Following successful pilot events with live audiences across sports including football, rugby, cricket and snooker, the industry was stunned on 22 September when the Government announced there would be a ban on fans for up to six months. Christopher Barrett investigates the impact of that decision and the work already done to make events Covid-secure.
You can read this feature in the Access All Areas digital magazine here.
An enormous amount of research had been carried out and safety measures implemented across the sports industry to ensure the safety of fans as it prepared to welcome audiences of up to 1,000 back to events from 1 October. With many sports clubs, teams, organisations and venues reliant on ticket revenue, prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that the ban on fans could remain in place until late March was a kick in the shins.
Rugby Football League chief regulatory officer Karen Moorhouse says that all the league’s clubs were ready to host matches with live audiences of 1,000 and eager to demonstrate to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) how that could be achieved safely under current Covid-19 related events guidelines.
She says the sports industry will fundamentally change if audiences are not able to return soon: “Spectators are vital for sports, every business needs its customers in order to survive and thrive, and our clubs and the venue owners are experts in crowd movement, so we’re disappointed that the pilots aren’t going to happen and that there is no road map to getting back to having crowds.”
Moorhouse says it is easy to “look at the situation through a Premiere League lens” and expect players to take pay cuts, but that is not an option for the majority of sports: “The reality is that Rugby League players are not making the type of money that Premiership footballers are, so adjusting a payment model to take into account not hosting crowds isn’t achievable.”
Shortly before the Government announcement, during the weekend of the 19-20 September, seven English Football League (EFL) clubs were permitted to admit spectators into Sky Bet League matches. They included Luton Town versus Derby County and Norwich City V Preston North End.
EFL communications director Mark Rowan says there was enormous enthusiasm among EFL clubs to host the matches: “A large number of EFL clubs applied to host pilot matches and every club that applied was given Government permission, aside from those that were located in areas where there was a localised lockdown.”
Counting the cost
The loss of spectators this year has had a dramatic impact on EFL finances, with the league’s clubs having collectively lost £50m of gate income in the 2019/2020 season. It is expected a further £200m will be lost if crowds are unable to return during the current season.
Says Rowan, “It has to be recognised that football is facing an impending financial crisis, with the Covid-19 pandemic creating arguably the biggest challenge to the finances of EFL clubs in their history.”
He says the DCMS had been supportive, with successful pilot events having tested the guidance and shown they can be delivered safely: “The EFL staged a match with 900 spectators at Cambridge United and all parties were delighted at the club’s application of the new guidance.
“It was particularly notable that the public were very aware of the requirement to act responsibly and were hugely compliant with regards to the new requirements and took instruction from stewards and tannoy announcements throughout.”
Rowan says the return of supporters to stadiums is entirely compatible with the ‘rule of six’, and that the guidance already implemented at grounds had followed the principle before the ‘rule of six’ existed.
“It is important to remember that football is one of the most regulated industries in the country when it comes to managing large events, so we believe we can be an exemplar to implementing guidance that allows people to undertake ‘normal’ activities, such as attending football matches, and set an example of how to return to a degree of normality safely with social distancing in place.”
The EFL hoped that following the initial pilot phase, where capacity was limited to 1,000 supporters, clubs would be able to operate stadia at around 25-35% of capacity, initially, in order to maintain social distancing in all areas of club grounds.
Prior to the PM’s announcement, numerous steps had been taken by the EFL, in line with Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) guidance and in partnership with the DCMS, to ensure crowd safety. Measures taken included issuing ticket holders with a Code of Conduct to provide guidance around all matchday safety requirements.
At Rugby Football League venues numerous measures had also been implemented to make sure stadiums were biosecure. Moorhouse says that when broadcast teams of up to 80 are included, the behind-closed-doors matches involve teams of more than 200 people working within the venues.
“It is all-encompassing: making sure you maximise social distancing, and if there are any situations in which you can’t do that it is about making sure there are appropriate mitigations in place. We run an accreditation system to make sure only the right people are getting in, operate one-way systems throughout the stadia, have lots of signage and additional sanitisation measures.
“Education is also key, so before anyone can enter the stadium they have to have completed an education module. They must also complete a wellbeing screening on the day to make sure neither they or any of their household have Covid-19 symptoms.”
While many of the safety systems are similar for the PGA European Tour, championship director Mark Casey says the golf course environment presents unique challenges: “We’re not in a fixed stadium where you can guarantee where everybody sits and when they arrive. We have a much bigger site and much longer day, so we’re going through the protocols of looking at how we can manage the audience flow because our gates are open from 7am to 7pm.”
“We’ve been playing every week since and our aim is to play all the way through to Christmas, week-in week-out,” he says.
Recent months have seen the organisation stage events in the UK and Austria sans fans, and in Spain and Portugal with “some limited hospitality”, but Casey says the aim is to get audiences back as soon as it is viable. “We want to start getting crowds back and to deliver benefits to our sponsors,” he says.
Naturally the pandemic has also resulted in some major changes for players and their teams. Says Casey: “We have players from 25 different countries, and caddies and associates, coming in. We have a very diverse mix of people at the events so we’ve worked with DCMS and created tournament bubbles at all events. We have an exclusive bubble from hotel to venue. In some locations we have hotels on site so that has made it a lot easier.
“We have put some really strict protocols in place. As well as having testing before anyone comes into the bubble there are daily symptom checks. We have gone through everything from the playing side; looking at all touchpoints from flag sticks to hole cups. Things like that are sanitised on a daily basis. Other protocols include players signing their own scorecard rather than handing it across to a fellow competitor.”
To avoid queues of people turning up wanting to buy tickets on the gate, the RFL is moving towards electronic entry systems, and all tickets being sold in advance.
“A further advantage of that is details of all the ticket purchases are recorded and the data can be fed into NHS Test and Trace,” says Moorhouse.
All RFL players and pitch-side personnel are tested for Covid-19 on a weekly basis. The challenge, says Moorhouse, is extending that to fans.
An antibody test provides details of whether an individual has had Covid-19 and has the necessary antibodies to fight it off in the future. It is relatively cheap to administer and, as has been suggested on numerous occasions, could be used to provide a passport to enable fans to buy tickets for and attend events.
Unfortunately, it seems the passports would only be available to a small portion of the population. Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, has said under 10% of people have Covid-19 antibodies.
Moorhouse says mass temperature testing also presents challenges: “There is dialogue across the board about the issue of taking temperatures when fans arrive at games but if you temperature test fans as they come in you have to turn away anyone whose temperature is above the relevant level.
“If you start turning people away with high temperatures you then have to deal with the l issue of how they exit the venue, because you can’t have them walking in the opposite direction to the rest of you fans as they enter the stadium.
Moorhouse believes that communication with fans is essential when it comes to crowd safety, and that sports stars have an important role to play in encouraging good behavior.
She says, “One of the great advantages sport has is you have an incredibly loyal fanbase, and in general they will listen to what the club says and they certainly will if you’ve got your star players telling them they need to act in a certain way.
“The return of sport can be used by the government as a really good means to get messaging out there, and what better way is there to demonstrate to a broad audience what’s meant by social distancing than having that in operation at sports grounds?”