Society and Culture

Coronomics: don’t bail out the football clubs

Around 4.45pm on Saturday, September 2nd 1939, regular league football came to a halt. It didn’t kick off again until 3pm on August 31st 1946.

The current football lockdown will not continue that long, but normal service cannot resume any time soon.

Early May is usually the climax of the football season, with championships, cups, play-offs and relegation deciders. Not this year, alas. The Premier League still believes it can get some sort of ersatz set-up going in June, played in neutral stadia in front of TV cameras, perhaps with cardboard figures in the stands and recorded crowd noises but no goal celebrations – as they are apparently thinking of doing in the Bundesliga.

This may, for a while, satisfy the TV channels, shirt sponsors, betting companies, armchair fans and followers in China or India, plus the assorted Russian oligarchs, Arab princelings and American chancers who now own elite football. The Premier League does not really need paying crowds to function, at least in the short term.

However, the vast majority of the hundreds of professional and semi-professional teams making up our national game cannot possibly survive without people coming through the gates in adequate numbers. Without the paying customers and the sponsors who advertise to them, our complicated and hugely diverse football ecology – from Charlton Athletic to Great Wakering Rovers, from Huddersfield Town to Gainsborough Trinity, from Hamilton Academicals to Cove Rangers – cannot survive.

Many lower-league teams are already being subsidised through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. But this cannot continue for much longer. Football is facing crucial decisions.

Many are clinging to a desperate hope that, despite the premature end to this season, football can begin again in August or September. But it is not going to – at least, not as a viable proposition. Social distancing, whether imposed by government or by the reticence of a fearful public unwilling to take risks with its health, means that significant attendances at football matches are just not feasible for some considerable time. The sooner the Championship, the EFL, the Scottish League, the National League and the myriad semi-pro competitions realise this, the better.

They should declare now that the 2020-2021 season will not take place. This will be hugely costly for clubs who have players under contract and other major financial commitments, but it will make it possible to make players redundant, renegotiate other commitments, seek new forms of financial backing, and batten down the hatches till better times.

The alternative is to incur even more costs by attempting to play a season in front of tiny crowds subject to social distancing rules, and liable at any moment to renewed lockdown if the R value creeps over 1 again. Such a season would surely kill off many clubs and reduce competitions to a farce as teams dropped out.

Football during the war continued in low-key form with scratch teams made up of guest players who were available on leave from the army or other wartime employment, playing in small-scale regional leagues and cup competitions. It did so without huge injections of public money, and all league teams and most non-league teams survived the war intact.

Something like that might be possible, to keep up interest and bring in a little income. But trying to pretend things will soon be back to normal is pointless.

The government must make it clear in advance that it is not going to step in to bail clubs out if they go ahead with unrealistic plans for next season. As I have argued before, many clubs have in recent seasons been very badly run. Using government funding to shore them up (over and above the general support measures available to all sectors) should be unacceptable, particularly given the many other demands on taxpayers’ money at the moment and for the foreseeable future.

League officials, club owners and fans must be in no doubt that the game’s future is in their hands, not those of the government.


Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

3 thoughts on “Coronomics: don’t bail out the football clubs”

  1. Posted 12/05/2020 at 09:18 | Permalink

    Perhaps the end of professional sport beckons. Every virus has a silver lining.

  2. Posted 13/05/2020 at 09:24 | Permalink

    “The sooner the Championship, the EFL, the Scottish League, the National League and the myriad semi-pro competitions realise this, the better.”

    It should be noted that the 2019/20 season from and below Tier 3 (that’s the Isthmian League, Northern League and Southern League to you and me) was cancelled by the FA on 9 April.

    These could be the “small-scale regional leagues and cup competitions” described above, and it may be that smaller, local clubs are more resilient to lockdown (although the aforementioned leagues have already lost their principal sponsor) and are more appealing to spectators when it is safe for competitive sport to resume.

  3. Posted 14/05/2020 at 06:05 | Permalink

    This op-ed piece is a poor choice for the limited space on the IEA platform. I would prefer to see constructive and original ideas for determining who ends up paying for the government support being dished out. And in particular for making sure that markets rather than lobbyists are at the heart of that policy response.

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