Opportunity from uncertainty: inventing the future of football
By Tim Walters
22 April 2020
In the midst of our global pandemic, the football world finds itself entangled in a vast and intricate Gordian knot of scheduling logjams, contractual obligations, and financial relationships from which there appears to be no clear way to proceed. Understandably, the rush is to get football and the football economy started again, and the contours of the debate are largely defined by how and when to make that happen as quickly as possible, and how to complete this season before starting the next one.
There is, however, at least one relatively simple way out of this scheduling quagmire that isn’t being widely considered, but should be, since as well as offering an elegant albeit eccentric solution to the worsening fixture congestion wrought by the pandemic, it also helps football better equip itself for some of the crises it was already in, but was pretending it wasn’t.
First, we must reject outright some of the more inevitably lunatic ideas being currently floated by the footballing authorities and being given surprising weight by the sport’s commentators, schemes which exemplify the business side of sport’s relentless impulse to try to make the tail wag the dog of the game itself.
Football being played in empty stadiums makes as little sense as playing without a ball, unless the most important thing about a football match is the television rights it can accrue. Fans are not a dispensable part of our game.
Elsewhere, Major League Baseball is contemplating playing its entire season with quarantined players in empty stadiums in the Arizonan desert. Australia’s National Rugby League is considering a similar solution, by isolating all of their players at the Tangalooma Island Resort on Queensland’s Moreton Island.
It has been widely reported that the Premier League is considering something similar, quickly wrapping this season up in a cavernous, echoey Wembley with players and staff quarantined in a (hopefully) biosecure St. George’s Park, absent fans, and the potentially decisive home and away advantage they contain. The atmosphere problem might be replaced with cardboard cutouts or piped in roars and boos, like some kind of bizarro-world inverted esports tournament.
Setting aside the possible illegality and impracticality of confining hundreds of players and staff, or the morality of using scarce testing equipment and medical resources that could more usefully be deployed elsewhere, if you don’t immediately understand why football has to be played in front of its supporters, you probably can’t be convinced otherwise. But even if this folly were somehow allowed to happen, it still doesn’t solve the broader problem, which is the several hundred other fixtures we are meant to be playing in the shadow of the pandemic.
Finishing this season behind closed doors only makes sense if you are willing to contemplate playing next season that way too, and it’s for precisely that reason that the idea is gaining traction among the game’s administrators, and why it should be rejected outright and with extreme prejudice by its fans.
We must also absolutely dismiss the notion of cancelling the current season and starting afresh with the same teams in the same leagues in a few months, which betrays all principles of fairness and competition, since it negates the efforts of the teams so far, and rewards those that have done poorly (by sparing them probable relegation) at the expense of those that have done well (by denying them probable titles or promotion). However, it’s equally impossible to follow the Scottish model and cancel the rest of the season and base titles, promotion, relegation, and European qualification on current league standings, which also rewards some teams and punishes others unfairly and disregards their efforts.
Each option is a legal and ethical minefield, and neither is remotely compatible with principles of sporting fairness. Neither the freezing nor the voiding option addresses the more serious medium- and long-term challenges that lie ahead.
So the starting point of planning has to be that this season must be finished, and must be finished in front of its fans; the real problem is sorting out when this happens.
Unfortunately, whens these days have become worryingly unknown and unknowable—like much else, whens aren’t what they used to be. If we try to finish the season before regularly scheduled programming resumes, then time is running out, which is everyday more apparent in the sense of growing panic that is much evident amongst football’s decision makers who keep meeting, picking a date to restart, and planning to meet again a week later to divine a new, later, and soon-to-be amended date. Throw into this chaotic, anxiety-inducing mix a heady stew of interconnected television, marketing, player and staff contracts, and you can understand why all the worst and most conventional ideas are getting the most attention and defining the contours of the debate. People lean toward familiarity in abnormal times, but in this case status quo ideas cannot get us out of this mess. The ones on offer can only defer it or make it much worse.
