What issues does football face when completing the 2019-20 season following a global pandemic?

At present, the UK, amongst various other nations across Europe and the world, are in lockdown in order to prevent the spread of the virus labelled COVID-19. A global pandemic rocks the world, with over 171,000 confirmed cases in the UK alone, there are many more pressing issues than just focussing on sport as a recreational activity. Despite this, question that seems to be on every fan’s mind at the moment, how will the professional game recover from this?

Throughout this post, we will analyse the impact that the virus has had so far and how can we expect to see the remainder of the season take shape whilst acknowledging the legal and financial implications each outcome has with it.

The International Governing Body for Football, FIFA, has addressed the situation and has urged all National Governing Bodies to complete the season if it is possible within its jurisdiction. At the beginning of the outbreak every football league in Europe, bar a couple, were suspended for the foreseeable future. Since then, the Dutch league has declared its leagues void, meaning no champions, promotions or relegations, while the French government have cancelled all 2019-20 sports league and the French Football Federation announced the conclusions of Ligue 1 were be determined on a point per game basis, ultimately relegated Toulouse and Amiens but crowning PSG champions.

What is clear to see is this, unknown quantity that is COVID-19, has created unprecedented times in the football industry so there is no easy answer. How do you restart the competitions while protecting the players, staff and fans well-being; How do you conclude the season without facing scrutiny on the integrity of the game; How can you play behind closed doors without clubs spiralling into to financial trouble?

Option 1: Playing Behind Closed Doors following restarted season in June 2020

If the football season was to return in June, a plan which has been highly debated in the media would see the completion of the 2019-20 in stadiums without fans, and would potentially see the season extended deep into late July. If this were to be the case there would be vast financial and legal consequences.

Legal Issues;

In English and Wales Law employers are unable to force an employee to work following the expiration of his/her contract. In the most recent FIFA guidelines, they state that employment contracts for players are intended to expire at the end of the season, therefore, clubs will retain the services of the player until the season has been fully completed. While this could be upheld in other member associations, in the UK, however, there is an inclusion of a specific date – 30th June. This means that the employment contracts are bound by this specific date. As a result, the player would be unable to represent the club unless a short or long term contract is agreed. Arguably this could mean squads are depleted to potentially the bare minimum or forced to promote youth players; therefore compromising the integrity of the competition.

Another issue which would cause debate is that hosting games behind closed doors would require an estimated 100 people at every venue. Should games take place like normal with 78 matches taking place every weekend, this would result in nearly 8,000 people collectively gathering across football stadiums alone. With the duty of care owed to employees by the employers, this would arguably be putting employees at a greater risk and should a person contract COVID-19, this potentially could lead to various negligence claims – depending on the severity.

Financial Issues;

Currently, there is a 3 pm blackout rule in place in accordance with EU law, and this is to prevent live football being broadcast for 2 hours on Saturday afternoon in order to encourage people to attend the event. This would mean that clubs would be losing not only ticket revenue but also virtual sales of online broadcasting the match. In comparison to the Premier League, the majority of EFL clubs rely on gate receipts for 40% of their total revenue, whereas in the Premier League it is only 4% – broadcasting and commercial being the major stream for clubs in the PL.

Clubs are currently tied into iFollow, an EFL streaming service, and only receive a percentage of the £10 fee charged by the EFL. In theory, the maximum a club can earn through iFollow is £8 per pass which is only one-third of the average ticket price in the leagues. The obligations of the EFL make it difficult to commercialise the league streaming service so a relaxation of these rules could be introduced or clubs may be forced to broadcast internally but these options would work if the 3 pm blackout rule is abolished.

Whilst the majority clubs will be covered by business interruption insurance for ticket/hospitality sales and Commercial obligations covered by Force Majeure clauses, so long as a pandemic is included, the clubs could potentially be without key revenue streams for between 6 months to a year. As soon as players are required to begin the mini pre-season which will be needed to restart the season, they will no longer be covered by the government’s furlough scheme where they will contribute 80% of wages up to £2,500. No main sources of income and players and staff needing to be paid could potentially leave cash strapped clubs struggling to stay afloat throughout this period.

