The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been felt in all corners of life and is certain to dent even the seemingly invincible infrastructure of football, but it’s those at the base of the pyramid who will be hit hardest.
Entertainment for the fans at an affordable price should be the aim after all. Our priority when the world does recover from the novel coronavirus must be for business to return to normal, but smaller clubs sit at major risk of not surviving the stoppage at all.
It seems almost crass to hold the sport’s finances—or sport in general—in such esteem when doctors, nurses, teachers, sanitary workers and shelf-stackers, to name only a few, are so uncertain of their futures. But football plays its own important role in the economy, and some clubs rely on their local teams to generate revenue for the community as a whole. That’s without mentioning the undoubted joy many of us get out of The Beautiful Game on a daily basis.
It’s that like-for-like, unspoken agreement to which we all abide. From the continental champions down to the most minor of minnows, professionals envelop themselves in football knowing their input can help improve the product, while also being grateful for the opportunities it provides.
One imagines most top-flight teams will be 'okay' in the interim. Premier League outfit Brighton & Hove Albion—who sit just two points above the relegation zone with play suspended until at least April 30—announced in mid-March that they’d pay “the vast majority” of their 600-plus matchday staff for the season regardless of whether they play their remaining five home games.
Those teams further down the football ladder live on more of a week-to-week plan, however, where ticket revenue and sponsorships are more key to their survival.
Of course, there are also those titans of industry who know they’ll survive any delays; those who are “too big to fail.”
Borussia Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke published a statement on March 13 stating the prospect of his club “being in existential danger can be ruled out.” He also hoped other Bundesliga clubs—his rivals—had “built up enough reserves over the past few years to get them through this crisis,” which seemed a more pleasant method of saying “best of luck.”
Many were quick to flag the lack of apparent generosity given it was Bayern Munich who helped bail out an almost defunct Dortmund back in 2004 with a €2 million loan—though Watzke was only treasurer at the time, and said in 2013 he wouldn’t have accepted the sum were he CEO.
Uwe Leonhardt, president of German second-tier side Erzgebirge Aue, took umbrage with Watzke’s seemingly selfish approach, per commentator Derek Rae:
One day later, Kicker reported Watzke was more willing to contribute his personal money to aid in German football’s plight (via Rae):
His reaction is contrasted against that of Borussia Monchengladbach sporting director Max Eberl. He told the club’s official website that his players, coaching staff and directors would forego at least part of their salaries during the suspension to help ease the financial burden on non-playing employees at the club.
Gladbach are flying high in the Bundesliga this season but have only the seventh highest wage bill in the league, per via Statista, suggesting other clubs can afford to follow suit.
Bayern Munich duo Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka set a new standard in footballers giving in such a time of need, contributing a combined €1 million as part of a campaign to raise money for organisations fighting the illness, via Get German Football News. Fellow Bayern teammate Robert Lewandowski and his wife Anna also have given €1 million to the relief cause.
One can only hope players and clubs from Europe’s other top divisions are as eager to share.
The hiatus in competition caused by COVID-19 is only now being properly comprehended, with the financial ramifications bringing into view what it may mean for the future of the sport.
It’s no surprise to see certain players have led the charge in dipping into their pockets. 10 days ago, BBC News confirmed Italy’s death toll due to the coronavirus has now overtaken that of China, and AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic contributed €100,000 toward a GoFundMe he started with the aim of raising €1 million to help fight the illness:
Former Paris Saint-Germain team-mate and Italy international Marco Verratti pledged €50,000 to the cause, while other football comrades have also chipped in.
Sporting CP president Frederico Varandas—a former army captain—said via Instagram that he would offer his services as a doctor as long as Portugal’s state of emergency lasted.
It’s these acts of selflessness that help put matters into perspective, the kind of acts that should inspire others with the means to do so to help in kind.
The English Football League—which represents 71 clubs across three divisions—announced a £50 million package would be made available to those teams in the wake of the coronavirus delay, per the Guardian’s David Conn. The Premier League is still sorting its fate with TV broadcasters uncertain of when the next match will even be played, but there’s hope that England’s top tier will also be able to contribute to those lower down the pecking order when there is more clarity.
EFL clubs already receive £675,000 each season in solidarity payments from the Premier League, which helps those clubs with smaller television and ticket revenues to continue competing. However, this figure was a reduction on the previous amount, indicating that perhaps the willingness to share is waning amongst the sport's elite. It may seem trivial if there were no consequences to be seen, but League One side Bury FC are an example of club where the pressure caused collapse, after the 125-year-old club were expelled due to their desperate finances, per the Telegraph’s Tom Morgan
There can be no obligation for the best-paid players to shell out money for the greater good of other clubs, particularly when many come from foreign lands with no real connection to surrounding clubs. Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi—who already pledged €1 million to fight the virus—can’t be expected to stump up any of his $127 million annual salary just so the likes of Cultural Leonesa or Castelldefels can go on playing. But what greater contribution is there when the sport that made him an icon is experiencing its greatest crisis in a generation, or perhaps, in history?
Football should by no means top our general list of priorities when a new illness has caused more than 30,000 deaths in several months, but given its role as a source of comfort and joy for so many, it’s important to ensure the product is protected for when it’s safe to return.
Sad as it may be, the ongoing pandemic has reminded us of the goodness that can come from putting rivalries to one side in pursuit of a better world, an ideal that football’s elite must adopt if the sport is to keep thriving with any morality intact.