“The life and soul of communities”. This is the phrase Boris Johnson used to describe sports teams in his announcement to the House of Commons on Tuesday 22nd September – and he is certainly right. The planned return of spectators to sporting events on 1st October has now been put on hold for an estimated six months due to the impending second wave of the pandemic. Although negatively impacting all areas of the sporting world, this will be devastating for lower league football clubs, and we have already seen some clubs pleading to the Government to help weather the coming storm. In this post, I am going to look at what the Prime Minister’s announcement means for ‘non-league football clubs’, and how this presents an opportunity for law firms.
When people think of football, we think of a sport characterized by overly paid divas who have life easier than the rest. However, this is certainly not the case. Outside of the top four professional leagues – Premier League, Championship, League One and League Two – exists a community comprised of almost 2000 clubs playing in the National Football League, colloquially called ‘the non-leagues’. In non-league football, players are usually only paid when they play but are deemed ‘semi-professional’ as opposed to the full-time payers at the top of the pyramid. Most staff and players in these clubs are part-time and have other jobs to supplement their income.
The delayed return of fans
The money involved in these clubs is but a drop in the ocean when compared to the big leagues. Non-league clubs rely on fans to pay their players and keep the club afloat. Whilst Premier League and Championship clubs began to play their games behind closed doors to finish the 2019/20 football season, the non-leagues and even professional Leagues One and Two were unable to complete the season due to the financial strain of not having fans. In fact, some clubs have already folded. FC Oswestry Town in the North West Counties Football League First Division – the tenth tier of English football – went straight into administration and no longer cease to be a club. Even the historic club Macclesfield Town was wound up in Court after debts mounted up to £500,000.
To add to the flames, someprofessional clubs are also struggling to fight the economic climate the pandemic has created. First, let’s look at the very top of the football pyramid. Liverpool FC recently bought Thiago Alcantara from FC Bayern Munich for a fee estimated to be around £26 million. However, the club’s owners were forced to negotiate an atypical method of payment. Liverpool will pay £5 million a year over the course of Thiago’s 4-year contract (with the rest of the fee being performance related). Of course, this is still huge money. But it is surprising that perhaps the best club in Europe can no longer afford to pay a lump sum of £26 million – a fee that seems small given the climate of the transfer market in recent years.
Lower down the professional pyramid, League One and Two clubs are suffering even more. Alex Rodman, a midfielder at Bristol Rovers (League One) stated that many players in Leagues one and Two live “paycheque to paycheque”. If clubs at this level cannot afford to pay their players, then professional football could be heading in a disastrous direction. It is predicted that there will be a void in the next few transfer markets, as professional clubs look to their academies and the non-leagues for new recruits to keep their wage bills down. The solution to the impending football disaster is to allow the phased return of fans, but this begs the question of what is more important… public health or the economy?
In the words of Fleetwood Town manager Joey Barton, “without fans, we won’t have football”.
What does this mean for law firms?
As is already clear, law firms are adjusting to reduce the impact of the virus. We have seen lawyer salaries frozen, 4-day weeks, working from home and the delay of training contracts. However, from an operational perspective, opportunities are presenting themselves. For firms in the sports industry with a presence in employment and restructuring practices, it is time to make themselves known to lower league football teams. If clubs are forced into administration or players are not paid, the Courts will be extremely busy handling such issues.
To summarise, the future of lower league football does not look positive unless fans are allowed back into stadiums. It is likely that some clubs will be unable to pay their players, resulting in legal battles and clubs entering administration. Let us know what you think. Should fans be allowed back into stadiums? Or must we fight off the virus first?