Partly the current deadlock and paucity of solutions are a function of our collectively asking the wrong questions. For the Premier League, for instance, the serious question isn’t “when can we start playing again so as to finish the season?” The actual logistical problem isn’t finishing the season at all—it’s finishing it in time to start the next one. So let’s all just stop trying so hard to make that happen and accept that it isn’t going to, because there isn’t going to be a regular next season.
Let’s be clear-eyed about the question the Premier League should be asking – truly, the only one that matters: in the next year, will there be 48 weeks (the remainder of this season and the next one) in which public health experts will deem it to be safe and in the public interest for millions of fans to travel in large groups around the country into new communities and to funnel into confined areas with tens of thousands of other supporters to watch a football match? Whether we like it or not, the answer to this is a hard no. There won’t be. Not a chance in hell.
Crucially, there won’t be 38 weeks in the next year when this is true either, so rushing to start another season that we also won’t be able to finish makes no sense whatsoever, unless you are motivated by a financially desperate willingness to abandon the structure of existing leagues and tournaments and just pack as many lucrative games into the next year as possible.
So this is our actual predicament: what is to be done?
Try to imagine another world in which football’s owners and governance bodies were less craven, shambolic, and short-sighted in their thinking about the game, and one in which their self-interested fever dreams on the future of football did not frame the Overton window on this debate. What then?
If we were primarily motivated by a central concern with the sporting principles that have made the game what it is today, and by the commitment that football at its best is an important and positive part of the shared lives of our communities, then the idea we should be talking about, and arguing for, but aren’t, is this: the season we should be cancelling is the next one, not this one. We should shut down all football—and ideally all sport—over the summer, and resume the season when it is safe to do so, playing out the remaining games at a more leisurely pace over the next several months. The 2019-2020 season becomes the 2019-2021 season. This solution doesn’t resolve all of the problems the pandemic has brought to football, but it leads to considerably better outcomes than any of the other available alternatives, and provides a framework and some much-needed time within which to address them. Like all novel ideas, this might appear like a provocation rather than a reasonable proposal, and while it is that too, it also seems close to inevitable.
How will this help? Approaching consensus is that the likeliest pandemic scenario we will be dealing with in this reduced new world will involve rolling, regular waves of outbreaks for at least another year, with the virus resurging, possibly more ruthlessly, in the Autumn. Perhaps in as little as a few months, real life will start inching back to us, slowly and unevenly, in fits and starts. Isolation measures will be eased. Small, joyful gatherings will be allowed. Cafes and pubs will tentatively reopen their doors, thank God.
But this glorious restoration of our social world will feel glacially slow, will be localized, will exclude many, and will be stop-start. Regions will relax and contract and reinstate their isolation protocols, which will also likely shift as regards who these policies apply to, as well as where and when. The uninfected elderly Geordie might not be able to attend a match before a seemingly less demographically vulnerable Spurs fan, but maybe Mancunian supporters won’t be able to safely attend any away matches this year. Home matches in Bournemouth might be fine in October, but deadly in December. Like it or not, this is what the next year of our lives looks like, and we should be pragmatic enough to plan accordingly. We need to make the football schedule radically more flexible, to build in the slack we will need, and to shape our plans around the probable contours and trajectory of the pandemic.
One of the lessons we quickly learned from this deeply strange experience is that not all socializing is created equal. Curve flattening is accomplished by dramatically lowering attendance figures everywhere. You are hopefully reading this while quarantined with those humans you have chosen to live with, which is another way of saying the ones you are willing to risk dying to be with. Our exposure to danger is reduced in accordance with the amount of the company you keep, and how we behave.
Maybe you’ve chosen to live with the risk of a partner, or a family you made, or inherited. Tread beyond that narrow band of direct human contact, and risk scales up vertiginously, menacingly, both to you and to those you care about, and the social world will fill back up relative to tolerable exposure to menace. Perhaps libraries and restaurants first, then cinemas and classrooms and hotels and shopping malls. Taxis, then buses, then trains, then regional planes, then international jetliners, and so on.
