Coronavirus: The key questions answered about sport’s £700m ‘hole


Ben Stokes tells 5 Live Breakfast he would be happy to play cricket behind closed doors

The coronavirus pandemic could cost three major sports almost £700m in the UK.

With more than 29,400 coronavirus-related deaths in the UK, live sport understandably remains on hold.

Leading figures from cricket, football and rugby union spoke of the potential impact of that as they appeared in front of the government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee on Tuesday.

What did we learn? And what does it mean for sport in this country?

BBC Sport’s Simon Stone, Chris Jones and Stephan Shemilt take a look.

Simon Stone, BBC Sport football reporter

The Premier League is hopeful of restarting on 8 June. No date has been given for the EFL, but chairman Rick Parry said on Tuesday the season must be concluded by July 31. He said clubs face a “£200m hole” by September.

When might the EFL return?

In theory it would be looking to start at the same time as the Premier League. But there are major hurdles to overcome.

In addressing the issue of top-flight clubs potentially playing matches on neutral grounds, Parry told the DCMS hearing the same rules do not apply for his clubs in terms of the threat of supporters turning up to stadiums.

At lower levels, this might be true. But amid the debate about Liverpool fans wanting to be at Anfield on the day the club end their 30-year wait for the title, few have mentioned another of the country’s best-supported teams, Leeds United, are on the brink of returning to the Premier League after a 17-year wait.

Would West Yorkshire Police be happy to sanction a game at Elland Road under such circumstances? And if the answer is no, does that mean all Championship matches need to be moved?

How feasible is it for the season to finish by 31 July?

It could happen. But, as Parry says, the EFL needs to work backwards on this.

It has previously said it would take 56 days to complete the season, including play-offs. At those timescales, it would mean starting on 6 June at the latest.

That would seem highly unlikely given the government is not going to announce its next steps until Sunday.

Parry’s comments made it appear increasingly likely Leagues One and Two will end with no further matches but the Championship continuing until there is greater clarity over whether the Premier League’s attempts to restart the season are successful.

What happens if the season doesn’t finish by the end of July?

Even by finishing the season in July, there is a minefield to be worked through around contracts that expire at the end of June.

Parry estimates there are 1,400 EFL players out of contract this summer and ‘the train is coming down the tunnel very quickly’.

Players traditionally receive an additional severance payment in July if they have not found a new club.

The clubs think that payment means their players are committed to another month. The Professional Footballers’ Association has indicated an alternative view and that players need an additional contract if they are to play beyond 30 June.

What is the realistic outlook for EFL clubs?

The initial outlook is grim. As Parry said, there is little point in clubs at lower levels playing matches behind closed doors as that is where most of their income is derived from.

There is an idea clubs in League One and Two could be mothballed. But that overlooks the fact stadiums still need to be maintained and utility bills need to be paid.

No-one can say for certain, given the precarious nature of finances in those leagues, that there will not be casualties.

However, the hope is a greater willingness will exist among member clubs to live within their means.

That will not address the enormous gulf that exists between the money generated by the Premier League and the Championship but at least it would get everyone looking in the right direction.

Workers prepare a drive-through coronavirus testing centre for NHS staff at England’s Twickenham stadium

Chris Jones, BBC rugby union correspondent

The Rugby Football Union will be hit with revenue losses of £107m if the 2020 autumn internationals are cancelled because of coronavirus, chief executive Bill Sweeney said on Tuesday.

When can/will rugby restart? The Six Nations was one of the first big events to be postponed – will the remaining matches be played this year?

When it can restart, it will.

While the fate of Premiership clubs was strangely not covered in the DCMS hearing, their futures are of more immediate concern than that of the RFU, which has until the autumn before any major matches are scheduled.

The Premiership season has nine rounds remaining, and the clubs – like their football counterparts – are committed to completing the campaign if possible. This would have to be behind closed doors initially, because that would at least result in some cash flow from TV and sponsorship.

Whether that is going to be possible is another matter entirely.

What is the knock-on effect for next year’s calendar and whether fans can return to watch live rugby?

This is a key question.

If this season can’t be completed until, say, September, would it be more sensible to call it now and instead focus on having a 2020-2021 campaign which starts on time?

If the current season bleeds into the next one, we are faced with two seasons compromised.

As well as the financial element, clubs may say there is sporting integrity at stake; I would argue there is no disgrace calling a season off because of a pandemic, while this season was compromised long ago by the Saracens scandal.

What about the safety aspect? Such a close contact sport will have to have even tougher restrictions than other sports.

This is a dilemma facing rugby, especially at the elite end; that balance between returning to play as soon as possible, and the physical and contact essence of the sport.

Social distancing in training would barely work – and unlike in football the ball is constantly handled.

