Sun. Nov 29th, 2020

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‘It’s BONKERS!’ Government blasted for ‘ludicrous’ policy that bans football fans from grounds

11 min read

Clubs and fans up and down the country are calling out culture secretary Oliver Dowden for his ‘bonkers’ policy banning fans from stadiums, while allowing people to attend bars, restaurants, galleries and events, some of which take place inside football grounds.

Manchester United‘s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, led the critics when he highlighted ministers’ ‘inconsistency’ in applying restrictions to football, while letting people attend a host of other indoor activities.

The government has banned fans from attending football matches in the top five tiers of English football as part of the measures to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Today, the government has been forced to respond to a #LetFansIn petition, which has garnered support from the Premier League and Football League and gathered more than 100,000 signatures.

Manchester United lost more than £35 million in matchday income and broadcasting fees as a direct result of the  Covid-19 pandemic, according to the club's published accounts

Manchester United lost more than £35 million in matchday income and broadcasting fees as a direct result of the  Covid-19 pandemic, according to the club’s published accounts

And clubs at all levels have told Sportsmail they are perplexed and disappointed by the government’s ‘ludicrous’ approach, which is pushing some teams to the very brink of existence.

“If indoor concerts are allowed, why should outdoor, socially distanced football fans be treated differently?’ Woodward said as he discussed Manchester United’s accounts, which showed the Covid-19 pandemic had directly cost the club at least £35m. 

‘Fans are the bedrock of this game and some of the inconsistencies out there are frustrating for them and for the clubs.”

Bristol City, in the Championship, has branded the situation ‘bonkers’. The club’s Ashton Gate Stadium is hosting comedy gigs, murder mystery events and showing live sport in the bar, as well the next home game with Swansea City, but fans are not allowed to watch their team outdoors.

United's executive vice chairman Ed Woodward has  highlighted inconsistencies in policy

United’s executive vice chairman Ed Woodward has  highlighted inconsistencies in policy

In League One, Hull City welcome Peterborough United on Saturday and season ticket holders are allowed to watch in hospitality suites inside the KCOM stadium, but cannot peak through the doors to see the teams battle it out on the pitch, as the Tigers try to hang on to the top spot.

League Two Grimsby Town’s chairman, Philip Day has described as ‘ludicrous’ the situation in which spectators can sit in the bar and watch on television, ‘with little ventilation, when 20 yards away there is a football match going on and they could be totally safe’.

And in the National League, where government has provided some financial support, loss-making clubs are desperate to be given the go ahead to trial the return of spectators.

Grimsby Town's chairman has highlighted the government's 'ludicrous' approach to football

Grimsby Town’s chairman has highlighted the government’s ‘ludicrous’ approach to football

Test events were carried out at football grounds and other sports venues without issue in August and September, including one with 2,500 people, when Brighton played a friendly against Chelsea at the Amex Stadium.

Given the successful trials, the government had anticipated it would ease restrictions in October, however that decision was ‘paused’ by ministers as infection rates rose.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden was quizzed by MPs on the situation affecting football clubs last week.

He accepted there has been “inconsistency” after spectators were allowed into the London Palladium theatre for an event with former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, but outdoor sports venues remained closed.

“In relation to sport, we had sports on a path to normality,” he told the Department for Culture, Media and Sport committee.

‘That is what I desperately wanted to happen,’ he added. ‘ Because of where we are with the disease, it has not been possible to have that further easement.’

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden accespts there have  been inconsistencies between football and other activities, but says it hasn't been possible to let fans into stadiums on safety grounds

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden accespts there have  been inconsistencies between football and other activities, but says it hasn’t been possible to let fans into stadiums on safety grounds

The government is concerned that the movement of fans to and from stadiums, including in pubs and restaurants around grounds, could result in increased transmission of the virus.

However, clubs say they have plans in place to deal offset that risk.

In response to the petition, a spokesman for DCMS said today that the government will take the ‘earliest opportunity’ to get spectators back into football stadiums, but no time frame has been set.

A debate is set to take place on November 9 in Westminster Hall with a representative of the DCMS in attendance.

Sportmail looks at how clubs are affected in the top five tiers of English football.

Manchester City and Porto face an an empty stand before their Champions League encounter

Manchester City and Porto face an an empty stand before their Champions League encounter

Premier League

Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has led the charge urging the government to reconsider their approach to football.

Unveiling United’s latest accounts yesterday, which showed dramatic falls in revenue from £627m to £509m in part due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Woodward criticised the government for “inconsistency” over the return of fans.

He said: “Crowds have been permitted to return to varying degrees in over 20 European countries, albeit with significant capacity restrictions to allow for social distancing, and we urge the UK government to follow these positive examples.

In the German Bundesliga, teams have been welcoming 20 per cent of their stadium capacity, if the seven-day rate of infection with Covid-19 is below or equal to 35 per 100,000 in the local region.