Here’s a thought experiment, since you now have a bit of time on your hands. Make a list of all the places you planned to visit in the next year ordered by close proximity to greater numbers of other people: if you’re reading this, and unless you’re someone who frequents cruise ships, going to a football stadium is likely at the top of that list. Follow up question: how long before it will be a good idea to get on a cruise ship?
All those things on the top of your list—be they cruises, concerts, or the football— will be the last to return, since they will only really be safe when we have either all been vaccinated, or have acquired global herd immunity, or can be instantaneously tested on-site with total accuracy as a condition of admittance, none of which will happen by the end of the year.
So the unhappy reality is that, for a good while, we will no longer be sharing a world in which weekly mass transit and congregation events can be reasonably or reliably expected to be compatible with human safety, including your own. In fact, they are likely to be the opposite, and will continue to be so for many, many months. It has already been argued by infectious-disease specialists that the February 19th Atalanta-Valencia Champions League game was a “biological bomb” that played a causal role as a “distinctive multiplier” of the pandemic that currently ravages Spain and Italy.
If the season resumes prematurely, how inevitable is it that we will one day look back in horror at a fixture at which an inadvertent super-spreader was responsible for the infection or deaths of dozens or hundreds of fellow supporters, or their neighbours, or the NHS workers trying to save their lives? Who would really be responsible for that, or is willing to be?
Even at the time, the Liverpool-Atletico Madrid match played (remarkably) only a little over a month ago, on March 11th, seemed horribly ill-advised. In retrospect, it seems like madness. Spanish fans travelled en masse from a country that was four days away from complete lockdown to one that should have been locked down already. Already, the most physically generous and expressive manager in English football knew enough to incredulously spurn high-fives and handshakes, shouting “Put your hands away you fucking idiots” at the fans he loves. There were 52,267 fans there that night.
We have only recently commemorated the 31st anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, and the 96 fans that were killed through catastrophic governance and decision-making on the part of the authorities—it may already be the case that the last match played at Anfield led to the deaths of more Liverpool supporters than were killed in Sheffield on April 15th, 1989. Losing to Simeone’s disciplined and ruthless team might have been nowhere near the worst thing that happened in that stadium that night, not by a long stretch. Precisely how duty bound are we to be careful that football not kill those that support it? What unconventional measures must we be willing to consider to avoid more brutal deaths by asphyxiation in and around the stadium? How willing are we to support our team if doing so makes it impossible to really support the heroic work of the NHS and other essential workers?
This all seems grim, but here we are. There are, however, many reasons to celebrate for those of us who love and miss football should we follow this sensible path. If we show the foresight to cancel the 2020-2021 season, we’ll all still have plenty of football to watch for the next year. There are 92 Premier League fixtures left, 7 FA Cup matches, and 17 Champions League ties—that’s 116 games of elite men’s football involving British teams, which spread evenly throughout a year is plenty, and more than we have ever had the ability to watch on television until very recently. Need more? Also outstanding: 23 Europa League fixtures, 77 in the FPL Championship, 40 in the FA Women’s Super League, and 13 in the Women’s Champion’s League, which gives us another 153 matches. That’s 269, which already seems like more than enough to keep us occupied, and that doesn’t include International friendlies and qualifiers, domestic divisions below the Championship, or any of the many and varied pleasures of the football that remains to be played in Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Scotland, and so forth.
Notably, it’s also the business ends of all of these seasons and tournaments, full of title, promotion and relegations scraps, golden boots to be chased, records broken, trophies to be won and lost. We could stretch this drama out achingly, enjoy it more deeply. Assuming we didn’t want to, there would also be no need for us to sacrifice the 24-hour news cycles that have built up around the game, the ecosystems that feed off and sustain it—endless media coverage, column inches, podcast hours, gambling millions, and so forth.
Many other sports flourish with much less “content”. F1 fans get a paltry 21 races in a good year. Tennis lovers get 42 ATP tour events and only 4 grand slams. Each NFL team plays only 16 games in a regular season, and only eight of them at home. This perspective is hopefully doubly instructive. It demonstrates that we can fully enjoy a sport if there is less of it, perhaps even more so, and that there are plenty of other sports to watch if the many hundreds of football matches on offer don’t fill the strange void inside you that watching people play games well typically does.
