Can UK Football Recover From COVID-19?
COVID-19 has mercilessly swept through Europe over the last couple of weeks with many key industries including hospitality, travel and retail all taking a significant hit. One of the biggest casualties of this global pandemic could be the sports industry, with all UK football grinding to a complete halt in mid-March.
The FA recently announced that no further matches would take place until at least the end of April, although this is expected to be pushed back further with the virus showing no signs of abating.
The lack of UK football will also have a knock-on effect on catering, security and gambling firms although the vast majority of football betting sites are currently offering odds on when the Premier League season will get back underway.
Top flight clubs may be waiting to find out whether the 2019-20 season will be completed, however, the majority of these sides will suffer very little financial consequence compared to those further down the pyramid. Clubs such as Brighton and Hove Albion may have enjoyed some positive PR over the last few weeks for their commitment to match-day staff although the Seagulls, who are bankrolled by entrepreneur Tony Bloom, are unlikely to be too negatively affected by this enforced break. It’s lower league teams that are far more likely to be feeling the pinch, and many of them are likely to require financial help if they are to survive this epidemic.
EFL and Non-League
Many EFL clubs were already been feeling the pinch prior to the outbreak and the lack of revenue from spectators could potentially result in devastating consequences. Rochdale chief executive David Bottomley is just one of many who have expressed their concern about the future of the footballing pyramid.
The Football League already has a topsy-turvy feel to it this year following Bury’s untimely demise, and the EFL have come under plenty of pressure for their largely hands-off approach to the club’s financial mismanagement. Macclesfield, Bolton and Charlton have all had various cash-flow issues over the last couple of seasons, and many onlookers are understandably concerned that the authorities haven’t learn from their previous mistakes.
With the lack of match-day revenue coming into the club, and many players tied to reasonably lucrative contracts, a number of lower league clubs are currently fearing for their future. In the National League, Barnet have already laid off all of their non-playing staff and they won’t be the only club who will be forced into making seismic changes both on and off the field.
League Two clubs such as Stevenage and Oldham are simply surviving on a day-to-day basis and unless they can acquire financial assistance to get them through the next couple of months, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the pyramid losing one or two familiar names before the first ball of the 2020-21 campaign is kicked.
Players and Contracts
Although suggestions that simply pushing the season back a few months is arguably the best option at this moment in time, it does pose major problems for many UK football clubs.
With some player contracts due to expire on June 30th, they would be free to walk away or could simply refuse to be part of the match-day squad. Willian has already spoken of his commitment to continue playing for Chelsea, despite the Brazilian’s time at West London coming to an end this summer, however, many others may already have had their heads turned by potential interest from other clubs.
Further down the pyramid, many players will be worrying about their future. Some lower league stars will be asked to take a significant pay-cut, whilst others may simply be told that they are surplus to requirements later. This is likely to see a large number of match-day squads ruthlessly streamlined with some teams largely relying on their academies to bring through more cost-effective replacements.
The Recovery Process
It may take the best part of a decade for UK football to fully recover from the COVID-19 outbreak. The pyramid is likely to be reshaped as a result, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see many of the leagues have a lop-sided look about them next season.
Some communities may unfortunately lose their clubs, whilst the number of free agents in the game is likely to increase exponentially. The FA and EFL must come up with a stringent plan to avoid too much devastation, however, with scientists warning people that they may be in self-isolation for up to six months, a handful of clubs may not make it through to the other side.
UK football will bounce back, yet it could take several years for the entire industry to show the first signs of recovery from this extremely-damaging global pandemic.