Embracing post pandemic change

The impacts of the covid19 pandemic on Scottish football are coming in to sharp focus.

After the pantemine of the voting and subsequent agreement to effectively call the season, we now move into forward planing for the forthcoming footballing schedule.

Ideas have been outlined from a condensed 18 game Championship season, to a Scottish Cup “hub” and via some calls to shelve or mothball lower league football until such time that fans can safely return to watch and support their team in person – such is the reliance at lower levels on match day revenue. This is also not even mentioning the mooted league reconstruction.

One party who have been earily queit thus far on the potential forward planning have been the SPFL board and bigwigs therein. The same group who were vocal in their pressing of clubs into voting proposals to end the season, have not been so vocal in any steps to lead from the top and find a way to both bring football back but also ensure that clubs can be supported financially amid any ongoing social distancing restrictions.

The last point there is an important one. At the time of writing, clubs have begun to simply allow contracts of players to expire and effectively have outlined that they simply cannot afford to pay or retain players with no football to be played.

Of all of the solutions mentioned, and with cognisance of the ongoing restrictions likely to remain in force for the foreseeable future – we face a dilemma of whether to shelve football for a period or to allow some or not other divisions or levels to proceed while others cannot.

The last point is worth noting, while it may be feasible for the top division to proceed with limited fans or behind closed doors to adhere to social distancing guidelines, as above this causes concern for lower teams. That of course is notwithstanding the fact that football in itself if the game of the people, without fans it is nothing.

So how do we fix this? One solution worth investigating is the potential to utilise “football hubs” once restrictions have been lifted enough to allow games to proceed, even if there are restrictions on fan attendance.

So if we take League 1 and League 2 for example. In order to fit fixtures in while reducing costs to clubs and offering a degree of fan interest and revenue, a hub approach could be adopted.

This could involve a central stadium, say in Dundee or Perth, and include a “day of football” which could replicate those great World Cup days we all love.

Games could be scheduled at 9am, 12pm, 3pm, 6pm and 9pm over the Saturday and Sunday at the Central stadium and would cover all fixtures in both divisions. Staggering kick off times would allow teams to enter the stadium, change warm up, play, leave and then allow time for cleaning before the next group arrive (external modular cabins could also be used for changing to further offer time and space).

Holding games at a central venue allows costs of policing and cleaning to be reduced and shared among clubs of the league. But also ensures equality across the board and limits the risk of some games proceeding and others not which could have further knock on impacts as the season continues.

The day of football approach allows for the lower leagues to be marketed also. The day itself as well as individual games could be filmed and made available on TV or online for streaming at a cost and fans could then watch their team from the comfort of their home, whether they support the lower league teams or not. Now there may be some argument over the financial viability or demand behind streaming or filming lower league games, but we have all experienced the benefits of working online during the pandemic – the costs of filming and streaming would be relatively low and could be covered by the league or via fan payment. If each lower league club attract a couple hundred fans to their games each week and this pays players, maintenance, policing etc then it stands to reason that with shared costs but continued revenue via pay per view income that a degree of financial stability could be achieved.

The streaming could also attract a wider audience, which could increase income further and clubs could benefit from organising food or hospitality deliveries to local fans – pies, bovril, beers, meals or merchandise to further supplement income. In effect fans could get a match day experience from their living room, watch their team with a familiar pie and with the further use of technology such as video conferencing could share a virtual beer with friends while watching the game. The technology required is openly available and given the lockdown, we have all had plenty practice at using this.

The option above would allow football to continue, albeit in a sterilised, virtual form but would at least allow for a semblance of the match day experience to return in earnest.

Yes, concessions such as giving up home advantage will have to be given and accepted, but this solution still allows for fan involvement, revenue generation, opportunities to keep catering staff and other non playing staff employed in slightly amended roles and also allows sponsorship or dare I say betting companies to rekindle some form of involvement or interest in proceedings.

Life will change after this pandemic, it would be naive to think that football will not also do so. The days of packed terracing may be some way off, if they are ever to be seen again. Embracing technology, as many have done for their working week anyway, is a potential way forward.

Thinking outside the box may be required and a “new normal” appreciated and embraced. This may not be the place for dusty old men in suits who would like football to remain as it was in the 80s. But change will be needed if we are to get our football back, keep our clubs in business and ensure its ongoing viability. The above is only one solution and requires some concessions but does offer a pathway for football to resume – something we are all keen to see.

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