Sport has been warned the pause in the return of crowds, which was announced by the government on Tuesday, could last throughout winter – and even until the start of April.
The government is drawing up plans for an urgent rescue package for as many as eight sports, after being warned numerous clubs face financial ruin because of the lack of gate receipts.
Senior figures from football, rugby union, cricket, horse racing and three other sports also met the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, on Tuesday to tell him the situation is increasingly perilous.
While Dowden vowed to help, he also made it clear to the Premier League and other more financially stable organisations that they must do their bit by also helping clubs lower down the pyramid. However, the danger to sport was made clear:
The Rugby Football Union warned it would see a reduction in revenue of £122m and that rugby clubs at the heart of communities across England were “in danger of disappearing for ever”.
• The Premier League reiterated its warning football was losing £100m a month – and said “the football economy” is unsustainable without fans.
• Scott Priestnall, chairman of National League Yeovil, said he feared “for clubs not just at our level but League One, League Two and maybe some in the Championship”.
• The British Horseracing Authority described the news as “a serious blow” and warned the racing industry “is now facing a severe threat” and the loss of millions of pounds.
The government is yet to indicate the scale of any bailout for elite sport. But while grants, loans and rate relief are all on the table, the Guardian understands it will be substantially less than the £1.57bn given to the arts in July. A separate £500m package to save grassroots facilities and clubs from closure is also being considered by the Treasury, which is said to be sceptical about its benefits. But insiders fear that without help around 20% of swimming pools and hundreds of local authority leisure centres could close – costing thousands of jobs, and resulting in a drop in participation.
Grassroots sport has also been hit by the application of the rule of six to all adult indoor team sports – which will affect basketball, netball and five-a-side football leagues. However, children will still be able to play those sports indoors.
The RFU chairman, Bill Sweeney, warned the government the lack of crowds in the autumn fixtures and 2021 Six Nations would cost the sport £106m and have severe consequences at all levels of the game.
“Premiership and Championship clubs will face significant financial
hardship,” Sweeney said. “Our community rugby clubs are under threat. Without crowds and league games community rugby will lose an estimated £86m in revenue this season.”
The scale of the problem in club rugby was made clear by Tony Rowe, chief executive of Exeter, who said many teams were in an “absolutely desperate” predicament. “We’ve got to get bums on seats,” he told the Guardian. “Without revenue we can’t hang on for ever. We’ve been losing a million pounds a month since March and we’re a club who usually never lose money. You can’t keep doing that. If we can get people back in the ground, at least we’ll have something coming in.”
The Premier League expressed its disappointment at the lack of fans in stadiums, saying in a statement it was certain they would “be as safe or even safer than at any other public activity currently permitted”, adding: “Last season, Premier League clubs suffered £700m in losses and at present our national game is losing more than £100m per month. This is starting to have a devastating impact on clubs and their communities.”
The Premier League would not be drawn on whether it would take on board comments from the government to offer more financial support to clubs lower down the pyramid.
Frank Lampard, Chelsea’s manager, said the Premier League should step in to help out. “It’s important the Premier League as a collective looks at supporting the Football League, the leagues below and grassroots football,” he said. “Because that’s the base of why we’re all here.”
The Burnley manager, Sean Dyche, offered a dissenting view, saying the Premier League should not necessarily help. “If you are going to apply that rule of thumb, does that mean every hedge fund manager that is incredibly successful, are they going to filter that down to the hedge fund managers that are not so successful?”
The National League is expected to postpone the start of its season when it meets on Thursday amid huge concerns about how its clubs will cope without matchday revenue. The Yeovil chairman, Scott Priestnall, said: “I fear for sport. How is it meant to survive without supporters?”
The Rugby Football League is forecasting a significant six-figure loss, in excess of £There are also fears inside British Basketball League that some of its clubs will struggle to survive if they are unable to hold games with crowds. Its clubs are holding crisis talks on Wednesday. 250,000, because the Challenge Cup final on 17 October is now being played behind closed doors.