Fan in Germany cheers on TSG Hoffenheim in a match against Borussia Dortmund this month

Fan in Germany cheers on TSG Hoffenheim in a match against Borussia Dortmund this month

The pandemic has cost United because it has, like other clubs, had to pay rebates to broadcasters that cost the club £14 million, and it has seen a slump in matchday income of £21 million.

While the commercial impact is a huge issue, the absence of fans is taking its toll on the players and performance, too.

‘It’s less enjoyable for everybody,” Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo told The Athletic. “We miss this connection.

Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo said players are missing the connection with fans in matches

Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo said players are missing the connection with fans in matches

‘The game has changed. The impact of their absence is huge, the games and the actions of players are different, a lot of aspects that even the referee, all these things. Let’s try to bring them back.” 

And Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers admits some of his players are finding it harder to focus without supporters and with so many distractions around games.

‘Players have done brilliantly in this period to keep the intensity in the games but there’s definitely a fraction of focus that’s been lost on the field,’ said Rodgers.

Leicester City players have been affected by Covid-19 restrictions, says Brendan Rodgers

Leicester City players have been affected by Covid-19 restrictions, says Brendan Rodgers

Championship

The financial impact of no fans in stadiums bites deeper in the Championship than in the Premier League, because the clubs tend to have more reliance on match-day income.

For an average Championship side, which is not benefiting from parachute payments after relegation from the Premier League, the actual match accounts for a quarter of all revenue.

Matchday sales of food and drink, merchandise and programmes, could be as high as £100,000 for a successful club with a further £1m in ticket sales. All that is currently lost.

Bristol’s historic Ashton Gate stadium, which first hosted matches 133 years ago, is now home to Bristol Sport, which includes Bristol City, Bristol Bears Rugby Club, Bristol Flyers Basketball, Bristol City Women’s Football and Bristol Bears Women.

Bristol's Ashton Gate stadium is empty, but fans can watch on television in the bar  indoors

Bristol’s Ashton Gate stadium is empty, but fans can watch on television in the bar  indoors

But while no fans can come into the outdoor stadium, the same buildings are open for a host of indoor events.

“It is bonkers that I can host comedy gigs, outdoor cinemas and even match day hospitality in one of our restaurants but cannot host fans socially distanced outside,” Ashton Gate Stadium & Bristol Sport managing director Mark Kelly, told the city’s Business Live website. 

Bristol City are currently top of the Championship, and host Swansea on Saturday. Fans will be watching on screens in the club’s largest hospitality lounge with a pie and pint, but will not be allowed to spectate the live action.

‘The teams will be out on the pitch and my biggest restaurant will have fans in it,’ Kelly told Mail Online. ‘They will watch on a TV feed.

‘They will come into the stadium using different entrances, they will have access to different toilet facilities, and we use QR codes so we can zone them, so if there is a case, we can work out which zone they were in.’

Bristol Bears were due to play before 1,000 fans at Ashton Gate but supporters were banned

Bristol Bears were due to play before 1,000 fans at Ashton Gate but supporters were banned

As the government geared up to allow trial events at football grounds in October, Bristol Sport was all set to host 1,000 fans for a rugby match, but Kelly said they had received local approval for up to 8,000 supporters to be safely accommodated at Ashton Gate.

The model includes separation in the stadium but also limiting ticket sales to different post codes, so no one area has an excessive number of fans travelling on match day.

A similar system operates in Bristol to prevent congregation at the city’s recycling centres; people in different areas can only attend the tip on ‘their day’.

In this way Kelly believes the club is able to allay government fears that transmission may increase as fans travel to and from grounds.

Exeter Chiefs beat Racing 92 in the Heineken Challenge Cup Final at Ashton Gate this month

Exeter Chiefs beat Racing 92 in the Heineken Challenge Cup Final at Ashton Gate this month

‘It is very disappointing.’ said Kelly reflecting on the cancellation of spectator trials, while bars and arts venues were reopened. ‘It was a complete ban across the country. It felt like such a paradox.’

Kelly suggests that decisions to ban fans should be ‘objective and local’ rather than a nationwide ban and he points out that the economic impact at Ashton Gate ripples out into the wider economy, through job cuts and dramatic downturn in orders for suppliers.

The effect has been devastating. Before the pandemic, Mr Kelly managed a team of 150 staff, 600 temporary workers and oversaw a payroll of £3million

Between March and May, the stadium lost £1.82 million and now the full-time team has been cut to 102. In addition, much of the £4m Bristol Sport pumps into local suppliers each year is lost.

Mr Kelly is urging the Government to involve stadiums and clubs in any decisions about fans returning.

“I would never allow an event to happen that would put anybody at risk. This is the business we are in – keeping people safe while entertaining through sport or events,” he said.

Bristol City are second in the Championship but no fans are able to watch the action live

Bristol City are second in the Championship but no fans are able to watch the action live

League One

Nowhere is the absence of fans more keenly felt than in League One, or the inconsistency of government policy more starkly illustrated.