Option 2: deem the 2019-20 season null and void

Follow the option that the Dutch have set – completely void the 2019-20 season and start the 2020-21 season as if this last season never happened; no champions, no relegations. This has also been implemented by the FA for grassroots league and the National League.

Legal;

The legal argument here is largely based on financial limitations. With 3/4 quarters of the season completed, teams have attained a significant points total, and in the case of the Premier League, it would be inevitable that Liverpool, who are currently 25 points clear, would become champions. The FA would face scrutiny by teams and fans alike if this option is taken, most notably by teams such as

  • Liverpool, who would be prevented from gaining their first Premier League title
  • Leicester, who look to be set for a 20/21 season in the Champions League
  • Sheffield United and Wolves, who could be involved in the qualifying rounds for the Europa League
  • Leeds and West Brom, being prevented from being promoted to the Premier League
  • All 7 teams in with a chance of championship play-off glory
  • All 8 teams in League 1 within 8 points of each other in the race for promotion to the Championship
  • All 9 team in League 2 who are in contention for promotion to League 1

Preventing the season from concluding, in theory, would potentially be a future loss of earnings due to unlocking the huge increase of revenue, whether that be directly commercial or indirectly, that would be generated by entering a European Competition or higher league. Such is the case with Sheffield United – when one considers the financial rewards that would stem from such an achievement, it would be a hammer-blow from both a commercial and fan perspective.

Clubs reliance on playoffs is also essential to the sustainability of the club’s future.  The main scrutiny, of course, coming from those who believe they can win the playoffs/finish in a more financially rewarding position in the table,  come the end of game-week 46. 

Financial;

As highlighted above, potential revenues from future seasons would be affected with this option however it could secure the short term future of more clubs throughout the UK. Clubs could continue to furlough staff and with the lack of immediate revenue, it could be the difference between a club surviving as Bolton did in August 2019 or the fate which Bury experienced in the same period. Would also

Option 3: end the 2019-20 season on Sporting Merit 

An option which the French league has been decided on is one where the sporting merit of clubs is taken into consideration through the point-per-game basis. This would be:

(current total points tally / the number of games that have been played) x number of games remaining = Total points for the season.

Legal:

The discussion point for this option is whether the league structure is reorganised. The FA could well decide that only success based on sporting merit is the way forward and this would mean no relegation in order to avoid litigation as a result of relegation out of the league. The promotion places would be decided with the top 3 places from all leagues and would see more teams in each league.

This would see the top 4 English Leagues conclude like this:

Ultimately, all European places could be decided based on this and the table would be decided and therefore all correlating prize funds could be given out as usual on a pro-rata basis. The formalities of the league structure will not be discussed in depth in this post so the teams that would be relegated based on points-per-game average are shown above. However, an interesting suggestion by Andre Villas-Boas was that this could be an opportunity to not only restructure the league but also the season calendar in order to compensate for the winter World Cup in Qatar in 202.

This option would be the best way to protect the integrity of the competitions as well as the financial health of all clubs in the top 4 leagues however could antagonise club to make legal challenges if they miss out on a promotion or are to be relegated as a result of this option.

Overall: 

The most prevalent current issue is certainly the wellfare of people within the industry, whether that be players, staff or fans, and the frontline staff who are currently risking their lives to save others. It is fundamental that the lives of others are not being affected, either directly through not adhering to government guidelines or indirectly through taking away health care professionals in order to be present at a behind the scenes fixture. All of these impacts, including the ones above, must be considered.

The overall longevity of clubs is certainly being tested during these times, as all businesses are, however following the conclusion of this virus one certain thing is spectating sport is not going to be the same again. This is an opportunity to make right of what are limiting football clubs from financial sustainability, such as the abolishment of the 3 pm blackout rule, and all clubs must collectively work together to ensure this.

In order to maintain the relationship and dignity of the well-established football leagues in the UK is by putting the community and people’s safety and job security first and cancel the 2019-20 season now.

Nonetheless, whatever is decided Litigation is forthcoming, regardless of the outcome, so a decision has to be made that fundamentally protects as many stakeholders as possible from contracting the virus.

Whether it is decided that the season is null and void or whether it is concluded on sporting merit will have mitigating circumstances on the future of English football. To retain the integrity of the competition, and protect the social elements, the season should be completed on sporting merit, in my opinion.

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