Mass testing on a regular basis is one solution, but this would be costly given clubs don’t want to take resources away from the NHS.

There is no easy solution.

What is the long-term damage to the sport – from grassroots up?

The extent of the damage will depend on the progression of the virus, and if and when rugby union gets the governmental approval needed to restart.

Games in the summer, albeit without crowds, could keep Premiership and Pro 14 clubs afloat; but no cash flow for another few months would be likely to send some to the wall.

Even the better-run clubs, I’m told, only have money in reserve to last until the end of 2020.

As for the RFU and other home unions, a lot will depend on whether the November internationals can go ahead.

The RFU’s biggest strength – owning its stadium and regularly selling 82,000 tickets – has now become its biggest weakness as it relies on Twickenham matches for 85% of its revenue. That in turn is pumped back into the community game, so clubs at the grassroots are reliant on internationals taking place.

Many grassroots clubs have relatively low overheads so have been able to survive so far, but clubs that pay their players without receiving much central revenue – for example those in the Championship – have already had to make major changes to their operation and will need to go semi-pro or fully amateur.

A host of England players including Joe Root, Heather Knight, Ben Stokes and Anya Shrubsole were set to play in the inaugural season of The Hundred, which was postponed last week

Stephan Shemilt, BBC Sport cricket reporter

The impact of coronavirus could cost the England and Wales Cricket Board £380m, its chief executive Tom Harrison said on Tuesday.

When might we see live cricket again?

There will be no cricket in England and Wales until at least 1 July. The shutdown has meant the postponement of England’s Test series again West Indies, originally scheduled for June.

At the weekend, the ECB said it had held “positive discussions” with Cricket West Indies over rescheduling the series, with a proposed date for the first Test thought to be 8 July.

However, that depends on government guidance not only for the safe staging of a match, but also West Indies actually being allowed to travel.

In his evidence to the DCMS select committee, Harrison said some “significant lead times” would be required to be ready to stage international cricket.

He also said a fast bowler might need “six or seven weeks” from being in lockdown to being fit enough to play in a Test. For an 8 July start, that would require being allowed to train in two weeks’ time.

What would any cricket that is played look like?

Almost certainly without fans. Indeed, Harrison has previously stated the ECB is becoming comfortable with the idea that crowds will not be in attendance this summer.

The bigger question is quite how far the authorities might have to go to ensure the safety of the players, officials and anyone else who may need to be at a match.

There has been talk of ‘bio-secure’ environments, which would essentially mean anyone involved would be isolated for a period around a match, perhaps at a ground that has a hotel on site.

Discussions with Cricket West Indies have even included the possibility of the tourists being kept in isolation for 14 days on arrival in the UK.

Although it seems far-fetched, it does seem possible to implement these conditions for an international series – men or women – where only two teams are involved.

However, if it would also have to extend to the domestic game, there is a real possibility that we would see no county cricket at all this summer, simply because of the logistical difficulty.

Could cricket cope with the losses mentioned and what impact would they have?

In the ECB’s own words, cricket is in danger.

The numbers Harrison detailed on Tuesday – a £100m loss regardless and £380m if the entire season is cancelled – are massive.

It is why the ECB will go to great lengths to ensure there is some cricket provided to broadcasters this summer, with Harrison explaining three-quarters of the game’s revenue comes from Sky.

When asked if all 18 counties will survive the coronavirus crisis, Harrison conceded it will be “a difficult one”.

“We will have to a good look at our cost base,” he said. “It is one that cricket has needed to address for some time. How can we do we create 18 sustainable and viable businesses once we have cut our cloth accordingly?”

The ECB has already pledged £61m to counties and recreational clubs, with the game’s grassroots facing up to the financial challenge of a potentially lost summer.

The last line of a statement released on Tuesday evening – when the ECB said it hoped to receive government “guidance and support” – hinted at one way the game can survive.

How might the cricket calendar look later this year/next year?


For example, the final of the World Test Championship is due to be played in England early next summer.

England have already had a series against Sri Lanka postponed and they are battling to keep the matches against West Indies and Pakistan. If the latter two fall, it is hard to see how the Test Championship is completed on time.

If they manage to play the Windies and Pakistan, then the Sri Lanka series could be rescheduled, with some reports suggesting it has been added to a forthcoming winter that already includes a Test series in India.

There is also a men’s T20 World Cup scheduled for Australia in the autumn, with the International Cricket Council looking at all options for holding it on time, or postponing. If it is pushed back into 2021, it crashes into a year that has another T20 World Cup and a women’s 50-over World Cup in the calendar.

Not only that, but 2021 will see the delayed launch of The Hundred, a high-profile visit of India to England, and men’s and women’s Ashes series in Australia.


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