Written by: Siddesh K Iyer 

COVID-19

The alphanumeric coinage of a pandemic that has brought the entire world to a standstill. Infections, deaths and huge economic implications – the situation around the world looks pretty grim at the moment. And, for those, whose world revolves around “The Beautiful Game”, each passing minute looks the equivalent of an entire season as leagues and international fixtures across the world have come to an extremely unpleasant halt. The “Toilet Roll Challenge” is probably the closest equivalent of football we’ve seen over large parts of the last month.

Health and safety of the people around the world definitely take precedence and hence, the current decision to suspend fixtures across leagues and countries until we have conclusive evidence of a “safe” period is definitely the right decision by the authorities concerned. However, football isn’t just a game/sport these days, the business side of things, the stakes involved are definitely as important as the emotions attached to the 90 minutes of exhilarating action on the pitch.

Legal implications, Television revenues, Sponsors, Player contracts, Furlough’s and many more… The “backstage” of “The Beautiful Game” has come to light in the wake of this battle against a grave health and economic crisis across the world. Over the course of this piece, we shall explore the concerns that world football currently faces or is expected to face as the authorities attempt to solve this conundrum. (The focus shall remain on the Premier League with relevant comparisons and references to other major leagues, where required)

  • Legal implications: The uncertainty over honouring of commitments

The Premier League and the EFL have taken a decision to suspend all the remaining fixtures and resume football only when it is considered absolutely safe to continue. However, there remains a strong will to ensure the completion of the 2019/20 season amongst authorities in England as well as UEFA. The top-flight in England last suffered a hitch in the completion of fixtures during World War 2. If the COVID-19 pandemic continues its rampage across the world, then the declaration of this season as null and void seems to be the only alternative that the authorities might have. It’s easier said than done though. Any such declaration is bound to be extremely difficult in its on-ground execution and will face various legal challenges. In such a case, will Liverpool be champions? On moral grounds, they have an outrageous lead and do deserve the PL title after a really long wait; however, on the basis of pure logic, even though nearly impossible, 2nd placed Man City do have a mathematical possibility of retaining the PL title. This logical possibility makes any such declaration of Liverpool as champions would be a contentious decision for authorities, simply because of the mathematical possibility of another winner and its implications on the European qualification spots.

Now, that’s about the title. What about Champions League and Europa League qualification?

The European qualification challenge (both UCL and UEL) seems an extremely tight affair extending from 3rd placed Leicester City up to 14th placed Southampton. As far as the Champions League is concerned, a possible non-reversal of City’s UEFA ban could potentially open up UCL qualification at the 5th place currently occupied by Manchester United. This leaves a total of nine (and perhaps, ten) teams vying for the 2 (or possibly 3) UCL qualification spots viz. Leicester City, Chelsea, Man United, Wolves, Sheffield United, Spurs, Arsenal, Burnley, Crystal Palace (and perhaps, Everton). Realistically and optimistically, one would expect the UCL aspirants list to cut off at Arsenal depending on league form and the fixtures ahead. Nevertheless, that does pose a very difficult problem to be solved for both the Premier League as well as the UEFA authorities.

The biggest legal challenge for the declaration of the season as null and void could come from the relegation dogfight. Five teams viz. Brighton, West Ham, Watford, Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich are currently in an intense battle to avoid relegation. Meanwhile, in EFL Championship, Leeds and West Brom currently occupy the automatic promotion spots with comfortable leads over Fulham, Brentford, Nottingham Forest and Preston North End who occupy the Playoff spots. Any decision to cut short the season prematurely and decide the fate of these clubs as is could face legal suits from sides i.e. the promotion aspirants and the ones plotting a “great escape” from relegation.

Another element, subject to massive legal implications could be the transfer market. Huge sums and commitments associated with transfer fees, player salaries, agent commissions and a multitude of other perks are under threat at the moment. What about the bumper deals for Jadon Sancho, Timo Werner, and a whole host of top-class players who could potentially be on the move in this transfer window? It’s a question that needs answering, and the current pandemic could change the way transfer deals happen over the next few seasons.

