“I come not to bury the EFL but to praise them”, as William Shakespeare would undoubtedly say if he was a fan of a Football League team in 2020. That’s right. I’m here to pat the EFL on the back and say ‘good job’ on this morning’s decision to suspend matches in the three divisions until at least 3rd April.
Sure, that might be a bit controversial. In the wake of the laughably poor attempts to enforce the so-called ‘fit and proper test’ for football club owners, and the inconsistent response to financial problems at a range of clubs – from Bury to Macclesfield to Bolton – the EFL’s standing with many supporters is not exactly high.
But I’m going out on a limb and say that I think they’ve handled the recent developments around Coronavirus pretty well under the circumstances. In short, I think that the decision to suspend matches was both timely and correct.
The decision was timely
Let’s start with timing. The EFL’s statement yesterday evening that it was business as usual, when it was clearly anything but, was a bit alarming. Then again, saying, “matches will continue to take place as normal while the guidance from the relevant authorities remains that there is no medical rationale to close or cancel sporting events at this time” was perfectly reasonable given that they were simply following government advice.
In the following 18 hours though, the situation changed significantly. First, the entire Arsenal squad was placed in isolation and the game against Brighton postponed on news that manager Mikel Arteta had tested positive for Coronavirus. Manchester City, Chelsea, Watford and Leicester then confirmed that they had at least one employee in self-isolation.
Next, with Italy, Holland, Spain, Portugal and France having already called a halt to their football seasons, UEFA put forthcoming Champions League and Europa League fixtures on hold.
Elsewhere, Formula One’s governing body, the FIA, called off the Australian Grand Prix and cancelled the subsequent races in Bahrain and Vietnam. Football teams get annoyed about a wasted coach trip up the M6, so think how an F1 team must feel having flown dozens of people and shipped tons of cars and equipment to the other side of the world, only to be told to turn round and go home. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?
In the US, the NBA, NFL and NHL have suspended basketball, football and ice hockey fixtures, while the MLB is delaying the start of the baseball season. Around the world, major golf, tennis, cycling and rugby events (including the Six Nations) are also on hold.
Overall then, the signs were pretty clear that the global sporting community and its regulatory bodies were moving in one direction. As all this was unfolding this morning, the EFL had to decide whether to change its position from the previous evening. Bearing in mind that the Premier League had yet to announce it’s decision on the future of its fixtures, it was good to see the lower leagues making the first move. The decision was also timely, as most teams and supporters would probably not have set off for Saturday’s fixtures.
But was it the right decision?
More fundamentally, was a three-week postponement of EFL fixtures the right decision? My answer would be unequivocally, ‘yes’.
People can, and will, argue until the end of time (somewhere around the middle of next week on current estimates) about whether the Coronavirus threat is serious enough to close stadia. I’m not a doctor, but resisting the fashion for shouting loudly on social media about something about which I’m not qualified to comment, I’m going to trust those with actual medical training. If they think it’s serious, and that stopping people from gathering in large numbers at sporting events could prevent unnecessary deaths, that’s good enough for me. Given how other governing bodies were reacting, the EFL would have looked reckless in the extreme if they had decided to go ahead with forthcoming fixtures.
With events being called off at all levels, it was vaguely unsettling this week to watch 65,000 Cheltenham Festival race goers crammed together, chugging beer and champagne like it was the last days of the Roman Empire, as the barbarians banged on the city gates and pestilence stalked its streets. Imagine the backlash against the organisers if we see an outbreak of the virus among large groups who went to Cheltenham – the media will slaughter them, and with some justification. So yes. The EFL would have been crazy to risk carrying on with business as usual.
Having made the decision that it was not safe to have thousands of spectators gathering in stadia this weekend, the EFL then faced the choice of stopping games altogether or playing them behind closed doors. Again, I would argue that they were correct to opt for the former course of action.
Playing with no fans would be financially ruinous
Playing the remaining games of the season in empty stadia would have been potentially disastrous for clubs, especially those in Leagues One and Two. The stark reality is that while the match day take in the Premier League is dwarfed by TV and sponsorship income, in the two bottom divisions it is half to two thirds of revenue. Given the parlous state of so many clubs’ finances, having to stump up the costs of playing games while being deprived of gate and other match day income could have been fatal. At least this way, there is a chance that clubs will be able to reap the financial benefits of the remaining matches.
They’re not out of the woods though. The government believes that we won’t see the peak of the Coronavirus outbreak until mid June, so it’s by no means certain that games will resume on the weekend of 4th April. The Peterborough owner was quoted today as saying that “the average League One and League Two club will need a loan of £300-400,000 to get through the crisis”, while the Luton Town CEO said “we are going to be dealing with a really difficult financial period.” What are the odds that, for struggling clubs like Macclesfield, this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?
Financial prudence is still key
All of which brings us full circle to Argyle. Against the background of current developments, the current owner’s focus on sustainability and resilience looks more prudent than ever. It’s the job of every business to make itself sustainable on an ongoing basis and strong enough to survive unexpected shocks.
When asked what could blow a government off course, former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously replied, “Events, dear boy. Events!” You could say the same about the many football clubs that sail so close to the financial winds that any significant shock would blow them onto the rocks. Coronavirus looks very much like an event of that nature.
US investment guru Warren Buffet put it another way. “It’s only when the tide goes out that you see who’s been swimming without a bathing costume.” We are lucky that at Argyle, we seem to have our Speedos firmly in place as the tide retreats.