Pressure grows on Government to explore more options for return of fans

Former ministers and leading sports officials have united to urge Government to get fans back into sporting fixtures as soon as possible, or risk losing some clubs for good.

The view from the empty stands at Bramall Lane of the Premier League clash between Sheffield United and Wolves. Picture: Laurence Griffiths/NMC Pool/PA

Two former Football Association chairmen are amongst those who have written to Government warning of the potential “collapse of the national league structure that we have known for over 100 years” without a bailout.

The letter to culture, media and sport secretary Oliver Dowden is signed by, amongst others, former FA chairmen Greg Dyke and Lord Triesman, broadcaster and former Wales footballer Robbie Savage, National League vice-president Lord Faulkner of Worcester and ten MPs, including Sheffield South East’s Clive Betts.

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Added to that, former sports minister Richard Caborn has encouraged the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to explore all pilot schemes for getting fans back into stadia a lot quicker after the Government’s warning last week that they could be locked out until March.

Leeds Rhinos and St Helens play their Super League clash in front of empty stands at Headingley last month. Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

That sent alarm bells ringing across the sector with many sports appealing to the Government for a financial bailout. Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston responded by saying it is incumbent on elite sport – such as football’s Premier League – to support itself.

But Mr Caborn – who served as sports minister in Tony Blair’s Labour Government from 2001 to 2007 – believes Westminster has to give sports the chance to re-introduce pilot schemes aimed at getting fans back.

“If you’re a minister you’ve got to be prepared to say am I willing to sanction certain pilot schemes to see whether we can get fans back safely and securely,” Mr Caborn told The Yorkshire Post.

“The pilots that have already taken place have been predicated on the back of social distancing, and there is now a consensus that there’s no way they can viably open sports back up in any significant way with social distancing, because it just doesn’t pay. I’ve talked to the RFU and they’re saying 1,000 fans actually costs money.

Former Labour sports minister, Richard Caborn.

“So if that is the case, what’s the next option? The next option is technology.

“If I were a minister I’d be sitting down with my team and saying I’ve got these buggers on my back wanting money. If there’s a way we can get fans back into the grounds, safely and securely, I want you to bring that back to me asap.

“We saw how much of a psychological boost getting sport back on television was. The next step is fans.

“I think they could be more proactive in ensuring they test as many ways as possible to do that.”

EMPTY FEELING: Bradford City take on Colchester United in front of the deserted Valley Parade stands. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Mr Dowden last week launched the Sports Technology and Innovation Group (STIG) to develop hi-tech methods to get fans back. Mr Caborn has been advising a northern company called VST Enterprises that has developed a prototype which can test people and upload the results to an app within 10 minutes. It lasts for 72 hours.

That has been put to the DCMS for use in sport but the main sticking point appears to be money, with each test costing £15 which does not at present appear cost-effective, certainly not to lower-league clubs in football or any other sport.

“The Government has got to sit down with these companies and say let’s run this pilot,” added Mr Caborn. “If it works, it does two things; firstly it takes the pressure off government being asked for money for professional sport.

“And it also allows the clubs to get some sort of normality in terms of the revenue streams coming in.

NO SUPPORT: Nigel Huddleston, Minister for Sport, pictured at Edgbaston in July. Picture: David Davies/PA

“If they can get fans onto the terraces safely, and I stress safely, with British technology, then they ought to be looking at that very seriously because that takes pressure off them to be subsidising sport.”

The letter written by Dyke, Lord Triesman and others warns some clubs in the Football League and National League are “actively preparing to make all but essential staff redundant, cease playing, close down their youth academies and community foundations and put their businesses into administration”.

Six months into the coronavirus crisis there has been no financial support from the Premier League – whose clubs, the letter acknowledges have themselves been hit by “swingeing losses” – beyond the advance of future solidarity payments, but the signatories claim, “it’s equally clear that the Government has no current proposals to provide any financial support (or) guarantees for the future”.

“There is still time to act, but not long left,” the letter warns. “It cannot be the Premier League’s sole responsibility to sort out issues arising from Government policy.”

The £1.5bn made available to arts and cultural institutions is cited, with the signatories arguing football is also ‘a cultural activity’. The letter closes by warning: “The Government itself needs to take responsibility or many already embattled towns – often in areas of the country which have suffered many hardships in recent decades – will lose their last focal point.”

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Thank you, James Mitchinson. Editor.