Football and Covid 19- A Case Study of Scotland
Football and Covid: Case Study of Scotland
- The history of infections such as Polio, Spanish flu, AIDS, Ebola, SARS and Zika virus should have provided lessons for football and sport to develop more resilient operating systems. The 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic in Western Africa had various implications for sport. Athletes from affected countries were banned from competing in international competitions, including the 2014 Summer Youth Olympics in Nanjing, and the African Football Cup of Nations.
- A study of three major sporting events that took place safely during the epidemic concluded that plans for early and rapid detection of the disease, constant surveillance in key locations such as stadiums and airports, and cross-sectoral collaboration would help ensure the safe staging of international sporting events. This was not the first study to point out that a preventive and anticipative attitude is effective in building resilience to infectious diseases within a sporting context. Furthermore, an essential feature of both a resilient health system and a more resilient sports system was public trust in both .
- Such health problems are unequally distributed across society with the poorer more likely to be chronically ill. According to one of Scotland’s former Chief Medical Officers, there is a synergy between the virus and the socioeconomic environment in which many people live . Health, sport, and football in Scotland have all been impacted by what the Marmot Review of Covid-19 referred to as the social gradient . What impact has the pandemic had for example on the para football community, walking football groups, or women’s football in Scotland in a year that saw the game for women go professional?
- There is a need for football clubs to understand and quantify the impact that Covid-19 has had on both the immediate communities in which Scottish football stadiums in Scotland are located, but also the wider communities that are reached by the clubs. For example, how has the pandemic affected, for example, household purchasing capability ?
- The 2020 Toronto Report 2020 to the Commonwealth Ministers Advisory Board on Sport (CABOS), one of the earliest reports to assess the early impact of Covid-19 within the sport context, stated that few countries were prepared for the pandemic as participation in sport and physical activity levels fell significantly.
- Sports organisations responded quickly with “heroic volunteering”, preventative health messaging, the repurposing of facilities for emergency shelters and food depots adapting to alternative technological driven business ways of working and innovative approaches to creating new activities in restricted environments, co-operating with governments and public health experts to develop safe return to sport guidelines and suggesting initial build back better guidelines .
- The European Commission’s report on the economic impact of the pandemic on the sport sector referred to a wide range of impacts including broader economic changes, reduced governmental income, cancellation of events, reduced sponsorship money, reduced member financing, reduced sports broadcasting income, reduced sports tourism income, and reduced production and retail of sporting goods and equipment due to the closure of production facilities and retail trade. It warned that wider economic changes were likely to impact in a variety of ways. It pointed to the likelihood that the demand for goods and services would be reduced due to unemployment, reduced working hours and/or fear of infection. Export slumps could arise due to a lack of transport facilities and lower demand. Supply could be considerably affected by lockdown and social distancing measures, thus affecting employment across the sector both in the short- and long-term.
- It is worth briefly commenting upon the scale, reach and importance of football to Scotland. Football should be recognised more for the contribution that it makes to the unofficial social contract in Scotland and beyond Scotland because of the international reach that Scottish football and Scottish clubs have in different parts of the world. The Social Return on Investment from Football has been calculated as being worth £1.25 billion to Scottish society . The UEFA- funded study suggests that football contributes £200m directly into the Scottish economy, £300m worth of social benefits and £700m worth of health benefits.
- Football is a pillar of connection all over Scotland. It is a resource that has responded to the pandemic and has proven to be an effective resource across and within Scottish communities. Football’s understanding of the communities it works in has been both challenged and enhanced because of the pandemic. Community football organisations have played a key part during the pandemic and have been part of the support package serving the needs of local people.
- The lockdown in response to the pandemic started in March 2020. Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, matchday revenue increased from £39m to £102m, broadcast income increased from £21m to £45m, and commercial revenue jumped from £43m to £65m. A new Sky Sports five-year domestic broadcasting rights deal was expected to deliver a 20% increase in revenue by the end of 2020/21 .
