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Tackling the impact of Covid-19: What are the options for the English Premier League?

One of the effects of the significant disruption caused by the Covid-19 virus is the cancellation or postponement of a huge number of sporting events. Across Europe, and much of the rest of the world, football has been affected at both the elite and grassroots levels. This has caused severe headaches for the footballing authorities, none more so than whether or not to complete the current season, or scrap the season and start afresh in the autumn.

Whilst it is impossible to predict how the elite leagues intend to solve these dilemmas, we take a look, below, at some of the issues which may factor into the thinking of the English Premier League (EPL).

Broadcasting deals

The broadcasting deals in place with the current broadcasters of the EPL will undoubtedly demand that the broadcasters receive (i.e. are able to broadcast) a minimum number of matches each season. If the broadcasters are unable to broadcast that number of matches then this is likely to trigger a reduction in the fee payable by the broadcaster to the EPL and, ultimately, a reduction in the revenues that “trickle” down to the EPL clubs. It is obviously therefore in the interest of all parties (financially at least!) that the matches go ahead.

One of the possible solutions discussed in relation to the EPL is to play all of the remaining matches behind closed doors (i.e. no fans would be present at the matches). Whatever the drawbacks of such a scenario, this would obviously be beneficial to broadcasters as all of their matches could still be broadcast. Indeed, given the fact no fans would be able to attend the matches, the likely scenario would see an increase in the number of matches broadcast live (or delayed) and possibly even that all remaining matches are broadcast at one time or another. This may cause scheduling problems if the matches all have to be played in a short space of time but, as with the congested schedule over the festive period, broadcasters have shown that they can adapt to these circumstances and offer viewers a variety of viewing experiences, including split screen, or red zone type channels, which automatically transfer to the matches where the most likely scoring action is taking place.

More live matches and more matches being broadcast may lead to increased subscribers and increased subscriptions (if broadcasters choose to use the current situation to their advantage).

Another advantage for broadcasters is the likely associated increase in advertising revenue. With a guarantee that most viewers will be in their homes and thus an anticipated increase in viewership, broadcasters may request increased rates from any advertisers or, because of the dearth of live sport, perhaps be able to attract advertisers that had not previously considered football as an avenue to showcase their brands.

There are some possible problems for broadcasters in the behind closed doors approach. One of these is trying to slot what were previously unscheduled matches into the TV calendar. This may turn out to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience, given the cancellations affecting all sports, and the ability for matches to be broadcast on media other than TV. But it is a factor to consider, bearing in mind that if the EPL has kicked off, then this may also mean that some other sports are beginning to restart their fixtures. If a broadcaster has already sold their slot for a rescheduled EPL match to another sport, then the broadcaster may not be able to show the EPL action at the same time.

A further possible issue, although one that would likely be waived in the circumstances, is the TV blackout period, which is in place each Saturday afternoon in England. Traditionally this blackout period has been in place to protect grassroots football (the thinking behind this being that, if fans can watch EPL teams on TV, this will stop them from attending local live matches, and from going and playing for their local teams on a Saturday afternoon). However if England is still subject to a lock-down or some form of social distancing at this time, it is not hard to imagine the blackout period being waived by the authorities for the duration of that time.

Clubs may be unhappy about playing behind closed doors because of the obvious loss of match-day revenue so the EPL may have to offer certain financial incentives to clubs (including a cut of any increased broadcast or advertising revenue) – but, if it is the only option to complete the 2019/20 season, then this may be a possible option. The concern that clubs may have will no doubt be mitigated by the fact that broadcast revenue is such a huge chunk of their revenue pot and also, of course, that some revenue being generated is better than none at all!

Player contracts

Another consideration for the EPL is the impact that a delayed season would have on player contracts which expire at the end of this season.

In the majority of cases, a player’s contract will end on a specific date (usually 30 June), as opposed to the end of the EPL season (whenever that may be). The problem therefore with deciding to continue with the current season, no matter how delayed it is, is that some players’ contracts will expire on 30 June 2020 – which may be before the end of the season. This would have a significant effect on players and clubs.

For a player out of contract (and effectively no longer at the club), this may negate his ability to earn certain contractual bonuses. For example, if a player was set to earn significant bonuses based on his club’s finishing position, or based on his number of appearances, he may no longer be able to receive those bonuses (or receive them in full). This will turn on the wording of each such clause in the payer’s contract, but players will undoubtedly be keen to be paid bonuses they otherwise would have received.

Clubs will also have concerns regarding expired player contracts. If a club’s key player’s contract has expired on 30 June, but the season does not finish until later in the year, then the club cannot force that player to play for the remainder of the season as their contract would have expired. It is likely that, in such circumstances, we will see a number of short term deals put in place for those players which would allow them to see out the remainder of the season. The laws of contract obviously mean that there can be no obligation on player to sign extension deals. This could lead to players holding a club to ransom, and demanding a huge sum of money to see out the season. It is possible that FIFA or local football governing bodies will step in and state that all such player contracts are automatically extended for the duration of the remainder of the delayed season (and FIFA have reportedly discussed this idea internally at their Coronavirus Working Group), but it would certainly be a divisive step for football’s global governing body to effectively force a player to play for a club even though he or she is out of contract.

How this plays out in the EPL may depend on the situation in other major leagues. If the EPL is the only league, or one of the only leagues, which decides to play the remainder of this season by a particular date, it is difficult to see FIFA stepping in, as players may want to transfer to another league in advance of the start of that new season. However, if there is a unified approach, FIFA may feel more able to get involved.

Transfer market

Questions have also been asked about the status of the summer transfer window. Traditionally this window runs from June and ends at the end of August. However, if the season is extended over this period then it is unlikely that clubs will agree to a transfer window taking place over the course of the season finale. Such a scenario would allow bigger (wealthier) clubs to poach key players from smaller (poorer) clubs, or would allow clubs chasing a title or fighting to survive relegation to bring in late season reinforcements, and this would go against the integrity of the sport and the very purpose of the transfer window.

Again, the EPL is likely to want to be aligned with the other major European leagues on this issue. The differing transfer windows caused relative chaos for EPL clubs last season, when the window in Europe was open for a couple of weeks longer than in the EPL. A different window again this season would likely cause even more upheaval.

The most sensible solution would seemingly be to delay the transfer window until the break between the end of the current season and the beginning of next season (whenever those dates may be). However, if European leagues take a different approach to their respective seasons, this issue could be one to watch.

There is no doubt plenty of food for thought. The end of the season is shaping up to be interesting – but not for the reasons that we expected when the season began in August 2019!

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