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How is professional football coping with coronavirus?

Playing without spectators prevents football matches from becoming Covid-19 super-spreaders, but it has potentially devastating financial consequences for lower tier clubs. The empty stadiums are also revealing the influence of crowds on refereeing decisions.

In June, we published an article on the Economics Observatory contemplating the likely impacts of Covid-19 on sport (Reade and Singleton, 2020). At the time, we noted that professional sport without paying spectators looked set to be the norm for the foreseeable future. This is a seismic change for sport businesses, since their financial sustainability has normally depended on these reliable consumers.

In this update, we look at three questions where we previously suggested that we needed to know more, and where there is now some additional evidence:

  • Do sporting events act as super-spreaders?
  • How does playing without spectators influence sporting outcomes?
  • How great is the financial distress and risk to the structure of organised elite sport?

We look here at football as the largest sport globally. It is estimated that 3.5 billion people watched football’s 2018 World Cup, while the sport’s governing body, FIFA, at its last Big Count in 2006, estimated that 265 million people play regularly. Although we focus on the elite level of football, we conclude with reference to the great uncertainty about the future of the grassroots and community levels of the sport.

Super-spreader events

Professional sports, and some amateur events too, are normally mass events – thousands of people attending a particular location to watch or take part. The research surrounding Covid-19 has revealed that it spreads most effectively in contained spaces, person-to-person. Evidence suggests that the virus can spread easily when people sing together in choirs. Football matches, where spectators can be noisy – shouting, singing and becoming emotional – would seem to be an ideal setting for the spread of the virus. But anecdotal evidence, following protests like the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer, appears to show that the spread is much less outdoors.

A number of studies have looked at how influenza can be affected by major sporting events. One found that US cities with a National Football League team that made the post-season playoffs experienced increases in influenza mortality of 18% among the over-65s (Stoeker et al, 2016); while another study found that US cities with sport franchises have 4-24% more flu deaths per year (Cardazzi et al, 2020).

A US study has found that each National Basketball Association and National Hockey League game in March 2020 contributed to 380 more Covid-19 cases and 16 more deaths per one million people, in the counties where these events took place (Ahammer et al, 2020).

A study with similar intent looked at the impact on the spread of the virus last April from English football matches played in February and March, before the first national lockdown (Reade et al, 2020). English football is an ideal setting to study this issue since matches take place most days of the week and across the whole nation.

The evidence suggests that regardless of how full the stadiums were, the health outcomes following an English football match in March were consistent: for every 100,000 people in the same local area, there were six Covid-19 cases, two Covid-19 deaths and three overall deaths.

On average, across England in April, there were 188 Covid-19 cases, 52 Covid-19 deaths and 138 excess deaths per 100,000 people in any given local area. This suggests that the enclosed spaces involved in attending sports (club houses at non-league matches, concourses at league matches) contributed to the virus spread. It also suggests that the kinds of passions that football generates – last-minute winners against fierce local rivals – might be hard to mitigate in any meaningful way if fans are allowed back into stadiums, even in the restricted numbers proposed by the government’s new tiers.

Pilot studies of sporting events with fans were cancelled in September as the second wave began. As such, evidence is still lacking on whether Covid-19 measures and the impact of the virus on fan behaviour can mitigate the super-spreader nature of mass sporting events. One minor piece of evidence finds for the Belarussian football league (which carried on through the pandemic) that fans spontaneously socially distance, as attendances were much lower than normal (Reade et al, 2020).

Playing without fans

In most countries, the pandemic led to professional football being completely suspended before resuming without crowds. In the English Premier League, for example, the last match before lockdown was played on 9 March and the 2019/20 season did not resume until 17 June. This 13-week hiatus was almost universal, with a period in the spring where the only professional football could be found in Belarus and Nicaragua.

Our research has exploited this natural experiment of professional football being played behind closed doors within the 2019/20 league season, to study the effect of absent crowds on refereeing decisions and referee impartiality. We analysed data on 6,481 matches played in 23 professional leagues and 17 countries in the 2019/20 season.

Figure 1 shows how the average differences between teams in the numbers of goals scored and yellow cards received within matches decreased and increased, respectively, in most countries after the shutdown, suggesting that home advantage was reduced.

Matches played behind closed doors were 3 percentage points less likely to end in a home win. Such fine margins can easily lead to substantially different league outcomes, such as relegation, and even contribute to slightly more erratic results overall.

In these matches, fewer yellow cards were given to the away teams for foul play by the referees, compared with when crowds were present, leading to the gap between home and away team yellow cards, normally negative, increasing by around a third of a card. There was a small decrease in the numbers of red cards issued to away teams behind closed doors compared with when a crowd was present in the 2019/20 season.

Figure 1: Average match differences between home and away team outcomes within professional football leagues, 2019/20 season, before and after shutdown.

