Why can't sports fans return to stadiums? Government set to face questions

You can go to the pub. You can go to the theatre. So why can’t you watch your professional team in an open-air stadium?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has postponed plans to partially open up stadiums across the country by up to six months, but socially-distanced audiences have remained able to return to indoor theatres, music and performance venues.

It has left sporting bodies deeply frustrated at what they believe is the Government’s inconsistent coronavirus-containment policy.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden will face questions from MPs on Wednesday, with many clubs warning they are on the brink of financial collapse unless turnstiles reopen or a bailout is agreed.

An open letter from the Premier League, EFL, The FA, Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship called for the Government to treat sport “as fairly as other activities currently allowed to welcome spectators”.

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So is sport being harshly treated?

Why is sport a higher risk than the arts?

Analysis from Sky Sports News reporter Geraint Hughes:

The Government has not yet given a clear answer to why sport poses a higher risk than other sectors, or even if it believes that at all.

The return of fans to stadia drew red flags when the Covid-19 infection rate started to rise very quickly during mid-September.

The Government has acknowledged that football has worked hard to make the stadiums as safe as they can be. But that is not the problem.

It is the Government’s belief that no matter how safe it is inside a stadium, the process of getting supporters to and from a stadium, and where there are areas they may congregate in numbers, is where the risk is too great to take.

Travelling of fans who will congregate in areas away from stadia and outside their sphere of influence is a concern, as is fans meeting up in numbers for a drink at a pub or a bite to eat at a cafe.

Where it differs from theatregoers, for example, is the sheer numbers.

Medical advice suggests that a congregation of 100 or 200 people by a pub or cafe is just too high a risk to take given the rates of infection.

The behaviour of some supporters towards the end of last season during Project Restart also concerned the Government’s medical advisors greatly as they saw large numbers of fans congregating in small areas against Public Health England advice and despite warnings from clubs, police and government.

This played a part in discussions that led to the advice to government to postpone the return of fans from October 1.

Will stadiums be Covid-safe?

The Premier League said on September 22 that through guidelines developed with scientific experts and agreed by the Government’s Sports Ground Safety Authority, fans in stadiums will be “as safe or even safer than at any other public activity currently permitted”.

Football’s governing bodies have said measures could include:

  • Screening spectators before they enter the ground
  • Installing temperature checks
  • Requiring masks to be worn
  • One-way systems
  • Providing a code of conduct for all those attending on a matchday

This will all be bolstered by deep-cleaning practices to help further reduce the risk of virus transmission.

From a transport perspective, football’s governing bodies have said clubs will work closely with experts and local authorities “to model solutions relevant for each stadium to ease pressure on public transport, while extra parking facilities could be available so a greater proportion of you can travel by private car or bicycle”.

Were there any issues at pilot events?

A number of pilot events with fans were trialled before the latest government restrictions, with no specific data around whether infection rates were negatively impacted.

  • In August, 2,500 people attended a friendly between Brighton and Chelsea at the Amex Stadium – the first time fans had been allowed into a Premier League ground for almost six months. Figures local to Brighton suggest no noticeable rise in Covid-19 cases.
  • About 300 spectators watched the World Snooker Championship final between Ronnie O’Sullivan and Kyren Wilson at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield – after original plans to admit fans for all days of the tournament were cancelled.
  • In Women’s Super League, 1,000 fans attended Arsenal’s 9-1 victory over West Ham on September 12.
  • More than 2,500 spectators bought tickets for the first day of the St Leger meeting at Doncaster on September 9.

How has it worked in other countries?

In Germany, Bundesliga teams have been able to fill up to 20 per cent of their stadiums so long as the seven-day rate of infection is below or equal to 35 per 100,000 in the local region.

Last week it was confirmed no football matches will take place in front of fans in Munich until at least October 25 because of an increased rate of coronavirus infections in the city.

New Zealand are expecting a “near-capacity” crowd of around 47,000 at Auckland’s Eden Park for the second Bledisloe Cup rugby international against Australia on Sunday.

Images of 31,000 fans without masks cheering on the three-time world champions in the first Test in Wellington last weekend attracted plenty of attention.

The bumper crowds are possible because of New Zealand’s relative success in combating Covid-19, having appeared to have stamped out community transmission of coronavirus earlier this year following a tough nationwide lockdown.

Would fans actually want to return?

Belgium opened the doors to its national stadium for their match against Ivory Coast last Thursday, but of the 11,000 tickets available – only 6,200 were sold and it is thought just 4,600 turned up.

  • Sky News: A return to live football – but many opt to stay at home

The Covid-19 rate in Brussels increased sharply since the decision was taken to sell tickets. Intensive care beds are filling up again and, the day before the game, the city announced the closure of all bars and cafes.

Inside, bubbles of family members or friends could sit together but otherwise there was strict social distancing.

Who will pay the price if fans don’t return?

While the arts has received a £1.57bn package from government, so far from public funds only rugby league received £16m in loans, while Sport England, whose remit is grassroots sport, has made access available to a £210m fund.

The Rugby Football Union is forecasting losses totalling £106m as a result of fans not being able to attend England matches. Premiership Rugby is asking for a “rescue package” after warning of “irreparable damage to our clubs” by the absence of crowds for the foreseeable future.

The chief executive of Surrey Cricket, Richard Gould, has told Sky Sports News that another season without supporters at The Oval and other domestic grounds would lead to the end of county cricket as a professional sport.

As for EFL clubs, whose income is heavily reliant on ticket revenue, Mr Dowden told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge two weeks ago that the Premier League “needs to play its part”.

He vowed to “throw everything” at getting fans back in stadiums “sooner rather than later”.

But opposition parties say ministers need to do more.

Labour’s shadow sports minister Alison McGovern told Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “I don’t think there’s a social problem that Britain has that can’t be helped by sport in general, and football specifically.

“If anybody in government is snobbish about football – I don’t know why they would be and I think it’s time they should grow up because actually football is part of the solution.”

She says improving the Test and Trace system and explaining the logic behind decisions, especially those that affect smaller clubs, is key.

There are hopes that a bailout deal could be agreed later this month – after the transfer window shuts. Without it – dozens of clubs will be fighting for their future.

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