Football wasn’t the only season cut short. The NBA and NHL were gearing up for the playoffs, and should also be persuaded to extend their current season over an additional year. If that seems too American for your tastes, you could try rugby, or flirt with a bit of cricket. Research suggests that the vast majority of football supporters follow at least one other sport already, which raises the question: just how much sport do we really need right now, or in general? And how much can we afford, in the broadest sense of that term?
So lest this proposal appear like pie-in-the-sky minimalist theoretical nonsense, let’s talk specifically about how the cancellation of the 2020-2021 season would free us from some of the constraints of the Gordian knot of football’s present crises, practically speaking. How can the game simultaneously create financial value without trading its inherent values? Yes, football is also, of course a business, and like many other businesses, it is struggling, badly. But it is a unique kind of business in several ways, and its uniqueness makes it better equipped than most to withstand these economic shocks if it is willing to be creative and agile.
Given their centrality to the economic structure of British football, broadcasting contracts have been the driving focus of much of the debate so far. But television contracts can be revised or extended, and doubly so in an economy that has been comprehensively upended by a protracted force majeure event. Neither party benefits from bankrupting the game, and TV will need football more than ever in the coming year in particular, given that nothing else but news is currently being produced. Premier League football is the golden goose, and SKY, BT Sport, Amazon Prime, and the BBC need it as much as it needs them.
Again, there are 92 games remaining, just under half the number currently broadcast live in the UK. If these games resume after the summer and are spread out more evenly over a much longer time frame to accommodate the ebbs and flows of the virus, perhaps also to provide a winter break, and with a longer rest before the European Championship next summer (assuming that occurs as planned), it’s not even necessary to have much fewer of them on domestic television each week. Those are the new terms and conditions which football can and should be negotiating for, and there is a compelling argument to be made that it’s the most lucrative plausible option.
While there will obviously be less footballing content for the broadcasters (and their advertisers), it’s surely not that hard to convince anyone right now that games played on television will have more viewers, or at least not many fewer. A midweek mid table clash between two unglamorous clubs you don’t support or care about would have held little appeal a month ago, but if played today it would draw cup final viewing numbers. This appetite isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. The unprecedented and abrupt reduction in the supply of football has led to a massively escalated demand in a fanbase that has recently grown accustomed to a historically anomalous glut. Supporters are positively crying out for it, and we’ll very happily take whatever we can get that isn’t watching archaic classics on youtube.
Renegotiating a protracted deal for the upcoming year that involves televising all remaining Premier League fixtures would also be better for less fashionable clubs and thus have a much-needed equalizing effect on a sport riven with worsening levels of inequality, increasing the whole game’s economic resilience. Football is an irregular leisure good, and scarcity should actually increase its value to television, rather than reduce it. Look at the Olympics, or the NFL. Or consider the fact that a game between the same two teams can have vastly different value in the same season depending on both its context and its rarity: the broadcast rights to show Arsenal play Chelsea fluctuates wildly depending on the prestige of the competition (Premier League trumps FA Cup trumps League Cup), but even more so on the stage of the competition, which is why compensation for an early round FA Cup or Champions League game between the exact same clubs is eclipsed by the value of those teams playing in the late stages of final of the same tournament. The fewer games there are, the more they are worth.
Extend that context of scarcity to all of the other uncompleted domestic leagues and tournaments, and the wealth and prestige derived from the spotlight of televised football can be redistributed more evenly to financially fortify the entirety of the sport against catastrophic disruption events like this, which will be coming with greater frequency and impact in our warming world. If handled thoughtfully, the year of this pandemic could be the best thing to ever happen to the women’s game, for instance, and could be that saviour of the FA cup we’ve always talked about.
Clubs are of course also employers, and like many other industries will require some form of bailing out for income lost primarily on ticket sales, even if television income can be stabilized for the haves and broadened out to benefit the have nots. Given the obscene wealth of the owners of the top teams—even without the impending injection of the petrodollars of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, the owners of Premier League teams alone already have a combined net worth of nearly $100 billion—and the economic precarity of the majority of their employees, this obviously seems distasteful.
