Iain McMenemy: Delayed return of fans a hammer blow for all clubs

With new Covid restrictions halting trials of supporters at games, Scottish football faces yet more uncertainty

Thursday, 24th September 2020, 7:30 am
Stenhousemuir had hoped to welcome in a limited number of fans once the season starts but now face many months without crowds. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS
Stenhousemuir had hoped to welcome in a limited number of fans once the season starts but now face many months without crowds. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS

It’s been another week of despair for Scottish football. Despite making good progress in managing the return to play for clubs at all levels, we found out on Tuesday that new restrictions were being imposed on society, together with a pause in the trials of fans at football games.

This news struck like a hammer blow to clubs at all levels of the game. It doesn’t matter if it’s 15,000 fans at Hibs, or 600 at Stenhousemuir, the financial impact, relatively speaking, is the same.

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Clubs will find it difficult to complete a season with this massive loss of income. Once again, Scottish football faces significant uncertainty.

South of the border, the Prime Minster gave a clear indication that the current restrictions are most likely to be in place for the next six months, which obviously mirrors the normal seasonal flu period.

There is little to give us hope that things could be different in Scotland. Our First Minister indicated that she intends to maintain the current three weekly review cycle, but there would need to be significant progress for positive changes to be considered.

This leaves Scottish clubs at all levels of the game in a precarious position. So much of the income in Scottish football comes through the gate. This is not only in ticket income, but in hospitality, bars, snacks, programmes etc. Without fans, that income is gone.

It is different in the English leagues where they have broadcast deals worth hundreds of millions in the football league and billions in the Premier League. Therefore their income is proportionately more from broadcasters than through the gate so if they can play on the telly, the money continues to flow. In Scotland, it’s different. We need fans in grounds to make the finances work.

At Stenhousemuir, we have recently introduced a new automated camera system so that we can introduce match streaming to supporters through Pay Per View. With it highly unlikely that we’ll see fans in the ground for many months yet, thank goodness we did.

We always knew that we may not have fans back at Ochilview straight away, but we had hoped that good progress would be made against the virus and that we would be able to welcome in a limited number of supporters at some point. This was partly behind the decision to delay kicking off the season until October.

Therefore, the investment was made on the new camera system to plug this gap. However, we are under no illusions about how much revenue this will bring in. Whilst the challenge will be to promote this new facility and give fans the chance to view matches from wherever in the world they may be, this won’t happen overnight. It won’t fully replace lost gate revenue.

Some SPFL clubs will not be able to offer this streaming service, so will face the prospect of no match income whatsoever. When you go down the divisions into the leagues below the SPFL, many of these clubs work to a similar model. A number of these clubs have no way of generating other income outside gate receipts.

Without this income, they cannot function. Teams at all levels play a massive role in their communities. They cannot be allowed to go bust. There will be a huge hole left in these communities. With over 200 clubs in the various pro and semi-pro divisions, the impact on employment and the local economies will be significant. There is a strong case emerging for financial support.

On top of all this, there has been renewed discussion this week about the testing of players. At the moment, only the top flight in Scottish football is testing. This is because they made a decision to get back to playing whilst the rest of society was still in lockdown. Weekly testing was the price they had to pay.

In the leagues below the Premiership, we took a different decision. We waited and moved with the rest of society. Therefore we only returned to training a few weeks ago when the Government gave all competitive sport the ability to return. That is the model we have worked to and thus far it has worked. There have been positives tests, and the individual players have been identified, self- isolated, and the rest of the team has continued to play. The system is working, so we see no need to change it.

Where we will face off against a team in the Premiership that does test, then clubs have the option to forfeit that match or test alongside their Premiership opponents for that week only. This is a fair compromise and an amicable solution.

When players attend their club to play football, this becomes their place of work. There are many other places of work where employees are in close proximity to each other but they do not need to test weekly. We should avoid adding unnecessary restriction on football alone.

If testing was introduced to lower league football, this would be the death knell for many clubs. The costs would run into the high tens of thousands for each club. It would be a perverse position where the cost to test players would be more than the money paid to clubs from the league for playing the entire season! This would be nuts.

I seem to have written the following sentence so many times over the past few months – the next couple of weeks will be crucial for Scottish football – and I fully expect to be writing it for many months yet.

We are continually waiting for news, advice, guidance and implications from the Government and football authorities. However, we are due to start playing competitively in just a couple of weeks’ time so some certainty would be good. I appreciate that is easier said than done when you are fighting a pandemic.

But if there is to be testing, tell us. If financial aid is a possibility, then let us know. If we are being left to get on with it, then so be it. The best tonic to uncertainty is information. Just let us know.

* Iain McMenemy is the chairman of League 2 club Stenhousemuir.

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