Time for Government to put their trust in sports fans - Nick Westby

No fans: Wembley was empty for the Challenge Cup final. Picture: SWPixNo fans: Wembley was empty for the Challenge Cup final. Picture: SWPix
No fans: Wembley was empty for the Challenge Cup final. Picture: SWPix
It is always nice to hear from Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman is one of those elder statesmen in sport whose accomplishments, longevity and revolutionary impact have afforded him the chance to impart wisdom upon an audience.

When that audience is inside a theatre, though, in the middle of a pandemic-enforced lockdown, and when the sport he graced is played to a backdrop of empty stands, it feels like a slug to the gut of every sport that is desperately crying out for spectators to be let back in.

Teams, clubs and associations across every sport from football to badminton, rugby to hockey are in urgent need of being allowed to perform in front of paying customers again.

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The hope was fans would start coming back to sporting events from October 1 but Government vetoed that as coronavirus cases began to rise across the land.

Yuri Matischen: Has seen basketball bailed out. Picture: Simon HulmeYuri Matischen: Has seen basketball bailed out. Picture: Simon Hulme
Yuri Matischen: Has seen basketball bailed out. Picture: Simon Hulme

But they didn’t just put it back a month, they came out with a sweeping statement of no fans allowed for six months.

The damage that has caused could be catastrophic.

Even a few weeks later, there is still no return date in sight.

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, said in parliament on Wednesday: “I desperately wanted socially-distanced fans in stadiums from the start of October but we had to pause that because of the rapidly rising rates of infection.

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Rotherham United chairman Tony Stewart: Wants fans back.Rotherham United chairman Tony Stewart: Wants fans back.
Rotherham United chairman Tony Stewart: Wants fans back.

“It’s not just the stadium, it is the journey to and from the stadium both on public transport and people being likely to want something to eat or drink on the way.

“When we get to the point that we have confidence we have the disease under control so that it is not on a rapid upward curve I would rapidly return to this decision.”

How rapidly is that going to be, though? And how rapidly will it climb back to the top of your agenda?

Sports need to know, need to start planning for when their member clubs can sell tickets again, when their furloughed employees can come back to work again, when their bills can be paid again.

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The longer this goes on, the more clubs will go to the wall. Or even sports.

What will it take for urgency to be instilled into the Government’s thinking?

Are they waiting for a Championship football club to go out of business before they act?

Or would the professional league of a minority sport have to fold before the Government accepts enough is enough?

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That six-month warning of empty stands sent shivers down the spine of sports up and down the country, sports that have been surviving on significantly reduced income since March, now faced with another six months without their main revenue stream.

Yuri Matischen, the chairman of Sheffield Sharks and a board member of the British Basketball League, summed it up perfectly in an interview in The Yorkshire Post last Saturday when he said: “Sports like ours that live on the edge all the time, you can take some punches but Covid has been a knockout blow, and we’re trying to make sure that we don’t get knocked out.”

Matischen is lucky. His sport has been bailed out by the Government to the tune of a few million pounds and the BBL season will begin on October 30, behind closed dorrs, of course.

Rugby league received a government handout of £16m earlier in lockdown.

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But how many more rescue packages can the Government parachute in when every other sector is lobbying for similar?

How many more elite clubs are going to come up with a Project Big Picture, which proved so divisive in English football last week that it had EFL clubs clambering over themselves to mortgage their future stake in the sport on a few million now that might keep them afloat?

Surely, now is the time to let fans back into sport, to let sports put the trust in their clubs and their member assocations, who then, in turn, put the trust in their fans to attend sporting events and not spread the virus.

If we can trust people to go to the supermarket, to wear a mask and sanitise their hands and their trolleys, why can’t we trust them to wear that same mask on the bus to the ground, the walk through the turnstiles, and as they take their seat?

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No concession stands have to be open, that might be something we have to live with. Pprogrammes can also be sold on an honesty basis. Just put a pile on a bench next to a bucket and ask people to contribute a couple of quid.

Fans understand what their clubs are going through and would be only too happy to oblige.

Look at the membership of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, 85 per cent of whom donated their annual fees back to the club when invited to do so.

If we can have a few thousand socially-distanced people in a theatre, laughing along to Wenger, how can we not have those same numbers in a football ground, roaring their approval behind the mask they wear?

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Tony Stewart, the Rotherham United chairman, was asking the same question as we are when interviewed in The Yorkshire Post this week.

“We see now in London where they are having internal theatre shows,” he said. “It is an outdoor venue for us, we have a capacity of 12,000. Do I think we could do the necessary things to welcome in 2,000 to 4,000 fans? My personal opinion is ‘yes’.

“We could do that and still abide by the health and safety.”

That is all that is required here, all that stands between keeping clubs afloat and condemning them to their death.

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Clubs do not need full stadiums. Most of them got by without that long before coronavirus.

Neil Mellor, the former Liverpool and Sheffield Wednesday striker-turned Sky Sports pundit, hit the nail on the head when he posted a message on LinkedIn last week from a game he covered in League Two.

“I was at Port Vale today, capacity 19,052,” he began.

“They got an average crowd of 4,862 last season which is roughly 25 per cent of the capacity... all those fans could surely be safely catered for and still stay socially distanced.

“Thousands of loyal fans are not getting the chance to see their team play. Parents watching their kids growing up dreaming of being football players and not getting chance to see their kids make their debuts.

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“I really hope we get fans back soon to help these football clubs. They are such an important part of the local communities – and this country.”

Well said, Neil. Words that ring true across the wide range of sport.

Football, rugby, cricket, basketball, netball, ice hockey, badminton – all of them – need fans to survive.

They need Government to show some urgency.

Put fans at the top of the agenda and get the sporting economy moving again.

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Thank you

James Mitchinson

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