English football’s coronavirus conundrum

“You could be looking at 40, 50, 60 clubs in the pyramid ceasing to trade within the next six to twelve months”.

That is the startling assessment of Huddersfield Town chairman Phil Hodgkinson on the outlook for the lower league teams in the English Football League (EFL) in light of the coronavirus pandemic. It reflects the conundrum for not just those clubs in question, who are deciding whether finishing the football season in the current climate is feasible, but for English football more broadly. Sooner or later, the wealthiest clubs will have to decide: Is the integrity of the Football League worth preserving? 

The cost of bringing players back from furlough and paying for the regular testing of staff as well as players is enormous for clubs in League One and League Two, with Coventry estimating it could come to £500,000. While it might be cynically proposed that Coventry would say this as they sit pretty atop League One, hoping that a premature end to the season could see them promoted anyway, this cost would be broadly applicable to all League One and League Two clubs. This would all be without the gate receipts that are so crucial to the financial survival of these lower-league clubs who are not propped up by piles of television revenue as are Premier League and Championship clubs. It is often said that without fans, football is nothing. But in this case, it is literally true – without paying fans coming through the gates at stadia across the country, the lower leagues cease to be viable. 

On paper, the solution is easy. A multi-million-pound bailout of the EFL by the Premier League could make ending the season happen, thus ensuring that the integrity of the whole pyramid is protected by retaining promotion and relegation (notwithstanding the cancellation of leagues outside the EFL). And it is, of course, true that Premier League clubs are generally sitting upon far greater cash reserves than the average Football League club, not to mention that many are owned by individuals or groups with independent fortunes akin to the GDP of whole countries.  

However, the seemingly infinite riches of these clubs are not baseless. The reason it is such big business, and consequently why English football has become a magnet for the world’s wealthiest investors, is because of the lucrative television deals mentioned above. Rights holders in the UK and across the world —notably beIN Sports, who recently raised doubts over Newcastle’s Saudi-funded takeover due to the latter’s broadcasting piracy history— pay vast sums to screen the spectacle of Premier League football. Many, such as Sky and BT in the UK, have been offering payment holidays to customers during the pause in football. Indeed, it is far from certain that many individual subscription holders will continue to prop up this system in the midst of a world recession, especially if the Premier League plays behind closed doors, damaging the unique atmosphere value of the league as a broadcasting product. Without the huge income this generates worldwide, the Premier League could suddenly cease to be the cash cow it appeared to be before coronavirus hit. Who would fund the Football League then? 

In this climate, it is easy to see why the Premier League and its constituent clubs might be distinctly uneasy about signing up to guarantee the survival of lower-league clubs that currently seem distantly related to the sleek product that the top tier of English football presents. Even some fans of lower-league football in this country might subscribe to an accelerationist ‘Against Modern Football’ creed that suggests that this crisis could bring down the whole house of cards that is modern football, restoring football clubs’ fortunes to the gold standard that is the size of their physical fanbases. Painful as it might seem to proponents of both these views, though, they seem to share a myopic understanding of modern football as it is, not how it was or should be. Fans worldwide take great enjoyment from English football – otherwise they wouldn’t pay the high fees they do to take it in on their TV screens- and many jobs here count on the continued survival of the football pyramid.  

It might be high time to reform this system of football dependent on globalised market forces, which the coronavirus has exposed the chronic weaknesses of. With Leagues One and Two already close to implementing a wage cap, it would be wise to realise that the wealth of the Premier League too, will not keep growing forever, and that clubs’ spending should allow for that eventuality. But to allow, or even encourage, the system’s total collapse would be totally reckless. Too many lives, too many livelihoods, depend on it.