The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest crisis professional football has ever faced. The uncertainty about whether leagues will be able to finish the 2019-20 season is just the start of it; beyond that, football won’t return to normal for a long time to come.
“Full stadiums will only be seen again when we are safe, and that is when we have a vaccine,” says Sandra Zampa, undersecretary at Italy‘s health ministry. A vaccine is generally reckoned to be about 18 months away from being widely available. That means next season might be played behind closed doors, if at all.
Meanwhile, many fans who have lost their jobs will cancel their pay-TV subscriptions and season tickets; companies in crisis will give up their shirt sponsorships and VIP boxes; some owners will want to exit football after losing fortunes in their other businesses. Here I’ve tried to sketch the outlook for club survival and the transfer market.
Will clubs vanish?
Some teams as big as Schalke and Burnley are under threat of bankruptcy. Crucially, though, there’s a big difference between a club going bankrupt and actually keeling over, never to play again. Many clubs will go bankrupt during the pandemic — seven-time Slovak champions MSK Zilina and Lokeren in Belgium already have — but that doesn’t mean these clubs will disappear. Whereas bankruptcy is commonplace in football, disappearance is almost unheard of.
Throughout the game’s history, most clubs have lost money. Untold numbers, almost all of them small clubs, have declared bankruptcy. There were 35 insolvencies in the top four English divisions just between 2003 and 2014, according to Stefan Szymanski, economics professor at the University of Michigan and my co-author on “Soccernomics.” As in every previous crisis, small clubs are most at risk this time, especially as they depend heavily on matchday revenue (tickets, concessions, merchandise, etc.) rather than television income. If football resumes behind closed doors, big clubs will make billions from TV. But in the lower divisions, spectator income matters most, and it will probably be the last thing to recover once we start emerging from lockdowns.
Yet clubs almost always survive bankruptcy. Sometimes they’re bailed out by local government or bought by a new owner. English clubs often use a trick called “phoenixing” — allow the company that owned the club to go bankrupt, then new owners create a new company and put the club in it. That way, the club rises like a phoenix from the ashes.
There was mourning in England when Bury went insolvent and disappeared last year. But far more common was the experience of their neighbours Bolton: After they entered administration, their assets were moved to a new company and they played merrily on. Even Bury might yet return to life, like almost all English clubs that once disappeared, including Aldershot Town and Accrington Stanley. The last English professional club to vanish forever was Wigan Borough in 1931, and even then, its successor, Wigan Athletic, was founded the following year.
All the country’s other clubs survived the Great Depression, the Second World War, recessions, corrupt chairmen, appalling managers and the economic crisis of 2008. They’ll survive the coronavirus too.
Who can save at-risk clubs?
Many owners, especially those in the hotel, travel and restaurant businesses, will have lost money and might be unwilling or unable to bail out their clubs. But in countries such as England and Italy that allow almost anyone to own clubs, there will be new buyers. After all, this is probably the best time ever to pick up a club cheaply. The takeover of Newcastle by Saudi Arabia‘s Public Investment Fund for £300 million will likely prove the first of many such moves during this crisis.
ESPN reported on Monday that a group of global financiers, including a big U.S. company, is offering English football a lifeline worth more than £1 billion. The group would either get interest payments from clubs or take equity stakes in them. Clearly, these financiers are confident the game will recover.
In countries such as Germany and France, local governments will help rescue clubs. But everywhere across the sport, the main saviours will be players. They’re already being pressured into taking pay cuts in order to keep clubs afloat. Footballers aren’t the richest people in society, but they are the most visibly rich. At a time when millions of people are losing their jobs, clubs will try to publicly shame players who insist on being paid their salaries in full. Szymanski proposes offering players a share of football’s future income: Clubs would defer today’s salaries and pay them (in part, at least) in years to come once the game has recovered.
Richer clubs also will come under pressure to subsidise poorer ones. In Germany, the clubs qualified for the Champions League — Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen — have already promised millions to stricken rivals.
Will the transfer market melt down?
Near-bankrupt clubs will be forced to sell their best players at knockdown prices, a clear opportunity for the few clubs with cash in hand to benefit. Think of Ajax or Chelsea, whose transfer ban last summer now looks like a blessing: The latter has been left with money to spend just as the price of footballers collapses. The saying in recessions is “Cash is king,” because anyone with money in their pockets can buy assets cheaply.
Another recession mantra is “Flight to quality” — that is, when funds are scarce, people tend to spend them on reliable assets rather than risky ones. In football, a risky asset means a gifted player who is an irregular, inconsistent performer. Clubs will only splash out such players during good times. Barcelona bought Ousmane Dembele for €105 million in 2017. Now they’re reportedly struggling to sell him for half that amount.
Sid Lowe says no fans in La Liga stadiums until 2021 would seriously impact the summer transfer window.
Another twist will be that many moves this summer happen without money changing hands: Clubs won’t want to sell at bargain-basement prices unless they have to, while most clubs can’t afford to buy. Barcelona’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, predicts more swap deals. (There’s one that might involve his club too: The only way Barca will be able to get Neymar is by offering Paris Saint-Germain several stars in return, as the Spanish giants don’t have the €200 million or so that PSG wants.)
There also will be more loans: A solvent club takes a player’s expensive salary off a struggling club’s books, with an eye to buying him next summer once the football economy has reflated.
Any club with enough money to weather this crisis will aim to avoid selling prize assets until 2021, when prices should have rebounded. Before the pandemic, the biggest transfer of this summer was expected to be Kylian Mbappe’s move to Real Madrid. Now Paris plan to hang on to him for another year.
Many players at the lower end of the game will drop out of football altogether. Relatively well-paid journeymen whose contracts expire this summer are particularly at risk. When it comes to players below the top European leagues, few of them will have made enough to retire. These men might join the long lines of the unemployed, along with people who worked in club shops and marketing departments or who sold burgers outside the ground on matchdays.
How will football emerge from this?
Professional football will beat the coronavirus. Full recovery might take a while — who knows when it will be safe for 60,000 people to gather in a stadium again? — but all clubs will probably still exist three years from now.
Happily, football doesn’t need much money to survive, and the sport entered the pandemic on an all-time high. European football clubs’ total revenues for the 2017-18 season were €28.4 billion, according to estimates by the business advisory firm Deloitte. Last year, the figure was probably higher again.
Let’s imagine that the pandemic has a brutal long-term effect on the industry, arguably halving its revenues. That drop would only reduce them to around the level of 2008-09, when revenues were €15.7 billion (again according to Deloitte). Clubs coped then, and they coped even in the decades before pay TV arrived to supercharge their finances. All that clubs need to do to survive is to live more or less within their means. Since their biggest expenditure is salaries, this means players will take a pay cut.
There are worse things happening in the world these days.