The question that follows on from whether this season can be finished and how to resolve the league tables is what do we do with next season?
Any discussion over what to do with next season has to be caveated with there being two significant unknown factors at this point in time. The first is that we don’t know when it will be safe to play football again, even if behind closed doors. The second, unfortunately, is that the ongoing situation could reduce the number of clubs competing in the Football League next season.
That is because the longer it takes to resume football, the fewer football clubs there are going to be around.
While ending this current season allows some certainty for clubs to begin to build their budgets for next year around, there is going to be a significant reduction in revenue as a result of either having to play football behind closed doors for a significant period of time or having to contract next season into the window of time between when it’s safe to play and the end of May.
The clubs that are going to be worst-affected by the reduced revenue that next season will bring in fall into three main categories.
The first is the clubs that are already in financial peril.
The second category are clubs who have a significant proportion of their current squad tied to expensive contracts beyond 30th June. This is an issue because those contracts were signed on an assumption that the club’s income would stay around the same level over the agreed duration. Unless they can get those players to agree to pay reductions, a lot of clubs are going to find they can no longer fulfill those contracts.
Finally, the third category are clubs who are reliant on a benefactor whose main business interests have been affected by the Coronavirus.
Just how many clubs those three categories entail isn’t currently clear. Just what impact those financial issues would have on those clubs isn’t clear either – it could mean going out of business, it could mean having to significantly trim their squads. Furthermore, there will be clubs who will significantly benefit from the crises suffered by others.
Getting back onto the question of what to do with next season, a further challenge will be the continuing impact on life of the Coronavirus while we await a vaccine. With clubs unable to keep players isolated for the entirety of a season, it is likely that fixtures will be affected by players testing positive throughout the campaign. In addition, if there are further lockdowns, every league will have to cope with intermittently being put on pause.
The best way to reduce the impact of this would be to reduce the number of games that have to be played. However, any benefit of fewer fixtures on the ability to actually complete a season is counteracted by the negative impact on clubs’ finances that having fewer games to sell tickets for (even if only to stream). Unfortunately, it is a situation clubs will be forced into by the realities of this virus.
Leagues are clearly going to have to be creative and flexible in adapting to a likely truncated and intermittent next season. The easiest solution would be to only attempt a season where each team plays each other once. While this will lead to some teams having had better fixture lists than others, it at least avoids the turmoil of fiddling around with the make-up of divisions.
If the authorities are feeling more radical, the idea of regionalising at least some of the Football League divisions appears to have some support. This would reduce the travelling costs of the smaller clubs, which could potentially make a difference in keeping afloat in these troubled times. Just how much of an impact it would make, I’m not in a position to know.
An even more radical idea could be to temporarily divide the professional game into much smaller divisions – say, five leagues of 16 and one of 12 – which could then be rebalanced based on their standings once there is an opportunity to play return to full league seasons. However, that could well lead the game in this country down a pathway to a ring-fenced top division, or at least one that would be incredibly difficult for smaller clubs to get into.
What is clear already is that the economic and social impact of the pandemic is likely to have a more profound impact on English football than simply disrupting this current campaign. There is a world of possibilities over what next season, and the seasons to come, could look like. There is an opportunity to completely reform the game for the better, or allow an opportunistic set of elite clubs to tilt the balance of the game even further in their favour.
With the cup competitions unlikely to be played next season, there is already a battleground through which the top clubs can reduce the amount of money redistributed down through the divisions if they were then to push for an end to the League Cup and FA Cup replays. If that were to happen, those in charge would have to make sure they were balanced out by a better redistribution of Premier League money throughout the divisions.
It is the divisions below the professional game that are arguably most at threat from both the lockdown and any potential reforms. It is simply not possible for non-league clubs to play football without crowds, this could see clubs having to miss an entire season of football. If that is coupled with reduced funding from the top-level, we could be losing several tiers to the football pyramid.
To avoid ending this series on a negative note, it is important to keep in mind that there will be a point where we get through this and you’ll be taking your seat for that first game of football back. While aspects of the Coronavirus have put the importance of football into perspective, that moment of returning will only be an important marker of a return to reality.
Let’s hope that if there are opportunities for reform in the game, it will be for the better. A reduction in reckless spending, ticket-price gouging and tribalism would be more than welcome, allowing fans, players and clubs to bring themselves much closer together than currently.