Parliament debates allowing fans back in

A petition signed by nearly 200,000 people to let fans in football stadiums amid COVID-19 was debated in parliament on Monday.

The debate saw Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston, declare the government’s objective to let fans in football stadiums as soon possible but was unable to provide a timeline of events.

With football matches being played behind closed doors since March, both fans and clubs are eager to return to stadiums to experience the sport they love, as well as prevent further financial stress.

Discover what was discussed in the parliamentary debate on spectator attendance at football matches during COVID-19, as well as the financial future for elite sports.

What was the outcome of the debate to let fans in stadiums?

A number of ministers joined the debate yesterday, all highlighting the significant financial implications of continuing to prevent fans from returning to football stadiums, as well as the ability to incorporate social distancing measures.

Whilst Huddleston acknowledged these concerns; he was not able to provide a roadmap of when fans could be set to return due to current levels of COVID-19 cases. He also highlighted the importance of fans returning to all elite sports rather than just football.

The Sports Minister’s key argument was that the government still needs to consider how fans travelling to stadiums could also impact virus transmission in addition to being a spectator inside the venue.

Huddleston went on to add that one of the main challenges of allowing fans back in football stadiums was that multiple leagues and sports would suddenly mount to capacities far beyond what the government currently believes to be acceptable.

It was also acknowledged that a ‘one size fits all’ scenario would not be practical for the return of fans to football stadiums and was confirmed that this is something the government is ‘looking at’.

When will pilot events resume?

Shadow Sports Minister Alison McGovern highlighted the progress that had been made concerning pilot events to regulate a phased safe return of fans to elite sporting events from 1st October. 

Sadly, pilot events were put on hold, with the targeted October return date abandoned due to a rise in COVID-19 cases. 

McGovern questioned when the pilot events journey would be completed, to which Huddleston replied that the government have had to press the pause button and that the plan is to resume ‘as soon as we can’. 

McGovern also went on to argue how football seems to have been left behind in comparison to concerts and other cultural events. 

Football fans were outraged when it was announced that 2,500 people were permitted to attend a programme of events at the Royal Albert Hall during December. The government responded that concerts are one-off events in comparison to football matches, which take place weekly up and down the country.

Will the government bailout elite sports?

From a financial perspective, Huddleston made clear that he believed that football on an elite level should remain self-sufficient. He went on to add how he considers elite football to have plenty of money, but that is not distributed in the right way.

It was announced that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will provide financial support to ‘other sports’ who have been impacted by COVID-19, though it was not specified exactly which sports would be covered.

Concerning EFL clubs, Conservative MP Julian Knight stated how so many of the teams that depend on ticket revenues are now finding themselves in dire straits. 

He argued that If we don’t see football bodies come together soon for the good of the game, there is a risk that 10 – 15 EFL clubs could go bust, as well as 10 EFL clubs who are currently at risk of not making their November payroll.

To highlight the comparison between EFL and the Premier League, he went on to mention that just 17% of Chelsea’s revenue comes from ticket sales, as well as the Premier League’s £9 billion television deal.

Knight’s comments come after the EFL rejected a £50 million bailout from the Premier League, declaring that the bailout was insufficient to meet their current financial needs.

What’s next for football fans amid COVID-19?

Whilst the Sports Minister did not indicate when fans could return to stadiums, the UK’s second lockdown is currently due to end on 2nd December, as well as reports that a COVID-19 vaccine could be rolled out before Christmas.

Whilst it seems unlikely that fans will be able to return to Stadiums this year, it appears that progress is being made when it comes to combating the virus.

As soon as infection rates begin to reduce, it is likely that the government will allow pilot events to resume and kickstart the process of safely returning to stadiums once again.

We eagerly await the day that fans can return to football stadiums and, in the words of Julian Knight, get to experience what is ‘a fundamental part of our national fabric.’