But it is no more wrong than the state intervening to protect players and stadium workers from the endemic failures of late stage capitalism than it is to protect other working people employed by bosses with much, much more money than them. If in a time of crisis affluent club owners cannot be forced to share their wealth with the workers who produce it for them, then it is entirely reasonable to look to government to help these employees, and this is doubly true of smaller clubs, many of which aren’t the property of particularly wealthy people.
This is a system wide problem that football cannot solve all by itself, alas, although I’m hopeful we’ll start hearing more public discussions about placing some of these faltering industries into public hands, and fan ownership of football would be an excellent place to start. Arguably, using public money to save football clubs that are struggling is a considerately more legitimate exercise of the public purse, since the general public actually widely cares about these institutions and benefits from their existence, which is less clearly the case with many forms of private enterprise currently holding out their manicured hands for government relief.
We should be doing anything and everything we can to help all workers manage, and that includes those who work in football—suspending financial fair play guidelines, allowing owners to access debt to maintain payroll, and yes, allowing furloughing if need be. We can sharpen our guillotines—or, I guess, sharpen the tax code—to deal with extravagantly rich owners who exploit this crisis to further enrich themselves when the tectonic plates of the financial crisis stop shifting.
Because we have consented to allow natural disasters to victimize along class lines, football’s fanbase will feel the economic impact of the pandemic disproportionately. Given the myopic recent focus on contracts, player and staff wages, and the ethics of furloughing, little thought has been given to the recent spike in the impoverishment of working-class fans, who were already being slowly priced out of the game, and for whom the coming context of massive unemployment and recession or depression might provide a tipping point regarding their capacity to afford a ticket, let alone a season ticket. Many of those fans with the most rapacious desire for the return of football will find themselves even less able to afford the price of admittance, and a year with considerably fewer tickets to buy will increase the likelihood that when we return to a footballing normal we will not have left behind a swathe of the game’s most loyal and devoted fanbase, who are as much a part of the fabric of a club as the players on the field, and as valuable to it.
Setting aside the all too predictably hysterical and politicized discussion of the salaries of players, a year with a more relaxed schedule will benefit them in ways that will improve our game as a whole. Even before the pandemic, many were rightly complaining about the increasingly brutal physical and mental demands the sport was making on its players, whose bodies were being ground down by the status quo, which was in actuality a steady, relentless creep in the number of games being played without appropriate recovery time. Think back a few months to the famous interview following news of scheduling congestion over the holiday period, when Jurgen Klopp criticized the “crazy” toll being taken on top players who, given the proliferation of football fixtures, now have only two weeks off a year to recover from a physically gruelling job. He called for football administrators to “think about the players, and not about their wallet.” He was right then and he’s right now.
Again, there are silver linings to be found here. Aside from protecting players from injury (not to mention reducing their exposure to coronavirus, which absolutely is a risk if training is resumed too quickly), playing significantly fewer games for a year will improve their quality as well as their health. Players will be fitter, better drilled, more up for it. Coaches will have more time to prepare players for the particular challenges of specific fixtures.
Fewer games, all of which are nationally televised, will heighten the stakes and the drama of each. Cancelling next season will automatically build some desperately needed slack into a constipated fixture schedule so that when matches inevitably need to be postponed for health reasons, there will be a chance to carefully, tentatively, optimistically reschedule them. It would come as close as is humanly possible to ensuring that every game gets to be played, even if they need to be shuffled around to accommodate public safety concerns. But this way, the games would be likeliest to happen, and that is not true of the other proposals being floated. Getting to play matches that only a month ago might have felt irrelevant will feel like a gift, a privilege. We’ll all revel in it, together.
If none of this has convinced you to use the pandemic to change football’s ways, consider this: they were and are going to have to change anyway, we just lacked the willingness of confront that inevitability. The global crisis of the pandemic is subsumed within the greater existential threat of a global climate crisis, and just as we now know that we can’t congregate in the tens of thousands to watch a football match at the moment, we will soon have to take seriously the reality that millions of people cannot drive and fly around the country and the world each week to watch football matches either.
