as part of attempts by the English Football League to ensure the Government sticks with its timetable. The Premier League has said it will not take part in 1,000-person pilot schemes but the English Football League is desperate to do all it can in the coming weeks to ensure that stadiums are reopened, even with smaller crowds.
The involvement of Norwich’s 27,000-capacity Carrow Road as well as Middlebrough were described by one source close to the talks as a “leap of faith”. Announcing the list of games taking part this weekend, Rick Parry, chairman of the EFL, said it was “encouraging that we are in a position to move forward with the next phase of the pilot programme”.
As it stands, non-league finals day on September 27 is also due to entertain 1,000 fans at Wembley, but the Football Association is in talks with Whitehall about the event’s financial viability.
Horse racing at Newmarket, men’s and women’s T20 matches, basketball in Newcastle and speedway at Ipswich are also still going ahead as pilot events as previously planned.
Which pilot schemes were cancelled?
Hundreds of thousands of pounds were lost at the World Snooker Championship, racing at Doncaster, lower-league football and at county cricket grounds, initially after the pilots were paused by Government on July 31 and then reduced in numbers last week.
Three of the initial 12 remaining pilots confirmed they were no longer safe to continue their involvement as numbers were scaled back. Cambridge United, which successfully staged the first pilot during a competitive encounter, had to move a follow-up trial behind closed doors after public health bosses warned they did not have time to reduce their ticket allocation to the new 1,000 spectator rule.
The same decision was taken for Yorkshire’s Vitality Blast match against Durham amid warnings over the local Covid-19 rate. The St Leger Festival at Doncaster Racecourse was also forced to abandon its involvement after an intervention by the Director of Public Health for Doncaster, Dr Rupert Suckling.
The FA is in ongoing discussions with Government over its proposed trial for the FA Vase and FA Trophy.
How would a staged return work?
The initial Government plan was to allow all stadiums to have around 30 per cent capacities at some point in October. However, following Boris Johnson’s directive to reduce all pilots to 1,000 capacity as a blanket measure, the current direction of travel appears to be in announcing an overall cap on on numbers rather than percentages at grounds.
One option suggested by a source close to talks is introducing an initial cap of under 3,000 spectators from next month, and then gradually easing the limit by Christmas.
An explanation for this change in policy is the warning from public health experts over the impact on local transport networks at bigger venues. Social-distancing would represent a major challenge for inner-city venues such as Tottenham Hotspur or Arsenal, where the vast majority of fans would use trains and buses to get to the event.
With reduced overheads at smaller venues, it is possible lower league clubs will be the first to be ready to entertain crowds on October 1.
Will fans be required to wear facemasks?
It will vary from venue to venue. After consultation with Government, the World Snooker Championship ordered spectators to wear masks in the concourse at Sheffield, but, initially, not while sat at their socially-distanced seats.
However, at most football grounds, it is expected fans will be asked to wear masks. Cambridge United supporters were told to do so during the EFL Trophy match against Fulham under-21s.
The plan for the return of rugby also appears to be mixed. There were no strict rules at the Twickenham Stoop on September 6 to watch Harlequins against Bath. Around half of the 2,700 allowed in wore face coverings.
What concessions have been made for locked-out fans?
Again this season more games than ever will be televised live for both football and Premiership Rugby. All this month’s Premier League matches will be broadcast after a U-turn by the 20 clubs. The league had previously agreed to increase the number of matches screened live on TV this season from 200 to 220, but that left 160 matches without live coverage, including 11 of the games due to be played behind closed doors this month.
Instead, all 11 matches are now shared between the Premier League’s four broadcasters (Sky Sports, BT Sport, Amazon Prime and the BBC). Premiership Rugby also agreed that every match played behind closed doors would be broadcast live on BT Sport.
Once crowds can safely return to stadia, BT Sport will revert to broadcasting a selection of games.
What about refunds for season ticket-holders?
Football and rugby have yet to announce plans for refunds for season-ticket holders due to the uncertainty around how many games they will be able to attend. In the EFL, many clubs say the vast majority have renewed without asking for refund’s on last season’s missed games. In return, fans in the Championship were given access to live games streamed on club websites.
Will my club go out of business if fans don’t come back on October 1?
The decision to start this season in September set off a ticking timebomb for the EFL as clubs were forced to bring players off furlough around six or seven weeks ago. The EFL is lobbying for a bailout from the EFL due to the serious threat that a host of clubs in League One and Two could go to the wall without matchday revenue in the coming months.
Globally, football will lose out on almost £11billion in revenue because of the pandemic, according to Fifa.
What are the remaining crowd pilots?
Weekend of Sept 19/20 — 1,000 fans
Luton Town v Derby County
Norwich City v Preston North End
Middlesbrough v AFC Bournemouth
Charlton Athletic v Doncaster Rovers
Blackpool v Swindon Town
Shrewsbury Town v Northampton Town
Hull City v Crewe Alexandra
Forest Green Rovers v Bradford City
Carlisle United v Southend United
Morecambe v Cambridge United
FA Vase and FA Trophy finals, Wembley
Other pilot events
- Racing at Warwick, Sept 21: Around 800 spectators
- Racing at Newmarket, Sept 24-26: Capacity halved to 1,000 following Government announcement.
- British Basketball League exhibition match, Newcastle, Sept 18: Capacity around 800
- Speedway, British final, Ipswich: Sept 26: Capacity halved to 1,000 following Government announcement.
- T20 Cricket, Western Storm vs Sunrisers, Bristol, Sept 19: 1,000 fans