The last time football succumbed to an international crisis was the Second World War. Now, 81-years later as coronavirus tears its way through the world economy, clubs up and down the English league system are feeling the effects.
The Premier League
In the Premier League, postponed matches, jeopardised sponsorship deals, and an estimated £750 million loss each in broadcaster money have all massively cut top-tier sides’ revenue.
Additionally, Premier League clubs owe £1.6 billion in outstanding debt from previous transfers. Usually transfer instalments are a controllable method of business, yet with revenue cut, concerns arise with the necessity of balancing budgets.
Amongst other complications, these issues have undoubtedly led to severe drops in financial sustainability.
However, Premier League sides are well poised to mitigate at least some of their losses through the fiscal might of billionaire owners, global fan bases and the increasing probability of Project Restart.
Despite this, back in April, many were outraged as Bournemouth, Liverpool, Tottenham, Newcastle and Norwich all took advantage of the government’s tax-payer funded furlough scheme, entitling some of their non-playing staff to 80% of their wages, up to £2,500 a month.
While Liverpool, Tottenham and Bournemouth all eventually made U-turns on these decisions after what ended in a PR disaster, the damage was done.
It’s clear Premier League sides have necessary funds to fall back on in a crisis, without relying on tax-payer money. Last year Liverpool payed agent fees of £44 million, making a cool £42 million profit. Meanwhile, Tottenham continue to pay an annual player wage bill of £147.6 million.
We didn’t witness the same public outrage when clubs lower down the football food-chain, such as Crewe Alexandra in League Two, reached the same judgement in furloughing staff – and for good reason.
Football finance expert Kieran Maguire described the pandemic as taking lower league clubs “to their knees”. Maguire estimates the Championship alone has already lost a cumulative £650 million. Meanwhile, the 48 clubs that make up League One and Two are expecting combined losses of somewhere in the region of £50 million.
Perhaps the most catastrophic outcome of the pandemic for lower league sides is the looming reality of games being played behind closed doors until 2021.
While the Premier League’s Project Restart would generate as much as £340 million in broadcast refunds, the same cannot be said for sides at the bottom of the English football pyramid. For them, bums on seats make up to 80% of their revenue.
The current situation has hit non-league clubs particularly hard.
Far removed from the glitz of the Premier League, footballers in this tier rely on modest salaries as their main income source. Yet with clubs suffering a revenue drought, where will non-league sides find themselves once football returns? If they survive, will reduced salary contract offers be worth accepting? Would players look to other, more financially sustainable professions, threatening non-league’s very existence?
Only time will answer the above questions. However, with fifth-tier side Barnet FC recently recording losses of £100,000 a month and consequently laying off around 60 staff members to reduce costs, non-league’s future is looking bleak.
Predictions of up to 10 football clubs going under in the coming weeks are therefore unsurprising, and suggestions that we’re currently witnessing the end of non-league football are becoming increasingly probable.
There have also been comparable suggestions when it comes to the fate of the football ladder’s bottom rung – grass-roots.
The pandemic has hit grass-roots communities up and down the nation exponentially. Money amateur sides would usually get from training-session fees or fundraisers isn’t coming in as these events aren’t taking place, meaning clubs are struggling to afford annual pitch hire, league and council fees.
Additionally, local businesses who sponsor grass-roots clubs are losing money, while there’s also the prospect of councils selling pitches used by grass-roots communities in order to fund rescue packages – effectively making the game homeless.
The possibility of grass-roots’ decimation could potentially kick-start a player recruitment domino effect; starting at the bottom, working its way to the top.
If this happens, non-league, lower-league, and even Premier League clubs and academies would all fall victim, having a reliable stream of home-grown talent cut at the source.
Without grass-roots, a generation would be starved of the ingrained English football psyche. How can football come home if nobody’s there to answer the door?
Yet it would be our local communities that would suffer most. Alongside general health and wellbeing, grass-roots opportunities allow integral societal lessons, permitting young people to develop socially, learn life skills and foster talent.
What’s to be done?
When both Bury and Bolton came close to liquidation last summer, fans were shocked that two historic clubs, pillars of their respective communities and homes of numerous people’s livelihoods could so helplessly cease to exist.
It is not a question of “if”, but of “when” clubs across the league tier-system will fall victim to similar circumstances.
The EFL has committed £50 million to clubs most in need, while in April, players and managers from across the football league accepted pay-cuts and saw players in League One and League Two on more than £30,000 a week defer 25% of their wages.
We may also see clubs up and down the football league system be creative and explore ways to re-generate match day revenue.
Danish Superliga leaders, FC Midtjylland, have revealed ingenious plans to welcome supporters back to their stadium by setting up a ‘drive-in’ experience where fans can watch games on a giant screen.
However, if football is to navigate these murky waters, guidance must come from above.
Last month, Culture, Media & Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden announced a £16m package to help Rugby League through its financial difficulties. If lower-league clubs finding themselves taken to their knees have any chances of surviving, a similar initiative sanctioned by either the government or the Premier league is vital – not just for football’s wellbeing, but also the nation’s.