Football is Scotland’s most popular sport. It delivers in communities and connects with those on the margins of society on a scale that other sports fail to match.. Football clubs are anchor institutions within Scottish communities. They do not exist in isolation from the broader forces that affect the people, communities, and countries in which they are situated. Scottish football’s reach and impact extend far beyond what is immediately obvious both in direct and indirect economic and societal terms. As one club director pointed out, football clubs are at the heart of their local communities and fund thousands of supplier businesses across Scotland which in turn secures employment for tens of thousands of people . In the words of the Chair of Scotland’s Sustainable Growth Commission, “I can think of no other business, institution or organisation with the communication reach of football. Every week it dominates swathes of broadcast media, social media, and crucially, public discussion” .
- Since the advent of the first lockdown period the Scottish Government and Sportscotland, the national sports agency, have provided guidelines for the Scottish sports ecosystem. The SFA has worked with Scotland’s football communities and, amongst other things, produced a series of roadmaps to guide a return to Scottish football.
- The advent of Covid-19 has impacted not just football clubs, but the communities and local authorities in which they are located and reach. The pandemic has: brought into question the resilience of systems, raised the need for reliable data, exposed inequities within and between countries, and increased the need for national and international multi-lateral partnerships such as those with the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and The Federation Internationale Football Association (FIFA) . FIFA’s Covid Relief Plan specifically states that the impact of the disease on global football is too big for any one single stakeholder to mitigate against .
- Both Scottish society and the government need to fully grasp football’s unique role in communities to ensure that Scotland transforms the loss of Covid-19 into a better future not just for football but for clubs, communities, and Scotland’s international standing. Local councils and key stakeholders in the private sector should work closely with football clubs in their immediate geographies to support those most deprived in our communities.
- It is clear that understanding the impact of Covid-19 on Scottish football is industry the interest of not just the football industry. Many questions have arisen from the situation caused by this pandemic . How do you simultaneously manage fan expectations, minimise operational disruption, and plan for a future that, in both the short- and long-term, may not look anything like the past? Can new technologies and online channels help engage fans during suspended or modified league operations? Can these changes be used to attract new fan bases to the game? What is the consumption or engagement patterns of new fandom types? With the pandemic looking likely to be with us for some time, the entire sports ecosystem will need new ways to deal with threats to financial and business continuity arising from disrupted cash flows, legal and insurance challenges, and the possible impacts on longer-term attendance and engagement.
- Finance is a key issue in Scottish football. For the most part, Scottish clubs operate in a very resource constrained environment. One of Scotland’s leading observers of Scottish football, including Scottish football finances, has pointed out that the structure and governance of the SPFL was itself detrimental to Scottish football’s response to the pandemic, contributing to resultant damage to the game . In responding to Covid-19, the immediate challenge for the SPFL and other leagues focused upon how its rules were to be enforced, but exceptionally this also included the format by which winners (and losers) were to be determined and the accompanying financial arrangements.
- The specific conclusion that sits at the end of this account of Covid-19 and Scottish football is that in attempting to build back better, Scottish football should reflect upon the fact that while some of Covid-19’s implications are unquestionably specific to Scottish football, the fallout raises more general questions as to whether sport leagues must rethink aspects of their organization, structure, and governance. This would avoid any repetition of some of the ramifications that reputationally damaged Scottish football.
- The Scottish football ecosystem is likely to suffer from a potential long-term pandemic impact. At the same time, that the uncertainty of Brexit is also being worked through by the industry. Football governing bodies, competition organisers, clubs, owners/investors, players, recreation outlets, broadcasters, sponsors, suppliers, and fans can all expect impacts across multiple organisational and strategic plans.
- The Deloitte’s Sports Business Group (DSBG) review of the impact of Covid-19 on the Sports Industry raises a few concerns . Seven pillars of operation are highlighted all of which are reflected in the challenges that Scottish football has faced.
- Competitions and calendars: Postponement, cancellation, and the re-organising of events and competitions looks set to alter the football calendar over the years beyond the pandemic. The potential for innovative changes to existing formats is a possibility, but Scottish football may also return to the old norm.