Figure showing average match differences

Notes: author calculations using data from, accessed 3/8/2020. Averages of Home minus Away outcomes over all matches in the sample periods. Dashed line is y=x. Bubbles are proportional in area to the number of matches in the dataset in each country after 1 April 2020. Leagues represented: Australia, A-League; Albania, Superliga; Austria, Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2; Costa Rica, Primera Divisíon; Denmark, Super-liga; England, Premier League and Championship; Germany, Bundesliga, 2. Bundesliga and 3. Liga; Greece, Super League; Hungary, OTP Bank Liga; Italy, Serie A and Serie B; Poland, Ekstraklasa; Portugal, Primeira Liga; Romania, Liga 1; Serbia, SuperLiga; Slovenia, PrvaLiga; Spain, La Liga and Segunda Divisíon; Ukraine, Premier League.

These results suggest that the total absence of the generally home-team-supporting crowd has reduced the social pressure on referees to punish the away team more harshly, leading to fairer decisions. It is less likely that the mechanism behind this is a change in the performances of players, since the final scorelines of matches were not significantly different without fans.

A number of other studies have found similar results (see the references in here). Besides contributing to the wider body of economic research evidence from field experiments on the impacts of social pressure, answers to these questions are of direct interest to the multi-billion-dollar sports industry, because they inform understanding of the role that officials play.

More broadly, those running sport businesses have a responsibility to the fans and others who pay substantial sums, either on season tickets or TV subscriptions, to see high quality contests that are competitive but neutrally refereed. Betting and financial markets are also interested in any margins associated with sporting outcomes and the nature of referees’ decisions. Recent articles on football played without crowds in The Economist and the Financial Times are testament to the widespread interest in these matters beyond the sports pages.

Our work suggests that referees can be unfairly biased in favour of home sides by the presence of crowds. This has implications for the judging and citing of any competitive event or outcome, when it is anticipated that the audience could be partisan – for example, in the Olympics, in reality TV contests or even in a jury trial. More generally, any contest with adversaries and a crowd present needs to examine the fairness of any justice that may be administered.

A further potential implication of our findings is that they call into question the neutrality of referees or arbitrators in the presence of a crowd. This means that we should be aware of the possible influence that crowds can have on arbitrated, judged or refereed decisions.

Financial consequences

Because Covid-19 has severely restricted the extent to which fans can attend and participate in sporting events, this has had significant financial consequences for a wide variety of sporting institutions.

Online alternatives, where possible, appear to have had lower take-up than past in-person events. In the English Football League’s lower divisions, a streaming service has been in place for a number of years now: iFollow. But for a match in League Two in September 2020, where Colchester United hosted Bolton Wanderers, only 452 Colchester fans purchased iFollow passes to watch the game. Last season Colchester averaged around 3,600 fans at home matches.

Similarly, Oldham Athletic in League Two averaged 466 iFollow passes for matches in October 2020, in addition to their 800 season ticket holders, compared with averaging 3,209 spectators at home matches in the 2019/20 season. The price that a customer pays for iFollow, £10, is less than most tickets would cost in ordinary times. Hence, the revenue streams that clubs can count on are significantly limited, even in the best of circumstances.

Given the already established TV income in the English Premier League, inequalities within the elite levels of the sport can only increase. Outside the top tier, 80% of club revenue normally comes from match day receipts. Without lucrative TV deals and sponsorship, smaller clubs in the EFL are in severe financial danger. Even if limited numbers of fans are allowed to return, this may be worse due to the fixed costs of putting on a match day.

Proposals have been made for the Premier League to bail out the Football League, a one-off income redistribution throughout the elite levels of the game, but these have so far been rejected. Revenue sharing across tiers is more common in league structures elsewhere in the world, and something that used to exist in England. In 1983, the redistribution of gate receipts between English Football League clubs was abandoned, and in 1992 the breakaway of the Premier League was entirely predicated on the top division securing a greater share of broadcasting revenues in the game.

With the second wave of Covid-19 in Europe, it is not clear when fans can return to stadiums in their usual numbers, meaning that only revenues from non-match attendance sources can be relied on for the foreseeable future. Reflecting this difficult situation, the UK government has announced a relief package for 11 sports other than football.

The question of where players stand in the queue for vaccines may also be controversial. Most would place them as lower priority than healthcare workers and the vulnerable, but the wealthy clubs may not see it this way if they have an opportunity to buy private vaccines.

It is also not clear when local, amateur, school and non-elite sport will return after the second lockdown. Furlough schemes will help, but sporting networks may be irreparably harmed by the length of time without regular gatherings.

The suspension of regular routine, physical exercise and social interaction imposed by lockdowns have impacts. Ref Support UK reports a huge increase in referees seeking support as amateur players displayed more aggressive behaviour after the first national lockdown. Volunteers, often in groups most vulnerable to Covid-19, may not be willing to return. It is quite possible that non-elite sport will remain largely dormant until next spring, when vaccines may be more generally available.

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Authors: James Reade, Carl Singleton and Peter Dolton
Photo by Vienna Reyes on Unsplash
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