As a Liverpool fan, I blame the Covid-19 pandemic for the loss of our first English Premier League championship in 30 years to Manchester City. We would never have lost four Premier League matches in a row at our home stadium of Anfield if 60,000 Liverpool fans had been there to lift our team. City fans will not agree (who cares?), but all fans recognise that Covid will change how English football operates.
Covid broke out at the climax of the 2019/20 football season. Premier League grounds were closed in March 2020, with most teams having nine or 10 games left to play.
Those games were later played without fans, but according to Deloittes’ Football Money League 2021, the ‘big six’ English clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur) all took a big financial hit. Due to the Covid pandemic, the combined revenue of the ‘big six’ fell by Euro 415 million in 2019/20 compared to 2018/19. Manchester United, England’s richest club, saw their income fall by Euro 131 million.
If the 2019/20 season was bad in terms of revenue, then 2020/21 will be worse. Playing the whole season without fans is estimated to have cost the Premier League Euro 700 million, including a loss of Euro 500 million for the ‘big six’. That is a lot of money. Football clubs, even in the world’s richest league, live on the edge. Premier League clubs, collectively, lost around Euro 445 million in 2018/19. Clubs’ losses are funded by profits from player transfers and money from club owners.
TV not tickets
Despite their importance, it was not the absence of fans that lost Premier League clubs most money in 2019/20; 86%, of the Euro 415 million in revenue lost by the ‘big six’ was due to a fall in TV broadcast and commercial (sponsorship, owners and merchandising) income. When the Premier League started in 1992/93, matchday income from fans represented 73% of total income, now it accounts for only 13%. Less than Euro 50 million of Manchester City’s Euro 549 million income in 2019/20 came from matchday fans.
Short-term: lower wages, smaller squads and fewer transfers
The Premier League’s loss of revenue due to Covid is likely to lead, in the short-term, to lower player wages (the Premier League wage bill was Euro 4.5 billion in 2020), smaller squads, or more reliance on younger academy players. Liverpool let Dutch international Gini Wijanaldum leave in June at the end of his contract; academy graduate Curtis Jones is expected to replace him. The option of importing cheaper players from abroad has been reduced by Brexit (the UK’s departure from the European Union), which means English clubs can no longer take advantage of the EU’s free movement rules.
The player transfer market is also likely to be depressed. In summer 2020, Premier League clubs, perhaps expecting the Covid pandemic to be short, spent Euro 1.8 billion in the transfer market. Five months later, in the January 2021 transfer window, they spent just under Euro 100 million. Even top players will be affected. Harry Kane, England’s best striker, wants to leave Tottenham. Kane is three years into a six-year contract and Tottenham will want around Euro 120 million for him. Some club may pay that amount, but those that can, may prefer to pay a similar price for Borussia Dortmund’s Norwegian goal scorer Erling Haaland, who is 21-years old; Kane is 28.
Player loans are also more likely. Manchester United renewed Jesse Lingard’s contract for a year and then loaned him to West Ham. Lingard remained a Manchester United player while West Ham paid his wages. Lingard’s success at West Ham means his transfer value is now higher than it was a year ago. Other clubs may try to copy such shrewd dealing.
Long-term: super leagues and franchises?
The long-term impact of the Covid pandemic is less clear, but the key thing it has highlighted is that the driving force of English football is not fans in the stadium, but those who watch football on TV across the world. The Premier League receives Euros 1.6 billion a year for the rights to show matches in other countries; of that, China pays a third. The more widely the games are shown, the more cash clubs can raise through sponsorship, advertising and merchandise. The ‘big six’ already fill their stadiums and so it was the promise of more TV and commercial money that tempted them to join a new European Super League of 12 European football clubs in 2021. Each club would have received around Euros 350 million for joining (three times the prize money for winning Europe’s top club competition, the Champions League). It is no coincidence that the 10 European clubs most popular in China were invited to join the European Super League. Plans for the European Super League were abandoned following protests from fans, particularly in England.
These developments, accelerated by the Covid pandemic, hint that some sort of super league may be the future of English and European football. However, things may go further. The influence of American ownership in English football matters. The three American-owned Premier League clubs – Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United – all agreed to join the European Super League. American sports use the TV finance model, but are also franchises, where teams can leave a city and locate elsewhere. Is it so improbable that the deeply unpopular Glazer family who own Manchester United would secure a place in a new super league by moving the club to, say, Dublin in Ireland; a city that speaks English, has deep ties with the club, is big enough to fill an 80,000-seater stadium and is in the EU? Maybe they would not, but the point is that a club’s local fan base is no longer critical to its future success.
Fans do matter to football clubs. Many have made great efforts through social media and supporters clubs to stay in contact with their fans during the pandemic. Fan power stopped the European Super League’s formation, at least for now. As an English football fan, I do not want a European Super League and even Liverpool fans would miss Manchester United, but the dilemma is that I really like being able to watch my team, and its rivals, on TV here in Greece. However, extending that privilege to more fans across the world will probably change the game we love in ways we do not want.
Covid has revealed the irony that fans like me, thousands of kilometres away, watching football on TV with a drink and a souvlaki, are increasingly more important than fans in the stadium singing their team to victory. Maybe City fans are right and those games in an empty Anfield really did not matter that much.