By Gidon Jakar
Sports leagues and tournaments came to an abrupt stop during March 2020 as Covid-19 spread throughout the world. International events including the 2020 Summer Olympics and European Championship were postponed. A number of leagues have since resumed play behind closed doors (BCD), while others such as the Premier League announced their return date under strict rules (including BCD).
Clubs are facing several financial and managerial challenges in the near future. In this short article, I focus on a pivotal part of any future strategies designed to accommodate the return of supporters to sporting events.
Crowd management is already a difficult task, with thousands of people arriving at a venue at around the same time using public or private transport. These tasks become even more difficult around football grounds located in urbanized and residential areas. The NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) problem could be exacerbated by the increased insecurity of local residents facing health risks and more mobility limitations.
The scenes of supporters adorned in the club’s colours arriving at grounds, and filling up nearby bars and restaurants, are memorable ones. However, these same scenes are the exact opposite of social distancing. Some grounds will have the difficult task of managing the crowds in tight spaces and limited public transport outlets. Several questions will need to be answered before clubs can reopen their grounds to supporters during the 2020-2021 season.
There is of course a substantial difference between stadiums located in urbanized areas and those located along city outskirts with larger spaces around the stadium to accommodate the likely changes in crowd management, as seen in the maps below. Stadiums with larger spaces will have the flexibility to create the necessary barriers and markers for supporters coming to the game. That is a luxury urban stadiums cannot afford.
Let’s say there are 200 supporters waiting to get into one of the stands, standing in pairs but keeping two meters apart. Clubs accommodating this will need an approximate 200 meter route that assures these distances are always kept. And that’s for 200 supporters, what happens when thousands of supporters are waiting to enter through the same gate? How will security manage partitions between home and away supporters (if away supporters will be allowed to travel to away games, which may not be possible in the near future)? Earlier street closures before matches will be necessary to enable a longer time for supporters to enter the grounds and possibly arrive based on allocated times. In some cases, such as Stamford Bridge (top left corner), the lines could well extend up to the Fulham Broadway Underground station.
Maps prepared by Gidon Jakar; using Opensteetmap data
Unlike Stamford Bridge and several other London stadiums, Old Trafford (top right) has extensive parking lots nearby that could be repurposed to accommodate changes. London Stadium (bottom left), West Ham United’s ground, has a different set of issues (including the proximity to a large shopping center and reliance on public transport that serves the shopping center and national rail), but may be one of the better placed grounds given the amplitude of space around a stadium situated within the Olympic Park. Brighton & Hove Albion also have larger spaces around the grounds that could possibly be used to accommodate possible changes, but will also face challenges involving match day arrivals on public transport.
Every club will face different challenges, but one thing is clear: the return of football BCD is only the beginning, and clubs need to start planning ahead for next season. In doing so, they must be more attentive of their surroundings and space.