By Jason McKeown
Slowly, very slowly, the England coronavirus lockdown is beginning to loosen. Today marks the first day you can meet up to five other people outside your household. And it was also announced last week that the Premier League will resume on 17 June.
The path forwards is filled with great uncertainty, but over the weekend media reports have circulated that the top flight is exploring options for fans returning next season. The FA Cup Final for this campaign, slated to be played at Wembley Stadium on 1 August, could see 20,000 fans allowed to attend – 10,000 per finalist. That’s about 25% of Wembley’s capacity. This is broadly in line with the Premier League tentative hopes for a phased reopening to fans next season.
Everything is subject to the coronavirus cases continuing their downwards trajectory, and we are clearly some way off a return to full crowds. But this more hopeful outlook is an improvement on the earlier forecasts that we fans might not get to return until 2021.
All of this raises the question of whether the Football League – and Bradford City – can follow suit in 2020/21. If the ever changing guidelines were to deem it safe for Old Trafford and Anfield to be open for 25-30% capacity, why not Valley Parade? And though the billion pound TV revenue in the Premier League can mean its clubs could get by playing games without fans, at our level it could be absolutely vital.
There are certainly a lot of logistics to iron out, should a green light be forthcoming on reopening Valley Parade. But this could allow for City to play in front of crowds of 6-7,000, with everyone social distancing. (Crowd capacity will depend on if the government reduces the 2 metre rule to 1 metre, in line with WHO guidelines, by autumn. If 2 metres remains, the crowd allowed might be more like 4,000.). It would be weird and would certainly not make for a brilliant atmosphere, yet it would at least be something.
Last season City sold around 13,000 season tickets. Take up for the 2020/21 campaign probably wasn’t great before the lockdown, given City’s less than inspiring form. Sales were suspended when it became apparent fans won’t be able to return, but assuming they go back on sale at some point, we can probably reasonably expect 12,000 to be sold. Perhaps that’s generous, as some fans will have other priorities now.
A figure of 12,000 would suggest that – during a stage of limited opening – we season ticket holders would need to rotate the games we attend. Home game 1 could have 6,000 of us, for example, with the rest watching on ifollow, and then for home game 2 we swap over. There are all sorts of logistical nightmares to make it work, and we supporters would need to do our bit to help the club. Still, it doesn’t seem insurmountable.
It’s not perfect by any means. City don’t just rely on season ticket sales for revenue. They gain valuable income from walk ups, away fans and corporate hospitality. There’s also matchday sales activity like programme sales. The leasing out of concourse catering – which might not be able to operate in this situation – is also a question mark. And what about other commercial activity. Would sponsors be prepared to pay for advertising boards, for example, if there’s fewer people turning up to see them?
But financially, a partial reopening could make a real difference. As it stands, there is potential for some tough times ahead. Bradford City currently have a degree of insulation through the government’s furlough scheme, which is covering 80% of employees’ wages – players and non playing staff. The scheme will end in October, but if and when City return to action they can’t benefit from it anyway. If fans were not able to attend for half a season, it would throw up the huge challenge of building a playing squad and playing matches, without any revenue coming in. That would be very difficult.
If we fans can partially return to attending games, it’s at least something that might be able to help. Assuming the costs of opening up the stadium to the public aren’t significantly more than the revenue they could gain from it.
Perhaps just as importantly, opening up the stadium cautiously in this way can help everyone’s confidence that life can eventually return to normal. If it all goes to plan, some of the fear and uncertainty of right now could recede. There’s so much debate about how best to handle the pandemic, from keeping everything non-essential closed until a vaccine is available, to reopening the economy and learning to live with it. But with no guarantees of a vaccine anytime soon, somehow we have to find at least a limited way to continue.
It’s easy to say football isn’t important enough, but the finger could equally be pointed at other industries. The bottom line is that there’s a lot of people’s livelihoods at stake if football doesn’t return with fans. And for many supporters, it could make a huge difference to their mental wellbeing. So if a tentative, step-by-step approach to getting football back up and running can be taken, it could prove hugely valuable to many people.