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Covid-19: Can spectators return to stadiums?

  • From digital health passports to reduced capacities, recent experiments at football venues could provide a model to get fans back in the stands

Paris Saint-Germain's Brazilian forward Neymar (R) prepares to shoot a corner kick during the Friendly football match between Le Havre Athletic Club and Paris Saint-Germain at the Stade Oceane, in Le Havre, on July 12, 2020. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP)
Paris Saint-Germain's Brazilian forward Neymar (R) prepares to shoot a corner kick during the Friendly football match between Le Havre Athletic Club and Paris Saint-Germain at the Stade Oceane, in Le Havre, on July 12, 2020. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP) (AFP)

Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint Germain’s 9-0 rout of second-division side Le Havre AC in a recent friendly in France was memorable for more reasons than one. It marked the first time since March that fans in France returned to the stands to watch live football, with over 5,000 of them seated in the 25,000-seater Stade Oceane.

The match also provided a probable template of how live sports could be organized in the foreseeable future as the world continues to deal with the covid-19 pandemic. At the friendly, PSG superstars Neymar and Kylian Mbappé entered the stadium donning multi-coloured face masks. They were not alone. Fans were also asked to wear face masks at all times and adhere to social distancing norms inside the stadium.

Ever since the coronavirus lockdown intensified, sports leagues across the world, especially in Europe, had to halt their seasons and competitions mid-way. Once leagues resumed matches starting in May, they have been played behind closed doors, in front of empty stands. But now, a model seems to be emerging on how fans would eventually be allowed inside stadiums.

In the UK, for instance, where the Premier League restarted in June and Test cricket resumed earlier this month, plans are being considered to use a digital health passport system to eventually allow fans back into stadiums. This system would allow individual fans to link their covid-19 test results to a phone number. Prenetics, the genetic testing and digital health company that conducted covid-19 tests for Premier League players and staff as part of "Project Restart", plans to implement this system which, as per a Reuters report, is a web-based platform that shows a person’s covid-19 testing status and history by scanning a QR code to secure access to any venues where safety is a concern.

According to an AFP report, the Spanish La Liga, which is due to end on 19 July, hopes to resume next season with attendance at around 30% of stadium capacities. In Germany, where the league footballing season was recently concluded, authorities are considering a similar progression.

“The first example we had of any organisation around the world proposing to re-admit fans into venues at this time was Japanese football. They had fairly elaborate plans for people to sit with considerable distance between them and others in stadiums, with designated routes in to and out of the stadiums," says Simon Chadwick, director of the Centre for Eurasian Sport Industry at the Lyon-based Emlyon Business School.

A study by Spanish architecture studio Fenwick Iribarren released earlier this month also explained how football stadiums will have to adapt to newer architectural designs and include solutions that will promote social distancing at such big venues. “Reduction in stadium capacities, improved ventilation systems and mobile payment for tickets and drinks are some of the measures football clubs may have to implement while designing stadiums in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic," a Reuters report on the study added.

Other innovations could include ‘no touch’ solutions like automatic doors, light activation through infrared and mobile payments for tickets, drinks etc, given how the covid-19 virus can spread via surfaces. The study also explains how in order to enforce social distancing, football clubs would need to either develop bigger venues with the same number of seats or reduce the capacity, with the latter the more likely solution, leading to a decline in matchday revenue—a vital source of income for clubs, and something that has suffered a big hit during the 2019-20 season.

While each sport has a different business model, ticketing and matchday revenue still remain critical. “It has been deeply damaging for competitions, leagues, tournaments, events because for many of them their business models are driven by revenues derived from ticket sales. No crowds, no ticket sales—it creates financial problems," says Chadwick, who adds that while several professional football teams in China have gone out of business during the pandemic, for some sports leagues, like the Premier League, a lot of the revenue is now generated through broadcasting and media rights sales, selling content in overseas markets, sponsorship and merchandise.

It remains to be seen whether fans will flock to stadiums like they did before the pandemic, but the PSG-Le Havre example does offer some hope. Chadwick says even if fans return to stadiums, it’s difficult to look at anything more than about 30 or 40% capacity utilization to begin with. “In the short to medium term, that might increase to 50 or 60%," he adds.

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