Footballers have choices over coronavirus contracts

Out-Law Analysis | 29 Jun 2020 | 12:22 pm | 3 min. read

Professional footballers who are out-of-contract at English clubs this summer face potentially career-defining choices, with many being offered the opportunity to extend their stay at their current clubs on a short-term basis.

Most fixed-term employment contracts that footballers sign expire at the end of June in a particular year, with that date ordinarily falling well after the final whistle has blown on the domestic football season.

This year the situation is different. The coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdown measures imposed by the UK government caused the suspension of the football season across the UK and most European countries in March, with a number of rounds of league fixtures and play-off matches still to be completed.

In England, Premier League officials moved quickly to take advantage of the easing of lockdown measures to put measures in place that enabled the league season to recommence earlier this month, albeit without supporters present in the stadiums, with remaining games packed into a tight schedule until late July. Similar arrangements have been put in place for the completion of the Championship fixture list. The advent of summer league football in the men's game in England will delay the start date for the forthcoming 2020/21 season.

To address the fixture backlog and allow them to complete outstanding matches, many clubs are taking up the opportunity to offer players whose contracts expire at the end of June short-term Covid-19 contract extensions. The clubs cannot unilaterally require players to sign these contracts, and players must evaluate what is right for them.

On the one hand, players that agree to a contract extension will continue to get paid at a time when many footballers look set to be offloaded by clubs as they address the financial challenges brought about by the coronavirus crisis. The players will also have the remaining weeks of the season to change the minds of managers who were set to let them leave the club at the end of June, or impress scouts of other clubs ahead of the new season. In addition, signing short-term contracts is likely to appease football fans who want their clubs to finish the season with a full strength squad and is likely to improve the player's reputation and the goodwill towards them in the game.

However, set against those benefits and opportunities is the risk of picking up injury by continuing to train and play for current clubs until the conclusion of this season – in Germany, where footballers returned to action in May following the coronavirus-related suspension, a spike in soft-tissue injuries was reported in players of Bundesliga clubs following the resumption of competitive action, as had been predicted by some sports scientists.

An injury to players can impact their career prospects and employment opportunities at the best of times, but particularly when they are out-of-contract or soon to be without a club when it can be easy for clubs recruiting for new talent to overlook them. Yet, rejecting short-term extensions brings with it a public relations risk for the player, with potential backlash from fans if they believe the player's departure diminishes their team's chances in finishing the season strongly. It also reduces their visibility in front of talent scouts and could limit future employment prospects.

Each player must make decisions that they feel is right for them. Some out-of-contract players will be of a calibre that means they will find readily find new clubs if they decline the offer of short-term extensions.

However, in most cases it is likely to be in players' best interests to accept the offer of short-term Covid-19 extensions to their expiring existing contracts.

Players need to be aware of the broader environment football finds itself in currently. The coronavirus crisis is likely to have a lasting impact on the finances of professional football clubs in the UK, with restrictions on supporters attending matches expected to continue in the months ahead, and potentially lasting into 2021. The wider impact of the pandemic on the UK economy and jobs could also lead to a reduction in the sale of season tickets, merchandise and club revenue generally in the forthcoming year and beyond.

These challenges are likely to force clubs to reign in their spending on players. Many could operate with reduced squad sizes, and this could further result in a recalibration of the financial expectations of players and agents.

In this environment, the short-term extension to their expiring contracts should therefore be seen by most players as an opportunity to impress on the pitch and win longer term contracts with those clubs or new employment with others.

Clubs whose players reject the offer of short-term extensions are more likely than ever, with the financial challenges they face, to give youth academy graduates the opportunity to fill positions vacated in the squad by more senior departing players. The crisis will therefore provide a new generation of talent with more opportunities to flourish than might have been the case.

Co-authored by Rubymarie Rice, also of Pinsent Masons.