Coronavirus likely to impact UK football

Out-Law News | 06 Mar 2020 | 10:38 am | 1 min. read

Cancelling the football season as a precaution against furthering the spread of coronavirus could lead to legal challenge and potentially delay next season's fixtures, the former chairman of AFC Bournemouth has warned.

Trevor Watkins, now a sports lawyer at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said that the prospect of the football season being cancelled to avert the risk posed by the virus, officially named Covid-19, is small at the moment.

However, he said that could change as government and health bodies anticipate the rate of infection to grow.

Football authorities in Italy, where infection rates are amongst the highest in the world, have already decided to schedule matches to be played behind-closed-doors until April. Everton’s chief financial officer, Sasha Ryazantsev, has reportedly said that such a scenario is "quite likely" in the coming weeks in England too.

The chief executive of the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL), Neil Doncaster, has warned of the financial consequences for clubs in Scotland should matches have to be postponed or played with no crowd in attendance.

"Whilst the current, clear advice is that matches should proceed as scheduled, we will obviously prepare for contingencies where matches might have to be played behind closed doors, or even be cancelled," Doncaster said, according to the BBC.

Watkins said: "Football, like other sports, has made clear they will be taking a lead from government on how to respond to the coronavirus situation. As the season draws to a close it is a pivotal time for all teams. The desire to prevent or delay the spread of the virus is having to be balanced with the likely financial and competition impact of any decision to play behind closed doors or indeed curtail a season. From a financial perspective, a behind-closed-doors approach will have more effect on lower league sides that rely more on gate income than Premier League teams. Even so, the knock on effect which may not be covered by insurance, could cause significant financial difficulties for some clubs."

"Deciding to curtail a season will be far more impactful. It is a bit like a game of musical chairs. Clubs would suddenly find their season frozen unexpectedly. It would create virus winners and losers rather than through a team’s results on the pitch. Short of agreeing to cancel the season and effectively replay it next year there may, however, be no alternative. It will likely, however, in that scenario create grounds for legal challenge and delay plans for the 2020-21 season," Watkins said.

"Like all businesses, sport is having to balance perceived threats to members of society with other factors. Like many things within football there is no easy solution and divided opinion as how to best proceed," he said.