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With Precautions, We Can Have Football Back Soon

By Ted Knutson | March 17, 2020 | Main

I have been more active on Twitter this month than in recent years, largely following and reacting to the coronavirus pandemic around the world. Despite some frustrating elements and overarching tone of doom even in good times, Twitter remains the best source of realtime news and opinions of smart people around the world. Much of my recent output online has been critical of the UK and US governments’ catastrophic handling of the current crisis, but today I want to downshift and talk about something far more important: sports.

As we now know, the Western world is in a state of near lockdown and social distancing for the medium term. The viral pandemic is not going to disappear in four weeks time. The situation is probably not going to change significantly in twelve weeks time. Current scientific advice worries about the status quo continuing for the next twelve to eighteen months. No matter what, the world and our priorities will look very different coming out the other side of this.

However, human passion for sport and competition is not going to disappear. Only one week on, people are already struggling with the massive crater in our entertainment lives created by a pause in all the major sporting leagues. We deeply miss the distraction of football (and the NBA, NFL, baseball etc) especially in a time where the anxiety monster is close to devouring people on a daily basis.

As a society, especially in Europe, we really need football back.

I’m writing today because I believe it is possible to bring football back sooner rather than later with some coordinated action.

In a time where social distancing is paramount, it’s important to realise professional sporting environments are inherently isolated. For years, writers have been pointing out that footballers seem to live in a bubble, and they are not wrong. Outside of the stadium environment, footballers live a life that is usually cut off from fans. Even at the Championship level, training grounds have fairly serious security. 

This is important because it means that football has greater potential to successfully form isolation groups. These isolation groups can in turn be carefully monitored and begin participating in sporting activity that can be broadcast soon - much sooner than the oppressive pandemic measures on society are going to lift.

In football and professional sport in general, athletes are inherently closely monitored. Everything they do is measured, so it’s little extra effort to add temperature monitoring into the suite of things we keep track of every day to make sure they are hale, healthy, and ready to compete. This will be important to keep a close eye on viral spread. Given their age and fitness, footballers are also inherently in the low risk group even if they do catch COVID-19, so continuing to compete is not likely to have significant downside effects on them or the majority of staff. (Though I have some concerns about Roy Hodgson.)

It’s not going to be easy. It takes a small army of staff to make sure a football team can operate. Players, staff, and their families will also have to practice strict social isolation to make sure things stay compartmentalised, but to be honest, the governments are already asking normal humans to do this.

It will also take coordination among the scheduling bodies to postpone matches and reschedule them should players or teams have isolated outbreaks. Flexibility and reacting to new problems that arise in the coming months remains paramount.

That said, it’s very doable and fans need this

Football teams, many of whom will end up insolvent if forced to stop operating for an extended period of time, need this. 

Broadcasters also need this. They need it to fill dead air time, and to stop the hordes of customers battering them daily because they aren’t offering anything useful in exchange for the extremely expensive sports packages.

Matches aren't going to be played in fan-filled stadia any time soon, but that doesn't mean they can't be played at all. And I know many people feel football in general has less meaning without fans in the stadium. I can see your perspective on this, but if the choices are playing matches as soon as a month or not playing matches at all for something like 12-18 months, I know which one I am choosing.

Broadcasters
Actually, let’s talk about broadcasters… now is the time to get creative. 

Teams will be desperate to help make up for lack of match day revenue, and match day gatherings are going to be strictly banned for… a while. Now would be a very good time to offer additional funding to pay for medical monitoring necessary to keep the product (Football on TV) humming along. This is existential threat time for many clubs. Think about providing a safety net for football as a whole in exchange for extended TV/Broadcast rights at the same price. You NEED sport and right now, it really needs you.

It’s also a good time to be flexible about time slots and more live offerings. There is fuck all to watch or do, and it’s going to stay that way for who knows how long. Fill the gaps and help out struggling teams at the same time.

Team Broadcasts
Lower tier teams only exist off of matchday revenue. If seasons continue without any fans allowed in the stands while the teams have to keep paying players, some will cease to exist. 

This may not be easily solvable, but the majority of your fanbase will not only understand, they be very keen to help financially if they can. 

Game by game pay-per-views that attempt to make up for ticket sales are one option. These can be on a pay-what-you-can-afford basis, or a strict pricing scheme. We need government regulations to be suspended around these ASAP so that this is legally possible, but it is certainly technologically feasible in the modern age.

Advertiser pacts around matches, where you explain that matchday beer and food equivalent purchases are sponsored by , please pick them up at the shop in preparation for the game is another. 

I am sure there are plenty more interesting and useful activations possible that I haven’t considered, but everything should be on the table at this time.

Conclusion
The world needs a lifeline right now. Professional sports teams, in how they are structured and slightly walled off from society already, are already capable of isolation. By doing so in the right way, they can resume competition much sooner than societal lockdown caused by coronavirus will go away.

In short, sport is capable of providing this lifeline. It will take coordination from teams, governing bodies, broadcasters, and athletes to make it happen, but live sport would provide a significant and necessary distraction from the current crisis for populations stuck at home.

It would also provide an easy win for embattled governments that could desperately use some good news to deliver to voters right now. 

Please make it happen.

Ted Knutson
CEO, Co-Founder StatsBomb
ted@statsbomb.com

Article by Ted Knutson