  • Television revenues and Sponsors: Moneyball

The sums involved behind the leagues in England and all over the world are humongous. Television revenues constitute a huge chunk of these sums. With football across the world coming to a standstill, both the league as well as broadcasting authorities are under intense pressure to come up with a solution to ensure that the television contracts stay intact. However, if the season is eventually declared null and void, then any such contract is bound to get severed and this could lead to immense losses at both ends. As per Enders Analysis, if leading sports events (including but not limited to the Premier League) remain off broadcast till August, then Sky and BT are estimated to lose close to £1 bn in revenues. On the other end, Premier League clubs are set to lose out on around £3 bn in revenues from overseas as well as domestic TV rights.

Many clubs depend on match-to match based revenues for their survival and any of these losses mentioned above could be devastating for these clubs and the staff associated with them. There is hardly any business in Britain and perhaps, all over the world which won’t face any impact (of any magnitude) due to COVID-19. This, in turn, could lead to a reduction in sponsorship amounts and perhaps, even severance of contract if the sponsors cannot afford any spend on these sponsorship contracts. As per recent reports, clubs like Manchester United who enjoy an enhanced sponsorship presence all over the world can sustain the losses due to COVID-19 because of the lucrative sponsorship contracts they’ve signed over the years. However, for other smaller clubs, the severance of sponsorship contracts (an otherwise lucrative source of income) could have a detrimental impact on the financial stability of these clubs and could even push them towards the dungeon of bankruptcy.

The Government of the United Kingdom announced a furlough scheme which covers any Full-Time employee (and those on “Pay As You Earn (PAYE)” basis). Under this scheme, 80% of a person’s wages up to £2500 is paid by the Government.

Now, where does football come into this? More than the players who have been contributing to the fight against COVID-19 through various fundraising movement across the world, it is the non-playing staff who are bearing the brunt of the economic impact due to COVID-19.

The Government’s scheme does ensure that the non-playing staff at some of England’s wealthiest clubs are covered financially during these terms of turmoil, but that does stretch the Government’s resource and the burning question would be the financial stability of employees in other organizations across the UK and how well they can be covered under this scheme.

So far, Tottenham, Newcastle, Bournemouth and Norwich have placed their non-playing staff on furlough under the Government’s scheme. Liverpool had initially placed their non-playing staff on furlough, however, after some fierce criticism from various stakeholders, they’ve now apologised to their fans and will not make use of the Government scheme; LFC will make full salary payments to their non-playing staff. Manchester City and Manchester United have committed to pay their non-playing staff their full salaries and not opt for the Government scheme. As far as placing the non-playing staff on furlough is concerned, it is a completely legal action under the Government’s scheme, however, with respect to clubs with extremely healthy revenues such as Spurs, it is an ethical dilemma when it comes to their decision to opt for the Government scheme.

We, at All Out Football, do understand that the health, safety and overall well-being of people all over the world take precedence over football at the moment. However, due to the enormous economic implications associated with the game and with so many households depending on it for their livelihood, it is imperative that the concerned authorities take necessary actions that ensure that the resumption of the fixtures post the pandemic is a smooth one.

Football post the pandemic may never be the same again for a variety of reasons, but as we know, the magic, the aura of the beautiful game shall remain forever and ever!

We, at All Out Football, would like to thank all the people on the front battling COVID-19, for their efforts and wish them luck and safety in their battle against this pandemic.

To all our readers, football fans and people around the world: Stay home. Stay Safe. Take Care. A world full of exhilarating footballing action awaits us at the end of the tunnel!

By Siddesh Iyer

A die hard Man United fan for over a decade now. It's been a journey of thrills and spills, lots of highs and a few lows. A part of AOF for over a year now, I specialize in opinion pieces, FPL and match previews and interviews of some well known names in the footballing world ( Interview of John Dykes on AOF).