Football in Europe’s most domestic leagues has recently resumed, with anticipation that the new 2021/22 season seeing spectators returning to stadia will also offer redress for the previous losses caused by the Covid pandemic. The English Premier League (EPL), for example, started its new season in mid-August with capacity crowds after 19 months of empty stadia. The EPL, however, is one of only a few domestic leagues that allow a full house, as capacity allowances vary significantly: for example, in Portugal only a third of a stadium’s total capacity can be filled, while in Scotland only 2000 fans are allowed without any approval process, with clubs having the possibility to apply to a local authority for higher capacity. With leagues and clubs opening up at the start of the new campaign, the KPMG Football Benchmark Team takes a look at the stadium industry, touching upon the financial and technical implications of COVID-19, and the current state of stadia capacity allowances.
Financial impact of the pandemic
The first disruptions to European football were felt in March 2020, at the tail end of the 2019/20 season. Government and health officials' hands were tied as the health crisis left them no choice but to suspend professional sports as well as numerous aspects of everyday life. The Italian Serie A was the first big 5 league to suspend its activities on 9 March 2020, with the rest following closely behind. With the exception of Ligue 1, all big 5 competitions restarted at a later date, providing clubs an opportunity to fulfill many of their commercial obligations and supplying fans at home a much needed distraction. While demand for football was still sky high, as evidenced by the record TV ratings numerous broadcasts received, fans were not able to satisfy these desires in person within the stadia, which also resulted in significant financial losses for clubs.
Compared to the 18/19 season, the number of home games with spectators in the 19/20 season declined by 27% on aggregate in the big 5 leagues, directly contributing to matchday revenues decreasing significantly by approximately EUR 500m on aggregate, down to a combined EUR 1.9bn. Bundesliga, the league with the highest average attendance across the globe, was the most affected in absolute terms, with the league losing year on year an estimated EUR 157m in total. Conversely, Ligue 1 lost the least in absolute terms (EUR 48m) due to their relatively small average attendance.
In addition, the pandemic halted what could have been a record season in terms of matchday revenues: stadium attendance in three of the big 5 leagues was growing in the 2019/20 season, most notably in La Liga and Serie A (with 9% and 8% increases, respectively), and at a 3% growth rate in the EPL, while the other two top leagues, Bundesliga and Ligue 1, remained fairly constant.
At club level, FC Barcelona suffered the biggest loss among big five league clubs with a EUR 39m contraction in their matchday revenues, as Camp Nou – a tourist attraction by itself with 73,588 spectators – brings in the 3rd highest average attendance behind Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern München in the big 5 leagues.
The pandemic's effect is even more evident on the 2020/21 season. While the previous season was only partly affected, the most recently finished season was played in empty stadia: the Premier League allowed fans to return for the last two rounds of fixtures, but the other major leagues did not decide to do so. Thus, it is expected that clubs in the big 5 leagues will make little-to-no income from this source in 2020/21, potentially losing out on over EUR 2bn of matchday revenues combined.
Return to stadia
After the postponement of the UEFA EURO 2020 tournament by one year, it was the European governing body that started to formulate a plan to safely return to stadiums in Europe as part of the unprecedented pan-European event during the summer of 2021. In addition to the challenge of organising such a major event safely, it had to be done in 11 countries across the continent – all with different infection levels, restrictions and local policies. In order to take into account local realities and reduce the risk of infections as much as possible, measures and restrictions differed from country to country and venue to venue. The most visible difference was the allowance of fans to stadia – with the exception of Budapest’s Puskás Aréna, the only venue allowing full house attendance for all the four matches held there, venue capacities were capped at between 22% and 50%. However, during the event, conditions allowed the easing of some restrictions – for example, the UK government approved boosting the capacity of London’s Wembley Stadium from 25% to 50% for the knockout stages, and to 75% (up to 60k spectators) for the semi-finals and the final.
Besides forecasting various scenarios and capacity limitations in domestic leagues, the tournament also provided a sneak-peek of regulations and policies to be applied in stadiums for the foreseeable future. Ticket holders were allocated a 30-minute window to enter the stadium before the game and masks were compulsory in and around the stadium. Only the seat indicated on the ticket could be used, while a temperature check was conducted for entry into the stadium. Washing and disinfecting hands was recommended, while handshakes, hugs, high fives and close contact with others was discouraged.
Other than managing the new fan experience, stadiums are also required to invest a significant amount of extra resources just to be able to be compliant with regulations and be able to stage a match. As an indication of the required extra investment, UEFA outlined that during the entire tournament, they provided 23,600 litres of sanitising liquid, 134,700 floor stickers for marking one-way flows and physical distance indications, and more than 2 million surgical masks and FFP2 respirators procured for staff, including a reserve for spectators without masks in total throughout the tournament.
The results of the measures were perceived differently. With regard to players’ health, UEFA measures were considered rather successful, as only few incidents occurred. However, there were also loud voices that condemned the tournament for some increases of new corona cases in the general population. The World Health Organization (WHO) blamed EURO 2020 for a rise of 10% in COVID-19 cases across Europe, mainly driven by the mixing of crowds in host cities, as well as travelling and the easing of social restrictions.
Some of the measures seen at the EURO will clearly find their way into league football. While wearing masks and keeping a safe distance was not a novelty of the tournament, digital solutions facilitating the inspection of a negative test result or a vaccination certificate were key for a smooth stadium entry procedure. As an example, Borussia Dortmund are now checking vaccination certificates and COVID tests before the games of the new season and handing out wrist bands for fans who are allowed to enter the stadium. Moreover, DFL, the German football league, recently announced that Bundesliga clubs are starting to implement a software solution that scans the digital QR code of the European vaccination certificate directly at the entrance of the stadium, before scanning the ticket, thus avoiding additional logistical efforts for clubs and saving fans’ time. The rest of the big 5 leagues are also considering similar solutions, however it is yet to be seen if a full vaccination will be needed at any point. The British Government have reportedly considered this measure, but a fresh negative test is currently also accepted at Premier League matches.
Looking ahead, the different market realities are still apparent in Europe. English Premier League clubs, as well as teams in the French Ligue 1, are allowed to entirely fill their stadia with the prerequisite of a full vaccination or a negative test. In the Spanish La Liga, temporary guidelines are in place until 29th August, until a re-evaluation of the situation in September. Only 40% of stadia capacity may be used with fans obligated to wear masks. The sale or consumption of food and beverage, tobacco and related products are not permitted. In Italy’s Serie A, the capacity threshold is currently at 50%, with fans requiring to show a COVID-19 Green Pass, proving that they have either been vaccinated against the virus or recovered from infection. Similarly, half of the stadiums can be filled in the German Bundesliga, but only up to the limit of 25,000 fans in total. The situation is the same throughout Europe – currently only a minority of countries, including also, for example, Austria, Czech Republic and Denmark, are allowing full stadiums. Guidelines and regulations are expected to change throughout the season.