European Football Clubs Struggle to Make Up for Unfinished Season
April and May are usually the most exciting months for football fans in Europe with leagues across the continent entering their final stretch and crowning their ultimate champions. But this year, the action has frozen because of government-imposed lockdowns following the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
The lost time is causing an unprecedented logistical scourge for the remainder of the 2019–20 season, while football clubs struggle to minimize the financial impact from revenue loss and high-running operational costs.
Europe’s most prestigious competitions, the continent-wide Champions League and Europa League, have been halted by UEFA—football’s governing body in Europe—with a total of 40 matches remaining. Major domestic leagues, such as England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga, have also been suspended with an average of nine matchdays still left in the season.
Even if it’s safe for play to resume in the next several weeks, league action is expected to extend well into August and maybe later, interrupting players’ downtime, running into other tournament play and squeezing an already busy calendar. Incomplete seasons mean that leagues can’t award championship titles, nominate qualifiers for UEFA’s competitions or decide who will be relegated to second-tier divisions.
Meanwhile, the halt translates to lost income for clubs from matchday tickets and fan spending. Gate receipts, which includes season tickets and membership fees, are a precious revenue stream for clubs. In England, Spain and Germany clubs made more than €27 million ($29 million) on average in the financial year 2018, according to the most recent UEFA data. Spain’s Barcelona and Real Madrid—drawing large international crowds in big, modern stadiums—generated a total of €164 million (24% of total revenue) and €146 million (19%) from gate receipts respectively.
Note: Figures from UEFA’s Club Licensing Benchmarking Report for the financial year 2018, published in January 2020. The report covers only the top-20 leagues by average club gate receipts—which doesn’t include Ukraine. Clubs shown are the top-10 by total gate receipts, which includes matchday, season and premium tickets, as well as fan hospitality and membership fees.
Smaller clubs however are the most vulnerable to closed stadiums, as matchday earnings provide the essential week-to-week cash-flow to keep their organizations running. For bigger clubs or clubs competing in the highest-profile leagues, the bulk of their revenue comes from TV broadcast rights and sponsorship deals. But without matches being played, that revenue is also at risk.
In France, beIN Sports and Canal+ withheld upcoming royalty payments of €152 million to Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 in April because of the season suspension. In England, the value of broadcast rights—shared between Sky Sports, BT Sports and international broadcasters—for the remaining matches tops £761 million ($949 million). Although Sky Sports reportedly doesn’t intend to claw back its share (£371 million) from the Premier League, clubs might still have to negotiate how much of the £341 million to rebate to international rights-holders. If no more matches are played, clubs in Spain’s first- and second-tier divisions could lose €549 million from TV broadcast rights alone. In Germany, Sky Deutschland reportedly hasn’t made a final payment of €304 million to Bundesliga clubs, which was scheduled for early April.
Many clubs are already trying to make up for potential losses by seeking to reduce their wage bills—which sometimes can reach hundreds of millions of euros—asking players, coaches and other staff to take salary cuts.
In Germany, Bundesliga’s top clubs have reached agreements with their players to cut wages, including Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, which have agreed to a 20% cut. In Italy, Serie A clubs agreed unanimously in early April on cutting four months of salaries if the season gets cancelled or two months of salaries if the remaining matches get played. In Portugal, Sporting Lisbon agreed on a 40% cut on players’ wages for three months. In England, a collective negotiation between the leagues and players for a proposed 30% cut collapsed. Club-by-club talks in the Premier League have resulted in Southampton and West Ham deferring their players’ wages during the lockdown, while Liverpool and Tottenham faced public outcry and eventually took back plans to furlough non-playing staff. Several clubs across leagues have also announced cuts in executives’ salaries.
To take pressure off the calendar, UEFA wants the domestic leagues to finish their seasons before any other tournament play. It has already postponed Euro 2020—Europe’s flagship national team competition—to summer 2021. UEFA is also considering pushing the final stages of this season’s Champions League and Europa League to August, after domestic leagues have wrapped up.
Eager to mitigate the financial losses and encouraged by the slowing of coronavirus cases in some countries, leagues are preparing their return to the pitch. All Bundesliga clubs have resumed training with small groups of players, while the league’s board is exploring resuming matches without spectators on May 9.
France’s Ligue 1 is considering a plan for the remainder of the regular season to be played between June 17 and July 25, with play-off rounds concluding by August 2. In Spain, La Liga is considering three return dates—May 29, June 6 or June 28. In Italy, Serie A clubs are hoping to resume play by the end of May, but the Italian football association president has hinted at matches in September and October if that would help finish the season. English Premier League clubs decided in a meeting on Friday to finish the season as soon as public safety conditions allow, despite earlier reports suggesting several clubs were pushing for finishing the season by June 30 due to players’ contracts expiring at the end of the month.
Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League is scheduled to make a final decision on cancelling the rest of the season altogether and awarding the title to Club Brugges, which currently tops the table. In the Netherlands, some of the top clubs, including Ajax and Eindhoven, have asked for the season to be cancelled, but the Dutch football association is planning to play the remainder between June 19 and July 26.
Despite what leagues want, the decision to resume gameplay will still rest with governments and health authorities. By the time football does return, fans might have something more to worry about than an unfinished season—the very existence of some of the financially-weaker clubs.