Michael Pavitt

One of the biggest ongoing questions for sport centres around the return of spectators to stadiums and how this can be achieved safely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This is a particular issue for professional teams, whose finances are strained without ticket revenue coming through the turnstiles, but the situation seems to vary across the world.

With an eye on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics the approach taken by Japan has been an interesting one to follow.

From the outside, the Japanese authorities appear to have taken a structured approach to allowing fans to return to sporting arenas. 

Back in July I remember Tokyo 2020 talking up the return of spectators, when a 1,000-fan limit was placed on attendances at baseball and football matches in Japan. The limit was later increased to 5,000 and remained at that level amid a brief rise in coronavirus cases in the country.

A decision was taken last month to permit a maximum of 50 per cent of a venue's capacity to attend matches as the infection rate slowed once more.

The next step is for Yokohama Stadium hold a trial for three days later this month, which will see the 34,000-capacity venue around 80 per cent full. It has been suggested that the trial could even reach 100 per cent capacity on its final day.

Yokohama Stadium is expected to hold a trial featuring 80 per cent attendance ©Tokyo 2020
Yokohama Stadium is expected to hold a trial featuring 80 per cent attendance ©Tokyo 2020

The idea of a full crowd seems almost alien to me now, with professional sport in Europe having been played out behind closed doors for several months.

Of course, each country and region are at different stages of dealing with the pandemic and this will undoubtedly impact policy.

The Japanese Government’s relaxation may ultimately be a misstep, but it is fascinating to weigh up the vastly differing landscape.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has today announced new restrictions, which will see fans banned from attending matches across the top four Italian football leagues throughout the duration of winter. Clubs had only recently been permitted to allow 1,000 fans into venues. The decree comes amid concerns over a second wave across Europe, with several countries having been forced to tighten restrictions amid an upward trend in case numbers.

The topic has been a source of frustration in Britain, with the English Football League (EFL) today criticising the Government’s policy.

The EFL claimed there was a lack of roadmap towards fans returning, while highlighting the inconsistencies with theatres and cinemas being among the industries allowed audiences. A pilot project which saw 1,000 fans permitted to watch matches in stadiums was scrapped by the British Government last month as restrictions were increased in the country.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has prohibited fans attending matches today ©Getty Images
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has prohibited fans attending matches today ©Getty Images

"Our members, who contribute almost £500 million ($650 million/€550 million) annually to the Exchequer, has its core income stream of ticket sales turned off indefinitely without any indication of a roadmap that will allow the safe return of supporters to stadiums, despite other sectors being able to welcome people through their doors," the EFL said today.

"They are also continuing to meet their financial obligations in the absence of similar levels of support being afforded to other industries.

"The inconsistency is frustrating and perplexing."

Norwich City, who were in the pilot project, have confirmed they will hold live screenings of their next four league matches within their stadium on televisions. It followed the club welcoming 200 people to their Carrow Road stadium to watch a 2-1 win over Rotherham United on television.

This could lead to the bizarre scenario of upcoming home matches involving Wycombe Wanders and Millwall being shown to a limited number of fans on a screen, metres away from where the actual match is taking place.

Such a scenario already occurred at Bristol City, with some fans watching their home match against Swansea City yesterday from hospitality areas within the stadium.

There is sympathy to be had for clubs, who are losing valuable revenue and have insisted they can hold events in a safe, socially-distanced manner. Equally clubs have acknowledged the challenge Governments are facing in attempting to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Norwich will televise matches at their ground for select fans, with the action taking place just metres away ©Getty Images
Norwich will televise matches at their ground for select fans, with the action taking place just metres away ©Getty Images

I wonder whether sport is suffering from its visible place in our lives.

Unlike cinemas and theatres, sport is beamed onto our televisions, laptops and tablets on a daily basis. It is perhaps difficult to maintain a public health message and instruct people to abide by restrictions when there are crowds, no matter how small, attending sporting fixtures.

This was reflected by the concerns expressed prior to the UEFA Super Cup final last month, with Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder suggesting the event could lead to a spike in cases.

Personally, I view the total absence of spectators as bizarre, given there surely are multiple ways a limited number could return under supervised conditions. You would imagine the rules in place for fans to follow would be extremely stringent, and it is not as though stadiums are ill-equipped to identify anyone who has breached regulations.

Equally, large attendances, such as at the proposed trial in Japan, seem at odds with the messaging that has been given to the public worldwide throughout much of 2020.

I wonder whether the perception of fans returning is almost more of a challenge for sport to overcome than any return itself, given the visibility and scrutiny on the sector.

A further difficulty, when fans are permitted to return, could be convincing spectators themselves that the risk associated with attending is low.

The challenge is certainty a tough one.