- On 8 April 2020, SPFL asked clubs to vote on a resolution that would give the authority to end the Championship, League One and League Two seasons on a points-per-game basis . Some clubs publicly opposed the resolution, namely those clubs that were at the time chasing league titles or facing relegation. The health of those involved and the financial impact of not carrying out key contractual obligations (particularly those with broadcasters) was a factor that influenced SPFL thinking .
- At the time, there was no unified UEFA solution with regards to how the respective National European Leagues should approach the end of this season. UEFA asked the leagues to confirm whether their seasons would be completed or cancelled by 25 May 2020 . The short-term implications for Scottish football resulted in forced relegation, qualification to European competitions being decided upon by positioning in the league at a certain point of time, and the shortening of the off season because of the number of positive Covid-19 cases in Scotland at the time. This also affected the longer-term availability of players with a subsequent knock-on effect on the 2020/2021 season .
- In February 2021, the suspension of Scottish football below the SPFL was approved against a backdrop of new Covid-19 strains and rising infection rates. Following a meeting with the then Minister for Public Health Sport and Wellbeing, Mairi Gougeon, a temporary suspension of all football was agreed, encompassing all predominantly part-time tiers of Scottish professional football . On the 4th March 2021, a restart to the Scottish League One and Two season was approved from the 20th March, but at the time of the announcement the SPFL Board remained unconvinced that a 22-game season was realistic .
- One of the founders of Glasgow City Ladies voiced concerns about the disruption to women’s football in Scotland because of Covid-19 and the inequity of the decisions between men’s professional football and women’s professional football. For Glasgow City, the postponement of the Champions League match against Wolfsburg meant the club lost out on the competition prize money and the revenue from the ticket sales of the high-profile event. The cancelling of the season has arguably had more impact on the women’s game. With a budget, just a fraction of that enjoyed by Wolfsburg, competition, especially European, is a vital income stream for the clubs that qualify for UEFA women’s tournaments. The abrupt end to the 2019/2020 season, the inconsistent resumption of women’s football, the inequity of representation on the board of the SFA , along with other factors, has resulted in the fact that many sponsorship deals have been put on hold for lack of consistent football matches .
- The points raised by the Glasgow City Ladies CEO included; (i) that the nation’s top female players were ordered to stop training and playing while Scotland’s male Premiership and Championship clubs were allowed to carry on playing through the winter spike in coronavirus cases; (ii) that Scottish girls, more generally youth, were not getting the opportunity to watch their heroes; (iii) that the momentum from Scotland’s qualification for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup would be lost; and that (iv) women’s football had no voice on the board making decisions regarding football’s response to Covid-19.
- For many of Glasgow City’s peers, the situation is substantially more complex. Women’s soccer has boomed across Europe over the last decade, driven in part by improved performances by national teams, a growing interest in Women’s World Cups, and to some extent the belated interest of major men’s clubs in the women’s game . Many of the clubs have expressed hopes that the momentum gained over the last twenty years for women’s football will not be affected by Covid-19. It has been a voiced concern that the Covid-19 climate could lead to a lost generation of female players .
- Operating models: Disruption will push some clubs and organisations to think about transition to new operating models that they may have already been considering. Others may be forced to adapt – whether they’ve been planning to or not, whilst many will see this as an opportunity to transform. The pandemic has also shown that Scottish Football has had to adjust its professional football structure based on maximising the sport’s potential within a new context. Wage cuts, delayed payments, less activity during the football transfer windows, continuing to reach out to communities but with reduced budgets and income for the community foundation arms of clubs, having to plan for training bubbles, social distancing, crowd restrictions, and a cut in the pipeline of content to capture fan engagement has all meant that football clubs have had to revisit operating models to survive.
- Commercial relationships: How can ecosystem members support and strengthen relationships with broadcasters, sponsors, and partners amid the difficult legal and financial implications of an abrupt shutdown such as that which faced by some Scottish leagues during the 2020/21 season? Such questions were asked of all Scottish clubs as the financial impact of the pandemic became more apparent.
