Yesterday, the chief executives of all the major UK football organizations released an open letter calling on governmental support for the eventual return of fans to football stadiums throughout the UK. Shortly afterwards, many individual football clubs came out as publicly in support of the open letter, including Tottenham Hotspur, who linked to a football supporter petition to the UK parliament that supports letting fans return to football matches.
The petition, at this time of this posting, had received 159,000 votes, well above the threshold needed to for parliament to consider the issue for a debate.
The open letter, signed by chief executives Richard Masters (Premier League), David Baldwin (EFL), Mark Bullingham (FA), and Kelly Simmons (FA Director of the Women’s Game) did not minimize that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to have an effect on everyday people throughout the UK and reiterated its commitment to public health and safety above all else, but also pointed out the positive role sports can play in times of crisis, and “stress[ed] [their] commitment to getting supporters back into grounds” as soon as possible.
The health of the nation remains our overriding priority, and for many months we have been working with experts to make our grounds as safe as, if not safer than, any other public activity currently allowed. And we are consulting with the Football Supporters’ Association to keep supporters updated every step of the way.
We know attendance at matches can play a positive role in people’s lives during these challenging times. And the past few months have shown how clubs can still feel the support of their fans.
Even when you have been unable to get together, you and your clubs have found ways to make a difference in your communities, with clubs delivering food parcels, taking part in phone calls and online conversations with fans, the elderly and vulnerable and moving services and programmes online to make a difference in unprecedented and challenging circumstances.
But we all know football is not the same without fans. Every player and manager is missing the direct connection with you and the impact that you have on our games.
The letter pointed to successful test events with supporters in stands throughout the various tiers of football over the past few weeks, as well as the recent re-opening of pubs and music/arts venues as bellwethers to letting fans return to sporting events. It outlined specific ways that the leagues and individual clubs can screen incoming supporters and reduce the risk of transmission while at games, including developing models for fans who are travelling to football grounds.
There’s a lot to unpack in this statement. Few fans would disagree with the overall premise of the letter — football just isn’t the same in empty stadiums — but obviously there are layers within layers within layers in this issue that are too complex to fully get into. Not least among these layers are the struggles suffered by football clubs who rely on match day income as an important part of their finances. This is more acutely felt by clubs further down the table and especially in the lower leagues, and there has been some rightful alarmism about clubs folding without a major bail-out from the government if they continue to play with no fans in the ground. The financial argument, both lack of income from fans and the lack of a government bailout, is clearly a large ulterior motive for both the leagues and the clubs to support the idea of fans returning to stadiums.
Ultimately, public safety is a paramount concern. The Serie A match between Atalanta and Valencia in mid-February is now being viewed as one of the super-spreader events that kicked off the rise of coronavirus cases in Italy. No one, least of all the co-signers of this open letter, is advocating for full stadiums for football matches with fans packed together like sardines the way they were before the pandemic, but the clear implication is to try and find a way for at least some fans to be together, masked, socially distant, and as safe as possible, to watch their teams play.
It seems odd, at a time when there is a significant second wave of COVD-19 infections in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, to discuss the idea of returning to mass gatherings of people, even in outdoor stadiums. That’s not to say that there aren’t ways to minimize risk to fans who wish to watch live sports in stadiums — we know more about the virus now than we did in early spring, and it’s possible that limited attendance with social distance, staggered entrance and exit plans, and requiring fans to remain masked at all times is one way to allow for this. But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and doing so would require fans to comply with ALL regulations, and for stewards others to stringently enforce these guidelines. The consequences of something going wrong could be potentially catastrophic.
It’s worth noting that sports leagues in other countries have started bringing fans back into grounds. The Australian Football League Grand Final, scheduled for October 24, has been tentatively approved for an attendance of 30,000 fans, though Australia has seen a significantly lower COVID infection rate than the United Kingdom since the start of the pandemic.
For now, football matches will continue behind closed doors. However, as this open letter makes clear, there’s now a concerted push to find a safe way to bring fans back into UK football grounds. The first die has been cast, and the next step belongs to the government.