TV or not TV

television, live football, supporters, jigsaw puzzle, missing pieces, 2020/21 season, covid-19, coronavirus, social distancing

The pandemic has accelerated a regrettable trend. For the time being, football is a game played exclusively for a television audience.

At the top level the game has been heading that way for a number of years. The tinkering with kick-off times and even dates is only one aspect of the extent to which broadcasters call the tune. The interests of fans inside the stadium are neglected in many other respects: VAR is a particularly good recent example, having been devised apparently so that only TV viewers can know what is going on.

As the new season approaches, subscription TV or streaming is going to be the only way to watch live football for a while. All being well, fans may be allowed back into lower division grounds in carefully controlled numbers from October. It will be interesting to see how enthusiastic the take-up is.

Some parts of a club’s fan-base may choose not to return. The old boys who’ve been going for decades may decide it isn’t worth the risk. Another, younger cohort will have discovered during lockdown that they’ve saved a fortune not following a bunch of honest (or barely honest, as the case may be) triers around the country.

But the greatest risk to clubs lower down the leagues, where match-day revenue is proportionally more important, is that the collective experience depends on the dynamics of a crowd. It’s hard to imagine that experience not being deeply diluted by social distancing. It might compare unfavourably with the atmosphere in your lounge, where beer and pizza are easily available.

In many a ground, stewards turn a blind eye to some supposedly banned behaviour – fans standing throughout a match in all-seater stadiums is a particularly good example. But it’s hard to imagine that being applied to transgressions relating to Covid-19.

Tolerance of almost any kind of gathering is diminishing, if the rising penalties imposed on organisers and participants are any guide. And the most obvious penalty that a football club might face – to be obliged to return to the closed-doors policy – is easy to implement. For fans, sitting on egg-shells, socially distanced and on their best behaviour does not sound like much of a day out.

Back to the Future

Wellington, Basin Reserve, banners, football flags, visiting supporters
Tourist offices! Spare a thought for what away fans will contribute to the local economy

A timetable is emerging for a return to something like the old routine, in the lower divisions at least.

The key dates are:
Week beginning 17 August: publication of EFL fixture lists (21 August has been specified in reports, but neither the week nor the particular day is confirmed)
Weekend of 12 September: first games of the 2020/21 season, behind closed doors
1 October: all being well, limited numbers of supporters in grounds.

The new season’s fixtures usually create a buzz of interest. Their publication breaks up the close season, the Gobi Desert of the football calendar; and it gives fans something to look forward to.
This year, however, the close season in Leagues 1 and 2 is already five months old and until we can get into grounds there is very little to look forward to.
So a letter from Rochdale chairman Andrew Kilpatrick to his club’s fans, published on the Rochdale website, is of much wider interest.
From 1 October onwards Rochdale anticipate being able to have 2,170 fans inside the Crown Oil Arena. That’s a little over 20% of the ground’s capacity. More to the point, perhaps, it’s almost 60% of the average home attendance last season. At any level it’s better than nothing, obviously.
The prospect of a return to the possibility of football tourism remains distant. Casual visiting fans are unlikely to be a priority while numbers are restricted.
But that’s a very short-sighted view. Local tourist offices should urge clubs to focus on fans who will contribute most to the local economy. Given that the home fans will be contributing anyway, that means giving priority to incomers.