- Scottish football along with other sports were asked to quantify the loss in income due to Covid-19. As of November 2020, Rangers, Aberdeen, and Celtic released their accounts for the 2019/2020 season, outlining the scale of losses suffered through the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on matchday income, hospitality, sponsorship, and other revenue streams. Celtic’s revenue fell by £13 million , Aberdeen projected a £5 million loss if fans did not return, and Rangers claimed to have lost £10 million in terms of income . The scale of the financial impact of Covid-19 on Scottish football for the current season as of November 2020 was estimated to be more than £100m.
- Fan engagement: How will teams, owners, and sponsors re-think the fan experience? What does “fan experience” mean if there are no fans in the stands? Will the shutdown increase focus on more virtual one-to-one relationships? Finally, will the fluid football fan be more discerning about whether they buy season tickets or prefer pay-per-view options?
- Football matches without supporters according to one Scottish Football Director are soulless experiences, which left this way would have serious implications for the willingness of broadcasters to keep money flowing into the game. The attendances during the pandemic have generally been limited to directors, players, scouts, and the press . Clubs have attempted to fill the void of material for fans by providing streaming services, often through their own website TV channel of through YouTube.
- The break with fans in the stadiums has had at least two consequences; (i) it has served to reinforce the importance of football clubs in and for communities whether this is taken to mean community as locality, as social network, or as a form of communion football in and around stadiums firmly captures all of these and (ii) it has given rise to a worry that the break with attending football matches has broken a habit that will need considerable efforts around fan engagement and virus safety checks for stadium attendance to reach pre-virus levels. The return to pre-virus football attendances in Scotland was set as August 10th, 2021, by the Scottish Government.
- The pandemic has only accelerated the realisation that football clubs in the future will have to work hard at maintaining, refreshing, and engaging with fans both in old and new ways as the game in Scotland moves forward.
- Investment: Given the exposure and liquidity issues of the rapid shutdown, should football organisations and individual investors be diversifying their portfolios across regions or leagues? Is it the time to prepare for future acquisitions or broader portfolios of partnerships between clubs? Would consideration be given to alternative sources of finance which might help to safeguard football in the short term, without compromising the medium and or long-term future of the industry.
- A club’s ability to sustain and boost investment and revenue streams has been severely tested over the period of the pandemic. The Deloitte Football Money League Reports annually track the ability of clubs, including Scottish clubs to sustain and diversify revenue streams. The ability to diversify revenue streams has the result of reducing the risk or dependency on any one significant income stream such as gate receipts. While philanthropy might not be a regularly recorded and recognised income stream in football club accounts , nonetheless, it has made a much-needed contribution to the ability of clubs to cover some of the costs brought about by the pandemic.
- A challenge to many Scottish football clubs getting back to playing was the cost of testing players, coaching staff, officials, and others involved in ensuring any games are played in a virus-free environment. Some estimates have suggested that Covid-19 testing kits could cost clubs £4,500 per week, an additional cost that was beyond the reach of many clubs in Scotland . Furthermore, this is unrealistic as you move down the pyramid of Scottish football.
- The James Anderson Fund specifically for Scottish football is but one example of additional philanthropic funding being invested in Scottish Football. While the same investor has invested in specific Scottish football clubs before, notably Heart of Midlothian, this Covid-19 focused funding package has three main objectives.
- Former Scottish politicians urged Scottish football to use the Baillie Gifford partner’s credibility as an opportunity to attract “more moral” investment and that Anderson’s investment could be seen as a catalyst to attract new philanthropic investment . The Anderson fund provided vital funding for Scottish Women’s Football (SWPL) in a year. that saw the game for women go semi-professional. To date, the James Anderson Fund has provided £437,500 with £275,000 into clubs and £162,500 into the SWF based on three outlined objectives .
