“”Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing.”– Jock Stein
Anybody who has watched professional football matches playing to a backdrop of empty seats will certainly agree with the sentiments of Jock Stein’s famous quote. Teams play with all the vigour and energy of a low-key training session. Bizarre results – like those famous losses suffered by Liverpool and Manchester United – look set to continue.
Players on the wrong side of a result seem content to pack it in without the chanting of fans to keep them going. Errors on the pitch go unpunished by howls of derision or anger. Goals heralded only by cheers from teammates appear almost without real value or consequence.
Football Needs Fans More than Most Sports
Out of all major international sports, football is devalued the most without packed stadiums. Sports like golf and Formula 1 can manage perfectly well without fans, and viewers watching on TV will scarcely notice the difference. Even NFL games don’t lose as much by the absence of supporters, due to the fact that the seats don’t crowd up against the sidelines as with football stadiums. Clever camera angles avoid the stands while ‘fake’ crowd noise is pumped into the stadium to provide an atmosphere of sorts.
Besides, football fans have always been more passionate than NFL day-trippers or Six Nations supporters on a weekend jolly. Just take a moment to imagine the Kop on a big European night; Galatasaray with their ‘Welcome to Hell’; fireworks and drums at Boca Juniors; or Celtic Park during an Old Firm Derby.
Now imagine the same teams playing in front of banks of empty seats.
“Let Fans In” Campaign Gathers Momentum
Besides the atmosphere generated by thousands of tribal supporters, there are pressing financial concerns posed by the absence of gate money. While top-tier teams will get by on sponsorship and TV revenues, life is a lot tougher down the divisions. Macclesfield Town are just one glaring example: 146 years of history, only to be cruelly felled by debts exacerbated by the Covid pandemic.
If the current state of affairs continues for much longer, they won’t be the last club to fold.
For these reasons, the ‘LetFansIn’ hashtag is trending across Twitter, with clubs up and down the land supporting the campaign to allow fans back into stadiums.
The case for allowing sports fans to return to grounds in the UK is bolstered by the position the Johnson government has taken on other forms of entertainment. Theatres and cinemas have partially reopened, and examples such as the 2,500 allowed to attend the Royal Albert Hall (normal capacity 5,272) infuriate fans who are locked out of much larger – and outdoor – venues.
Over in the U.S. fans have been allowed to attend NFL games at some grounds since the beginning of the season. The Houston Texans allow up to 13,000 fans, the Kansas City Chiefs up to 16,000, while the Dallas Cowboys permit in excess of 20,000 fans to attend home games. While the United States has hardly been a model of how to handle the pandemic, NFL games don’t seem to have contributed to any localised outbreaks. Couldn’t British football follow suit? The example of Brighton’s pilot match with fans in the stadium suggests that it could.
It is perfectly natural to adopt a cautious approach when dealing with something so extraordinary as a global pandemic. However, other factors must be taken into account. It will be a sad state of affairs if more football clubs are taken away from their communities, so let’s hope that a solution can be found sooner rather than later.