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Never waste a crisis: Covid-19 trauma can force sport to change for good

The Guardian logo The Guardian 24/09/2020 Barney Ronay

Pack up the flags. Close the turnstiles. Cover the plastic seats with an inspirational tarpaulin. The gates are being closed. And frankly it is anyone’s guess when they might be open again.

The news this week that the government has withdrawn its mandate for the staged return of spectators to professional sport has been greeted with dismay, and at times a barely contained sense of anger, among those whose job it is to keep the industry wheels clanking along.

Related: Sport left to sweat on rescue from a half-listening government | Sean Ingle

Football has spoken loudest in the last couple of days, with the EFL chairman Rick Parry stating that clubs stand to lose a further £200m if the entire season is given over to ghost games. The talk in Premiership Rugby is already of bankruptcy or even a reversion to amateur status should the current disaster-scenario timeline continue to its logical end. Point to a sport, any sport, and the story is the same: crisis, collapse, a chasm of debt.

There have been suggestions already of a government bailout, a possibility that comes with two significant caveats. First, the chancellor is not minded to include the Premier League or Championship in any financial aid, understandably so given the endless spume of TV rights payments and the inanity of player salaries.

And secondly, well, have you actually seen the government recently? Or indeed the prime minister himself, who these days resembles an increasingly confused elderly labrador dressed up in a suit and pushed out in front of the cameras to talk about graph-based infection trends, which is only now, 10 minutes into its TV spot, realising it shouldn’t actually be able to talk.

There is no certainty here, no long-term promise that can be guaranteed to last the next few policy lurches. Professional sport is facing a crisis of unprecedented urgency. It must be prepared to face it largely alone.

At which point it is worth being clear on exactly what is at stake. This is a moment of peril that should raise questions far beyond simply survival or sustaining the status quo. Questions such as: what is sport actually for? And more to the point, what do we want it to look like when this is all over?

a group of people playing football on a field: Amateur female rugby union players contest a lineout in Leamington Spa. Photograph: Colin Underhill/Alamy Stock Photo © Provided by The Guardian Amateur female rugby union players contest a lineout in Leamington Spa. Photograph: Colin Underhill/Alamy Stock Photo

It helps to define the terms of all this jeopardy. There has been a lot of emotive rhetoric about sport being on the verge of extinction, its very existence in doubt, as though the basic ability to participate, support and spectate could be vaporised out from beneath us.

Related: From top to bottom, rugby union is now staring into the abyss | Robert Kitson

This is incorrect. What is being menaced is the current financial management of professional sport, its existing models and cultural practices, much of which is pretty joyless and dysfunctional in the first place.


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Even within this there are layers. The top tier of global sport will carry on regardless, constrained but far from imperilled. Manchester United could lose £120m should the plague-hiatus extend to the spring. Big deal. Budgets will be shaved and new signings restricted. But half that amount was thrown away just paying Alexis Sánchez’s wages. The pandemic has reinforced an obvious truth: football at this level isn’t operating on any recognisable human scale.

The real jeopardy applies to the levels of professional sport below the elite. It is here, from football league to county cricket to racing and athletics, that there is a genuine threat of long-established institutions going to the wall. In many cases this is the result of a deadly interplay with pre-existing greed and flaky accounting. Only one Premiership rugby union club failed to make a loss last year. Reading FC spent a sum equivalent to 194% of its turnover on player wages two seasons ago. Nobody could have foreseen the precise outline of a bat-derived global pandemic. But events – human history suggests – do tend to intervene at some stage.

Bale could keep every League Two club in business by paying their total combined wage bill out of his annual salary

Even well-run institutions at amateur level will be vulnerable to the impossible maths of the situation. It may be an auditing process is required for any bailout fund, with loans and grants parcelled out on merit.

It is to be hoped the system is lenient. The sums are likely to be small in the context of the overall Covid debt. The institutions involved are part of a patchwork sporting culture that deserves protection no matter how iffy their current administration.

This has been one upshot of the current crisis, a laying bare of certain key truths. This is not always a bad thing. For a start, it turns out the absence of crowds is a genuine drag to the brand value of the Premier League, a key part of its eminently saleable fan culture has often been rather carelessly used in the past. The absence of supporters has clarified their value.

Newcastle’s manager, Steve Bruce, spoke earlier this week about players and managers feeling demotivated by the empty stands. Perhaps clubs and administrators might try to nurture this a little when supporters do return. There is plenty that can be done, from ensuring younger fans can afford to come to fighting the urge to retain the new late-night kick-off times. A year away is a long time. That thread must be maintained.

Indeed, for all the trauma, this is also an opportunity for sporting organisations to engage in a profound period of introspection. Some structures have proved surprisingly resilient. Cricket is run by a single dictatorial governing body. It turns out this is a pretty good way to manage a financial crisis. With any luck the ECB might yet take a similarly pragmatic view of its current plans to introduce an untried vanity format next year.

In elite professional football good sense would demand player salaries are capped or controlled relative to income. It is an absurdity that this small group of dependents, the sport’s single outstanding cost, are threatening to kill the industry that supports them. Good sense, as ever, may have to join the back of the queue.

Related: Howzat? Club cricket returns after the coronavirus lockdown

As for the idea of trickle down from the top end, here is a non-fun fact: Gareth Bale could personally keep every club in League Two in business by paying their total combined wage bill out of his annual playing salary. This probably won’t happen. The point is just that he could.

Again: what is sport for exactly? Step down to the bottom tier in this structure and amateur and recreational sport will carry on regardless. The base elements of participation and support, the basic soul of sport, will survive all this.

In many ways recreational sport has been defiantly alive during the time of lockdown. Amateur cricket found its season crammed into a snatched six-week summer romance and has been a tour de force, drawing on its deep reserves of community and volunteer culture. More people have taken up or returned to cycling and running. The campaign to restart indoor sports such as badminton and netball has emphasised their vitality even in the process of curtailing their immediate fortunes.

It is here, not in the professional ranks, that taxpayers’ resources should be focused. The government is said to be hesitating over a grassroots resurrection plan. It should be doing precisely the opposite of hesitating. The nation’s health, physical and mental, demands a regeneration of these shared resources.

In the meantime professional sport will survive in some form or other, just as football went on during the blitz, and just as crowds came flocking back in the summers and winters of the postwar Golden Age.

But it has also been clear for some time that the system isn’t working as it should. Sport will no doubt find itself falling into that much-referenced “abyss” over the next few months. It also has the freedom to start climbing out.

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