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COVID-19 Impacts: The Really Important Stuff – Rescheduling the Premier League

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By Rohit Talwar

Although it might seem trivial in the broader context, the English FA Premier League is facing the challenging issue of how to complete the current 2019-2020 season. These are difficult times which call for radical solutions.

Why is this important? As a form of entertainment, football plays an important role in many people’s lives and is an outlet for their passion and energy. It is also a major employer, an economic contributor, and has an underlying structure of professional, semi-professional, and amateur leagues that together touch hundreds of thousands of people. So, as the richest and most economically important league in the world, how the Premier League decides to complete an unfinished season is important, with wide ranging implications for the game and other sports in the UK and around the world.

The basic facts are that we have 20 teams in the league playing 38 games in the season that normally runs for about nine months from early August to early May. Most teams currently have either nine or ten games left to pay. This season, Liverpool have had an incredible season and are 25 points ahead of their nearest rivals – Manchester City. Barring a miraculous collapse in form, Liverpool are on course to win the league, which has currently been suspended until April 3rd.

The Premier League clubs are due to meet on Thursday to decide what to do with the season. Their decision will have wide ranging ramifications for those involved directly and in terms of influencing the decision making of other sports.

A number of options are being proposed. One is to render the season null and void and then start the 2020-21 season as soon as is practicable. A second is to effectively end the season now and award the title to Liverpool. In that scenario, there are various views as to whether any teams would be relegated based on their current position. One option is not to relegate anyone, enlarge the league to 22 clubs, and promote the top two sides from the Championship (the next league) – and repeat that process all the way down through the feeder leagues.

This could lead to a lot of litigation with clubs arguing that it works against their interests. For example, teams like Manchester United, Wolves, and Sheffield United are currently just outside the four Champions League qualifying slots in fifth to seventh position. They might argue that their form is better than that of Chelsea in fourth place, that they have a relatively easier run in for some of them, and hence are more likely to finish in the top four.

Another option is to finish the season with the games being played behind closed doors, televised live with no fans in attendance. This rather defeats the role of the game as live entertainment. Furthermore, while it makes money for the top teams, it would be financially catastrophic for teams in lower leagues that rely on matchday revenue for survival.

The final option is to simply delay the end of the season and complete the games in front of live attendees. This would allow Liverpool to receive the title as a rightful acknowledgement of their remarkable season. All of the other promotion and relegation issues would be resolved in the normal manner. My proposal would be to schedule the games to be completed between December 2020 and Mid-February 2021 – when the first and possible second waves of COVID-19 infection are likely to have subsided. The remaining European Champions League and UEFA Cup fixtures could be completed in that period. Co-ordination with the other European Leagues could ensure that they also completed their seasons in the same period. The European Championships could be moved from June 2020 to March 2021.

The next season could then start in May 2021 and run until December 2021. The following season could then run from the start of April 2022 to the end of April 2023 – allowing a mid-season break from Mid-October to the end of December 2022 for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which takes place from November 21st-December 18th, 2022. The league could then go back to an August start for the 2023-24 season. Alongside this, the Premier League clubs will need to act as long-term guarantors of loans to ensure the financial viability of the teams in the lower leagues.

There is no ideal way through this and I’m sure there will be a number of issues to resolve. However, we need a fair, imaginative, and forward-looking approach that allows fans to continue enjoying the game, takes account of player welfare, and secures the viability of clubs throughout the league system.

 

Image: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/corona-risk-football-football-match-4921066/

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