The EFL has told the government that some clubs fear going out of business if games have to be played behind closed doors as a response to the coronavirus, the Guardian understands.
The league is understood to have made it clear that while clubs understand the importance of following all advice and putting public health first, some, particularly in League One and League Two, are seriously worried about the likely financial impact if they cannot sell tickets to matches and have to repay season ticket holders.
The government emphasised following a meeting with the EFL, Premier League and other sporting bodies on Monday that according to scientists’ advice there is still “no rationale” for postponing sporting events in Britain or holding them behind closed doors to prevent the further spread of the virus.
The government’s message – which came on the day Ireland’s Six Nations match against France was postponed until October and the Indian Wells tennis tournament in the US was cancelled – was reinforced at the meeting between broadcasters, sporting bodies and officials from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to discuss contingency plans in case the virus does spread further.
Amid what were described as “productive” discussions about staging events behind closed doors if coronavirus cases in the UK spiralled, several sources told the Guardian that the message to sporting bodies was “to keep calm and carry on … for now”.
However some in sport question whether that line can hold – and what the financial consequences might be if events are postponed or cancelled. The Guardian understands that the issue of whether sporting bodies would be compensated by the government in such a scenario was brought up at the meeting at the DCMS, but it is thought unlikely that the government will do so.
“Senior government officials chaired a constructive meeting of sports and broadcast partners, as part of sensible contingency planning in relation to Covid-19,” a spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said. “This included a discussion of how staging sporting events behind closed doors could work in practice, should the situation change and become necessary.
“However based upon the current scientific advice from the government’s medical experts there is no rationale to close or cancel sporting events as things stand.”
Consideration of postponing matches or ordering them to be played with no spectators present is understood to be balancing concerns that gatherings indoors to watch sport on television in pubs could be more hazardous for the spread of the virus than crowds outdoors. There are also concerns on safety and policing grounds if supporters were to gather in large numbers outside closed stadiums while matches are being played.
A senior executive at a Championship club told the Guardian that few clubs will be insured for missing out on income due to a public health epidemic, and as many smaller clubs already operate in tight financial circumstances, they would immediately struggle to pay players without ticket revenues. He said that the end of the season is the worst time for cashflow, which would be compounded by stadium closures.
For now, though, the situation in Britain is business as usual with the four-day Cheltenham Festival, which is expected to attract around 250,000 visitors, starting as plannedon Tuesday. This weekend’s football fixtures and Wales’s Six Nations match against Scotland are also expected to go ahead with the Culture, Media and Sport secretary, Oliver Dowden, who watched England play Wales at Twickenham on Saturday, saying that the current medical advice was that there was no reason to avoid or cancel sports events.
“We are guided by the facts and we are guided by the evidence,” he added. “At the moment the advice is clear from the chief medical officer: there isn’t a need to cancel such events.”
However the spread of the coronavirus means that Wednesday’s Champions League game between Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund will be held behind closed doors. Wolves’ Europa League tie away to Olympiakos in Athens on Thursday will also take place in an empty stadium.
There has been some speculation that if Premier League games do end up following suit, with spectators not being allowed in grounds because of the coronavirus, that they might be shown on free-to-air TV. However the Guardian understands that this is not the case. Indeed, according to sources, the issue of whether football’s blackout – which prevents Saturday 3pm matches being shown on British television – might be lifted in an emergency caused by the coronavirus was not discussed at the DCMS meeting.
By Monday evening five people had died in the UK after contracting the virus, with more than 300 testing positive.