Pack the flags. Close the turnstiles. Cover the plastic seats with an inspirational tarp. The doors are closed. And frankly, no one can guess when they might be open again.
The news this week that the government has withdrawn its mandate to step back spectators to professional sport has been greeted with dismay, and at times with barely contained sense of anger, among those whose job it is to keep up the pace. ‘industry.
Football has spoken the loudest in the past two days, with EFL President Rick Parry saying clubs stand to lose another £ 200million if the entire season is devoted to ghost games. The talk in Premiership Rugby is already bankruptcy or even a return to amateur status if the current timeline of the disaster scenario continues to its logical end. Indicate a sport, any sport, and the story is the same: crisis, collapse, abyss of debt.
There have already been suggestions for government bailouts, a possibility that comes with two important caveats. First, the Chancellor is unwilling to include the Premier League or the league in financial aid, which is understandable given the never-ending surge in TV rights payments and the futility of player salaries.
And second, well, did you actually seen the government recently? Or the Prime Minister himself, who these days looks like an increasingly confused elderly Labrador, dressed in a suit and pushed in front of the cameras to talk about graphic-based infection trends, who don’t is that now, 10 minutes into his TV spot, realizing he shouldn’t be able to speak.
There is no certainty here, no long-term promise that can be guaranteed to last the next political drifts. Professional sport faces a crisis of unprecedented urgency. He must be ready to face it largely alone.
At this point, it’s worth being clear on exactly what’s at stake. It’s a time of peril that should raise questions far beyond mere survival or maintaining the status quo. Questions such as: what is sport really for? And more specifically, what do we want it to look like when it’s all over?
It helps define the terms of all this peril. There has been a lot of emotional rhetoric about sport on the verge of extinction, its very existence in doubt, as if the basic ability to participate, support and watch could be evaporated from below us.
This is a mistake. What is threatened is the current financial management of professional sport, its existing models and cultural practices, much of which is rather joyless and dysfunctional to begin with.
Even inside of that there are layers. The higher level of world sport will continue despite everything, constrained but far from being in danger. Manchester United could lose £ 120million if the plague hiatus continues until spring. Big deal. Budgets will be wiped out and new signatures restricted. But half of that was thrown away just to pay Alexis Sánchez’s salary. The pandemic has reinforced an obvious truth: football at this level does not function on any recognizable human scale.
The real danger lies in the levels of professional sport below the elite. It is here, from league football and county cricket to racing and athletics, that there is a real threat that long-established institutions will fall to the wall. In many cases, this is the result of a deadly interaction with pre-existing greed and flaky bookkeeping. Only one Premiership rugby union club did not lose last year. Reading FC spent an amount equivalent to 194% of its turnover on player salaries two seasons ago. No one could have predicted the precise contours of a global bat-derived pandemic. But events – human history suggests – tend to occur at a certain stage.
Even well-run institutions at the amateur level will be vulnerable to the impossible mathematics of the situation. An audit process may be required for any rescue fund, with loans and grants distributed on merit.
Hopefully the system is lenient. The sums are likely to be low in the context of Covid’s overall debt. The institutions concerned are part of a disparate sporting culture which deserves to be protected, however difficult their current administration may be.
This has been one of the results of the current crisis, laying bare some essential truths. This is not always a bad thing. For starters, it turns out that the lack of crowds is a real drag on the Premier League’s brand value, a key part of its eminently marketable fan culture has often been used quite recklessly in the past. The absence of supporters clarified their value.
Newcastle manager Steve Bruce spoke earlier this week that players and managers feel demotivated by the empty stands. Maybe the clubs and administrators could try to nurture that a bit when the fans come back. There’s a lot to do, to make sure young fans can afford to deal with the urge to stick with the new late-night kick-off times. A year is a long time. This thread must be maintained.
Indeed, despite all the trauma, it is also an opportunity for sports organizations to engage in a deep period of introspection. Some structures have proven to be surprisingly strong. Cricket is run by a single dictatorial governing body. It turns out that this is a great way to deal with a financial crisis. Hopefully, the ECB could still take a similar pragmatic view of its current plans to introduce an untested vanity format next year.
In elite professional football, common sense would demand that player wages be capped or controlled against income. It is absurd that this small group of dependents, the only one-off cost of sport, threatens to kill the industry that supports them. Common sense, as always, may need to join the back of the queue.
As for the idea of dribbling down from the high end, here’s a non-fun fact: Gareth Bale could personally keep all of the League 2 clubs in business by paying their combined total payroll out of his annual playing salary. It probably won’t happen. The point is, he could.
Once again: what exactly is sport for? Descend to the lower level of this structure and amateur and recreational sport will continue regardless. The building blocks of participation and support, the fundamental soul of sport, will survive all of this.
In many ways, recreational sport was still alive during the lockdown period. Amateur cricket has found its season crammed into a six-week summer romance and has been a tour de force, tapping into its deep reserves of community and volunteer culture. More and more people have resumed or returned to cycling and running. The campaign to revive indoor sports such as badminton and netball underscored their vitality even reducing their immediate fortunes.
It is here, and not in the professional ranks, that taxpayer resources should be concentrated. The government is said to be hesitating on a grassroots resurrection plan. He should hesitate to do the exact opposite. The health of the nation, physical and mental, demands a regeneration of these shared resources.
In the meantime, professional sport will survive in one form or another, just as football continued during the blitz, and just as crowds returned in droves in the summers and winters of the golden age afterwards. -war.
But it has also been clear for some time that the system is not working as it should. Sport will undoubtedly find itself in this much talked about “chasm” in the coming months. He also has the freedom to start climbing.