- Digital Workplace: Giving a remote workforce access to scalable, secure, virtual systems may require new investments in digital, technological, and cyber services. Prior to Covid-19, the Deloitte Media Trends Survey suggested that 25% of consumers watched live-streamed and recorded video of others playing video games each week . For Millennials and Gen Z, it was about 50%. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, these numbers have held firm, with audiences predominantly watching how-to-videos, game walkthroughs, professional gamers, athletes live streaming their play and eSports competition. Many professional athletes have stayed connected with their fans by streaming and commenting on their own video game-play with the cancellation of live sports. The Premier League launched the inaugural ePremier League Invitational competition during the lockdown. According to Nielsen Sports, the final between Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) and Diogo Jota (Wolves) attracted three million viewers on Facebook and 394,000 viewers on YouTube, demonstrating a 275% rise in viewership from the opening round to the final. The phenomenon of playing, streaming, watching, and socialising within video games may continue to grow and expand when lockdowns and restrictions are eased .
- Within the Scottish context, football clubs are seeing their facilities benefit through a new funding scheme such as that between the Scottish Football Partnership Trust (SFPT) and Shared Access, the wireless infrastructure operator that works alongside major Mobile Networks Operators (MNOs). Alongside the rollout of a 5G mobile network, Shared Access and the Scottish Football Partnership Trust suggest that the total level of investment could reach £5m over the next five years. Shared Access has proven how this model can work in England, Ireland, and Wales. Scotland can benefit from a grassroots investment to future proof both sporting talent and geographic connectivity .
- The advent of increasing investment, opportunities and challenges arising out of the use of digital technology both in the workplace and in the football industry provide both challenges and opportunities for Scottish football.
- Stadia and Venues: How does the current crisis affect the needs of arenas and stadiums in the short- to medium-term? Have venues been used to support the response of governments and society to COVID-19? Have such outlets been compensated? How can venues be better utilised, including for new and different content, in the future? What happens if we must continue without crowds or a reduced capacity of crowd?
- Both stadia and venues have been affected, but unlike sports centres in Scotland, few football venues if any have been used to support efforts to roll out the vaccine. The Glasgow Rangers Europa League fixture against Bayer Leverkusen on 12th March 2020 was the last match to be played in front of a full-capacity crowd in Scotland before sports events were cancelled . Clubs such as Peterhead FC, although not alone, made 29 staff redundant, thus impacting club operations including the club’s greater community work . Emergency funding negotiated through the Scottish Government has been commented upon earlier with a total of £11.35 million made available to ensure that clubs could bridge the gap in revenue until spectators could return safely to sports events in significant numbers .
- Summary Statement: Looking at the period between March 2020 and July 2021, the Covid-19 crisis is unsurprisingly top of the agenda for football club and leaders, with primary concerns around reduced financial resources to invest and innovate. Like all industries predicated on events and mass gatherings, the unprecedented health crisis brought about by Covid-19 has impacted the football market at its very core. This has been particularly the case for Scotland which has a higher dependency rate on gate revenue than many if not all other European countries.
- The impact of Covid-19 is likely to remain with football into the 2021-2022 season if not longer. Indeed, all clubs will have to organise themselves in the management of social distancing within the stadia. This will undoubtably mean retraining of staff- an extra cost to an already depleted budget. Most reports suggest that Covid-19 has revealed systemic weaknesses within both the football and the wider sports sector, which makes a scenario of imminent recovery a challenge. The industry is in for a longer period of recovery and reorientation. Few football clubs in Scotland were prepared for such a pandemic. The football financial model, characterised by short-termism and fragile cash flows, has been severely tested by the health crisis by forcing football to draw on limited reserves.
- The importance of football clubs as community assets should not be underestimated. It is critical to not only understand the impact of Covid-19 on the communities which the clubs engage with, but also the attitudes of football fans in response to what the clubs are offering, how the clubs are engaging with their fans, and if they could do more. The case for data driven innovation and the way in which it can support the football industry build back better has perhaps never been stronger. The need to remain flexible, innovative, agile, and responsive is a potential observation from the pandemic moving forward.
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