Scottish football & Covid-19: How big a problem is no fans until 2021?

By Richard WintonBBC Sport Scotland
Empty seats have been filled with cardboard cutouts at many Premiership grounds this season
Empty seats have been filled with cardboard cutouts at many Premiership grounds this season

Nothing really changed for Scottish football on Tuesday except the mood.

Alarming warnings about the suspension of the game proved unfounded when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced changes to the nation's Covid-19 restrictions.

Indeed, the only material alteration is that the staging of test events with fans has been paused after two matches were played in front of 300 supporters earlier this month.

That is expected to be reviewed again on 13 October, but there is now a gathering sense - or perhaps just a belated realisation - that crowds are unlikely to return in any significant number this year.

But does that herald fresh chaos for Scottish clubs? Or was this always set to be the case?

Is this a new doomsday scenario?

The newspaper back pages on Wednesday painted a grim picture.

Unnamed top-flight chief executives spoke of clubs folding without government subsidies, while others said teams would disappear by Christmas without fans in grounds.

Stenhousemuir chairman Iain McMenemy told BBC Radio Scotland that the current financial situation is unsustainable outside the top tier.


He says Stenhousemuir are projected to lose £100,000 this term and that if fans do not return by the end of the season the League Two side will "burn through everything we have".

"It's awful because it's entirely possible we could see many clubs go out of business any time soon," he told Good Morning Scotland.

"Everyone thinks about the Premiership clubs but there are 30 clubs below that. Then, when you go into the Lowland and Highland Leagues, West and East of Scotland leagues - you're getting on for another 200 clubs. That's 200 communities and 200 businesses that are under threat."

The trigger for the renewed doom and gloom was the Westminster Government telling English sporting bodies that supporters may not be permitted to return until at least the end of March.

In the wake of that, an emergency meeting of Scottish football's Joint Response Group (JRG) was held, at which some lower-league clubs voiced their concern about staging games without ticket revenue.

The JRG is expected to convene again on Wednesday after talks with the Scottish Government about whether a share of any Westminster handout would find its way north of the border.

Are all clubs in the same peril?

Every club is feeling the strain, but some are coping better than others. It all depends who you speak to.

With no indication that a considerable acceleration of the fan pilot schemes was likely any time soon, many SPFL sides will not have budgeted to have money coming from gate receipts this year.

Some have been on record talking of January, February or March as the time they are forecasting to have that money - 43% of their income, according to recent research - coming in again.

"We had a plan A, B and C and Plan A was based on there being no supporters," said Ross County manager Stuart Kettlewell. "I know that's a very pessimistic view but at the time we felt it was realistic.

"There started to be signs of improvement but we knew the situation could change, as it has done. So we're comfortable with there not being supporters coming in the near future and we're braced for it."

That comfort is provided in part by season-ticket and television money, which has allowed Premiership clubs to cover their costs since players returned from furlough, while pay per view streaming has given a further revenue stream.

Indeed, while the top 12 have all been publicly circumspect about how big the take up has been on those, some have observed that their income from 'away fans' this season has actually held up very well given their matchday costs are reduced.

And when the lower leagues start on 17 October, around 70% of those clubs will be able to generate cash too thanks to an Artificial Intelligence system that films, records and produces live and on-demand footage backed by Hollywood producer - and Albion Rovers fan - Mark Millar.

Robot cameras will 'take football out of 19th century'

What happens next?

In the three weeks until the pause on test events is due to be revised, fans will still be absent.

That means two rounds of Premiership fixtures, Scotland's Euro 2020 play-off semi-final with Israel and Nations League game against Slovakia, and the opening match days of the League Cup, will all definitely be behind closed doors.

The lower-league season is scheduled to begin the weekend after the 13 October review date - but how soon after that will fans return?

"To put it bluntly, it will happen when it happens," wrote Elgin City chairman Graham Tatters in a message to fans, in which he assured them "everything is not doom and gloom".

"It is essential in the entertainment industry to have an audience and the lack of supporters in the ground could cause irreparable damage to our club and the community we serve, so we believe it is imperative we find a way forward to avoid this for much longer."

'Clubs should survive the season' - analysis

BBC Scotland sports news correspondent Chris McLaughlin

The cash is being burned up and the pain is very real but clubs should survive the season.

Some have budgeted for no fans until Christmas - others until the end of the season. But some chairmen claim they could go under within months if the turnstiles remain silent.

To that end, the governing bodies will be pushing for the same government funding that looks to be coming for those struggling in England.

There's no guarantee they'll get it or even if they do, that it'll be enough to keep everyone afloat.

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