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Another modest proposal to resume football and solve the scheduling nightmare

Just merge the current season with the next, and then we could get to see March Madness, UEFA-style!

Soccer - League Division One - Tottenham Hotspur v Everton - White Hart Lane Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

The biggest questions in football these days is “When can we resume, and how will we do it?” Pardeep Cattry recently came up with an interesting proposal, and I am offering another creative approach.

Amid the discourse about resuming football, there are two huge mutually incompatible issues at play: safety vs money. Advocates of the safety side claim that football is a non-essential societal activity. It is a luxury activity, and due to its nature (the need to pack tens of thousands of people into close confines for two hours), it should be one of the absolute last things to resume once societies get a better grip on combatting COVID-19. Advocates of the money side claim that football is an important cultural institution that will quickly go bankrupt if it remains on pause for as long as many safety advocates desire. Football needs to return as soon as possible to prevent any additional harm to occur. Even so, many football clubs will already never return.

As a result, some sort of balance will need to be made with according to every country’s appetite for risk. The Netherlands, for example, has already firmly stated no football until September, while Germany will likely resume matches in May. However, for most countries, the resumption of football is still a long way off, and leagues are forced to cope with already extremely busy schedule in Fall 2020-Summer 2021. There simply is not enough space to accommodate the conclusion of the 2019/20 season and the late start of the 2020/21 season.

As a result, when ordered that no football will occur before September, the KNVB quickly announced the cancellation of the 2019/20 season, and it seems other leagues may begin to follow suit in cancelling their current seasons. But before doing so, I would like to propose an alternative solution that could potentially placate both the safety advocates and the money advocates, and resolve some key sticking points of other current proposals. European football leagues should merge their 2019/20 season with the 2020/21 season.

For simplicity, I will use the Premier League as a model, but the same principles could be applied to almost every league. A merger of two seasons would result in a mega 57-match season, whereby each club would play each other club three times. There would be a slight imbalance, in that half of the clubs would play one additional home match than the other half. However, given that many matches will be played before empty stadiums, a home advantage will not provide the same benefits as usual. In addition, different methods could be used to determine who would get this modest advantage. A drawing could be implemented, along the lines of how domestic cup matches are determined (the team selected first is assigned the home side), or it could be determined based on some form of merit (the sides currently in the top 10 would receive an additional home match). The merged season would have several key benefits.

It builds in space for time and delays

Firstly, it would build in a strategic buffer of time. Currently, there is not enough time to schedule so many matches. The Premier League is entertaining playing more than one match per week in the summer to quickly resolve the 2019/20 season. The problem with that is, it will delay the start of the 20/21 season, which is challenged by the extremely busy 2021 summer schedule, meaning the 20/21 season will have no leeway in accommodating delays. A season merger would immediately free up 19 matches, minimizing the urgency to resume matches as soon as possible due to the knock-on scheduling conflicts. Also, if there were a need to shut the league down for a period of time, this would also build in some time to accommodate that, and minimize the incentive to take risky decisions to due pressures to prevent further delays.

It is more fair

Secondly, the season merger would ensure no clubs feel hard-done by its cancellation. Liverpool’s historic season would not be scrubbed from the record books, and Sheffield United’s surprisingly good season would not be deleted. Similarly, Leeds or West Brom might be very angry given their likely promotions. But instead, they would have to maintain the form a bit longer than originally anticipated. But given the current expectation of cancelling the season, any serious proposal to maintain the results from 2019/20 would likely be welcomed by these clubs.

It allows for a common approach across Europe

Thirdly, a season merger would also allow for a common approach across Europe and prevent disparities that will inevitably arise when European football resumes. UEFA’s guidance of selecting clubs based on “sporting merit” is exceptionally vague and will lead to each national football association coming up with different methods to determine merit. You will very likely see many angry clubs and fans excluded from Europe due to arbitrary decisions. Each club will have a definitive final table in May 2021 to determined qualification for next season’s 2021/22 season.

It allows for Europe to reopen

Related to the above, this proposal releases pressure on UEFA. It would allow the current Champions and Europa Leagues to be played out to their conclusion. While Germany can unilaterally announce the resumption of their domestic leagues, Bayern Munich can’t continue in the Champions League if the Spanish, Italian, French and UK governments keep their borders closed. You must ensure that clubs can freely travel without risk of infecting others in the process. There are currently 11 matches remaining to be played in the current Champions League. It seems highly likely that borders will be one of the last things to reopen, meaning European football will not return until long after domestic leagues resume. The season merger ensures that European football can be paused until Spring 2021 without harm. If, unexpectedly, borders reopen soon and the Champions League and Europa League are able to be resolved in Fall 2020, then UEFA could entertain novel ways to fill the early 2021 calendar. One idea could be to devise a March Madness styled European football tournament. 64 matches (32 CL sides, seeded 1-8, and 32 EL sides, seeded 9-16) facing off in a one-match elimination tournament, which could theoretically start and finish over the span of only a month and a half.

It minimizes financial implications where possible

The final point is the financial implications of a merged seasons. There would absolutely be negative financial impacts. For example, in the Premier League television deal, bonuses are awarded on the basis of league finish. Only one bonus would be awarded across two years. Additionally, less money would be generated from playing 19 fewer matches. However, it seems exceptionally unlikely that fans will be allowed to attend matches before a vaccine is discovered, so clubs must accept that gate receipts will be severely impacted for a long time in any scenario. In addition, it will eliminate new UEFA prize money in 2020/21. But again, I am exceptionally skeptical how UEFA will manage to schedule a complete Champions League and Europa League competition given the myriad logistical issues facing them at the moment, and if things return to normal quicker than expected, there is space built in to generate additional revenue. In every proposal for resuming football, there will be massive losses in revenue, this proposal is no different, but still minimizes the financial hardship of other proposals.

Before other national football leagues follow the Eredivisie’s lead, I would hope they would consider some new, creative approaches, and I think the merged season would better placate the footballing world’s desire to resume activities as soon as possible with the health community’s desire to continue to flatten the curve, and is the fairest proposal to all clubs that I have seen considered. Plus, it would be pretty cool to see Harry Kane win the Golden Boot with 50 Premier League goals!