The Premier League resumed on 12 September 2020 and initially plans had been in place for an October return for fans to be allowed in stadia, with home fans only. Yesterday, following an announcement from the government of a spike in coronavirus cases in the UK, those plans were put on hold indefinitely.
Back in May, Sport Shorts considered how Europe’s top football leagues were dealing with the global pandemic, all of which, at that stage, had been forced to come to a grinding halt. Project Restart brought football back on 17 June 2020, but fans had to settle for the digital experience as they were precluded from attending matches. Suddenly, all of the football was available all of the time, but this was little consolation for those dedicated season ticket holders that had already paid upfront for the 2019/20 season. Sadly, the position for fans this season looks like it is going to be all too familiar.
Back to broadcast?
In the run up to this 2020/21 season, the government called on the Premier League to make more matches available for broadcast while fans were still precluded from going to games, an idea which was supported by the Football Supporters’ Association. The current plan is to have 20 additional games scheduled for broadcast, rather than make all of the matches available, however the government’s latest announcement may impact this plan. In particular, the government has indicated that restrictions (not specifically those applicable to football) could be in place for up to 6 months. Any change to broadcasting plans would have to be agreed by the Premier League’s domestic broadcasting partners – Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon Prime. As we have previously discussed on this blog, the benefit of increased access to broadcast games is a projected decrease in piracy. The concerns associated with broadcasting more games are less apparent in circumstances where fans are not able to attend games in any event (see here for a balanced account of the pros and cons).
What it means for season ticket holders
The priority for clubs has been to try to get fans back in stadia as soon as possible in a safe way. The calls for more broadcast availability meant that clubs were becoming increasingly concerned about their season ticket sales for this 2020/21 season. Most clubs allowed fans to claim a pro-rata refund for the home games that they missed out on last season, with some clubs taking an innovative and charitable approach (Chelsea gave fans the option of donating their refund to NHS charities). Many fans were also provided with additional perks, such as free Now TV passes to allow them to access the games on TV. Some clubs, such as Wolves and Liverpool, exercised caution at the start of this season by pausing season ticket sales and announcing plans for ticket sales on a match by match basis at the point that fans will be allowed to attend grounds. It is expected that those clubs that have already taken payments for this 2020/21 season, will now have to once again issue refunds to disappointed fans.
New world order?
The latest government announcement comes as a blow to football fans desperate to return to the terraces. The restrictions also present a more significant risk to clubs outside of the Premier League, which have struggled with the erosion of match day revenue. As the restrictions roll on, the way fans engage with the game is being cast into a new mould, and it remains to be seen whether those changes will become the new order, or whether it will ever be back to business as usual.