Today, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced, via video link to the House of Commons, that once England’s current second lockdown ends on December 2, fans will be allowed to return to stadiums.
This seems like great news. For fans up and down the land, starved of football in the flesh since early March, there’s the anticipation that they can once again watch their heroes at the ground, rather than through their laptop or phone. Once again, we will hear the actual reactions of fans to incidents, rather than piped in computer generated sounds (or, perhaps better, the yelps of footballers in action). Southampton’s opening goal tonight (pictured above) would have been accompanied by the slightly distant roar of the away supporting contingent going crazy.
I say it seems like great news. Because there remains the significant worry that this may contribute to the continued spread of Covid-19. I’ve written a paper documenting the spread of Covid-19 associated with football matches in England in March – each match was consistent with 6 cases and 2 deaths from Covid-19. There are many caveats to apply here. This was stadiums without any attempt made to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. This was before we started to behave very differently because of Covid-19 (wearing masks, avoiding getting too close to each other).
But I’m still concerned that even if there are limits to how many fans are in stadiums, football is a richly emotional sport, and games can provoke huge reactions that could aid the spread of Covid-19. Fan loyalty is impossible to explain, as are the reactions of football fans. Last minute winners against local rivals lead to strangers hugging each other and no amount of seats between fans will stop that – I think.
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All that said, I think it is a decision that needs to be taken. There needs to be a concerted effort at determining the risk via pilot trials. Without crowds at stadiums, clubs will be unable to continue financially. Further, playing without crowds clearly influences the outcomes of matches. I’ve just had a paper published in Economic Letters setting exactly this out. We found small effects on goals and outcomes, likely insignificant, but found significant differences in the number of yellow cards awarded by referees. There have been many other studies too, some suggesting that the effect on match results may be significant.
So, many months after the first few matches without fans, it beggars belief to argue it doesn’t matter. Fans do matter. Although would 4,000 fans in the areas with fewest Covid-19 cases (or 50% of capacity), spaced out, make a difference? It’ll be 2,000 fans in areas with more Covid-19 cases, and continued empty stadiums in the worst affected areas. This means regional variation in the number of fans permitted.
If fans matter, that’s important. If cases are lower in some areas, teams in those areas may perform better, and may do better in the overall rankings. It could be the difference between a promotion place, or missing out. The difference between avoiding relegation, or going down. Promotion and relegation matter.
It’s unlikely away fans will be allowed, too. While it won’t be the purist’s test of whether partisan fans matter at matches, it will still mean that the fan experience is different in yet another way, and the impact on outcomes likely yet further complicated.
And how will that small number of fans allowed in be determined? While some teams at League One and League Two level don’t average much (if anything) above 4,000 fans, there will surely be pent-up demand. And at the Premier League PINC and Championship level all clubs sell more than 4,000 tickets per match. Will the most loyal fans be rewarded? The longest-serving? Or will some lottery be put in place?
The classic economic mechanism to ensure an outcome where demand outstrips supply is to allow the price to adjust – but this isn’t OK in football. Indeed, many of the proposals discussed in the last few months to reform the game have included more than a nod to limiting prices for football fans, and the outrage when top teams furloughed staff in April emphasises that neo-classical economics doesn’t apply in football.
Waiting lists are another classic non-price mechanism, and perhaps clubs will employ these to allow fans to watch some matches, but not all.
All of which means that the return of fans will remain unlike anything we’ve known before.
Source: Forbes – Business