Our planet absolutely cannot handle football in its recent and unprecedented expansionist mode, so a massive reduction in the size of its carbon footprint to almost zero, almost immediately, has to happen anyway, so we should use this unexpected breathing space to think deeply and talk to each other about how to make that transition. A starting point for this conversation could be a radical but necessary move to spread every future season and tournament over two years once we complete the current season next summer, which would immediately halve football’s carbon footprint while keeping the familiar structure of the game intact. Or to formulate a way in which football could thrive within Kate Raworth’s model of Doughnut Economics.
Our thinking about the climate crisis has been limited by it’s misleading abstractness for many of us, whereas the current pandemic feels viscerally and urgently apparent in our daily lives. This is an increasingly suicidal albeit convenient delusion. One of the uncomfortable lessons of the global quarantine is that for all the terror and misery it has wrought, the pandemic and our response to it is saving more lives than it is taking, now and in the future, and by orders of magnitude. Stanford University Earth Systems Professor Marshall Burke’s recent analysis of reduced human activity under quarantine suggests diminished air pollution “likely has saved the lives of 4,000 kids under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China.”
In the two-month period he examined, “[Even] under these more conservative assumptions, the lives saved due to the pollution reductions are roughly 20x the number of lives that have been directly lost to the virus.” Our unplanned inactivity is causing the first significant, protracted global dip in carbon emissions in decades, and it would be a criminal abdication of our obligations to our species and its future to not make central this consideration in our planning for football’s return, and its longer-term future.
All of us who care about football now find ourselves together in a disorienting liminal space seldom experienced in our frantic sporting lives, but it is one in which we can all have a part to play in inventing the future of football. Football’s ruling class are predictably motivated by an unimaginative desire for a return to business as usual, as quickly as possible, and they are willing to contemplate almost anything to make that happen—hastily writing off the season in order to start the next one, restarting the footballing economy before it is absolutely safe to do so, or playing an obscene version of the game in hollow, empty stadiums. This is their muscle memory, their default setting. It was always thus.
We should promote the opposite, the continuation of this season and the cancellation of the next, because only this will allow for our safe enjoyment of the game under conditions that facilitate a better quality of football on the pitch, while advancing an imaginative vision of the sport that collectively plays a more positive and creative role in the fabric of our societies beyond the field of play. This is not a decision they should get to make, and we shouldn’t let them. In a locked-down world, ideas spread much faster than viruses, and we should be demanding this as widely and forcefully as possible, for every postponed league and tournament, in every sport, everywhere, right now.
For all the misery it has wrought, the pandemic is also a window of opportunity through which we must be audacious enough to fundamentally reshape the ideological coordinates within which “the football business” has come to be defined and understood, and to work toward a game that does much material good in the world, or at least much less harm. In our current vacuum of plausible alternatives this absolutely can be done, and done, in the words of the peerless footballing philosopher Socrates, while simultaneously “struggling for freedom, for respect for human beings, for equality, for ample and unrestricted discussions, for a professional democratization of unforeseen limits, and all of this while preserving the ludic, and the joyous, and the pleasurable nature of this activity.”
In times like these, agreeing to rationing and to sacrificing a little of the things we love but don’t need should feel like no great hardship if we are doing it for the people we care for, the club we belong to, and for the only planet we are ever going to have to live and play football on.
Dr. Tim Walters, who previously wrote a 10-point plan to revolutionise FIFA, works as a College Professor at Okanagan College in British Columbia, Canada. He writes about Slavoj Žižek, football, radical politics, and late-capitalism from a Marxist perspective. He is the author of a book-length study of the ideological function and revolutionary potential of the commanding heights of modern football — the Premier League, UEFA Champion’s League, and FIFA World Cup — from a Žižekian perspective. For his sins, he supports Middlesbrough FC. Tim can be reached at TWalters@okanagan.bc.ca