Well over a third of a League One clubs’ income flows from match day activities, which includes ticket sales, merchandise and hospitality.

The lack of income is pushing some clubs to the wall, with Dowden warning MPs at the DCMS select committee last month that up to 15 teams in the lower leagues were at risk of financial disaster.

The stand-off between the Premier League and EFL, and government’s reluctance to make money available itself, means there has been no emergency funding for League One or League Two clubs.

Hull City's KCOM stadium will be empty for Saturday's match against Peterborough but supporters have been invited to watch the game inside via a live television feed

Hull City’s KCOM stadium will be empty for Saturday’s match against Peterborough but supporters have been invited to watch the game inside via a live television feed

Banning fans is forcing clubs to look harder at where they can turn a penny, which in some cases only serves to highlight the absurdity of the government position.

Hull City’s KCOM stadium is a modern, multipurpose facility with a capacity of 25,000, but on Saturday when the Tigers take on Peterborough United, those seats will be empty, although fans will be allowed to gather indoors to watch the action on a live television feed.

‘This is your chance to experience a different kind of matchday at the KCOM Stadium,’ the club announced on its website, when it unveiled a ‘hospitality and dining package’ for season ticket holders.

Government policy allows fans to watch in the bar with food, but not sneak a peak at the action

Government policy allows fans to watch in the bar with food, but not sneak a peak at the action

Fans can book a table for six from 12 noon, they’ll be served lunch and an extravaganza of football on television indoors, including the Premier League game between West Ham United and Manchester City, before live streaming of the ‘main action’ of the Tigers against the Posh.

But the club adds: ‘Unfortunately, Government guidance means we are unable to invite you into the stadium bowl to see the game ‘live’.’

So, fans will be within earshot of the action, but banned from going outside to watch it. The bar will remain open at full-time, however, so supporters can stay on for the televised tea-time kick-off when Manchester United face Chelsea, meaning some supporters will have been in the venue for almost eight hours.

Tigers' fans are enjoying some long-awaited success on the pitch, but they cannot see it live

Tigers’ fans are enjoying some long-awaited success on the pitch, but they cannot see it live

League Two

Arguably, League Two clubs are the most vulnerable to the loss of match day income.

One quarter of their revenue comes from the match, but many are living life on the financial edge and cannot afford the losses.

The EFL’s refusal to accept the Premier Leagues £50m offer of grants and loans last week, because it said it could not accept the conditions attached, leaves some clubs struggling to make their October payroll.

Grimsby Town will weather the storm, but the financial impact is huge, with the club going from profit last year to a £700,000 loss this year after their average gate was slashed from 4,500 spectators to zero.

Fans were allowed in as a trial for a match between Carlisle and Southend in September

Fans were allowed in as a trial for a match between Carlisle and Southend in September

‘It is critical at our level to have some form of grant,’ said chairman Philip Day. ‘The Premier League have enough money if they are spending £1 billion in the transfer window and £200m on agents.

‘And I notice the Glazers have taken £20m in dividends out of Manchester United.’

The Mariners estimate they will lose up to £2 million as result of the ban on fans during last season and this season in tickets sales, sponsorship, merchandise and food and drink.

Day said Grimsby are looking at using their two restaurants to host fans on match days, but described the rules that allow supporters to watch inside, but not sit outside with a mask on as ‘ludicrous’.

‘Inside, they are sitting in a closed space with little ventilation when 20 yards away there is a football match going on and they could be sitting outside, wearing masks and totally safe,’ said Day.

‘It’s ludicrous. Absolutely crazy.’

Stockport County fans celebrated a win on the road at Maidenhead United before lockdown

Stockport County fans celebrated a win on the road at Maidenhead United before lockdown

National League

Clubs in the National League are the only ones that currently receive emergency funding to see them through this phase of the pandemic.

Classed as elite sport, the three divisions of the National League were also banned from having fans, but clubs refused to start the season until supporters could attend games given the costs of staging a match with no income.

With a few days left before the season commenced on October 3, government approved a £10m rescue package for National League sides split according to average gates, so games could begin without fans.

Table-topping Stockport County have invested heavily this year in a bid to regain their league status, which they lost in 2011.

Stockport County enjoyed gates of more than 5,000 last season, but that has been cut to zero

Stockport County enjoyed gates of more than 5,000 last season, but that has been cut to zero

With average gates of around 5,000, Stockport have benefited from maximum funding of £95,000 per month for three months, but they still lose £375,000 during that period through lost ticket sales, merchandise, hospitality and food and drink around the ground.

Not surprisingly, the club is desperate to get fans back.

‘I would like to see trials of up to 1,000 to 2,000 spectators early into next year,’ said Johnny Vaughan, the club’s chief executive.

‘I think that by dealing with a lower number of fans early should hopefully give government confidence.

‘There is a big financial impact and there is also a huge community aspect. The match is a huge day out for provincial towns. It is really significant from a social and cultural perspective.’

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