Government close to naming Open Championship and Challenge Cup final as pilot events for fans' return

·8-min read
An aerial view a roofless Centre Court and the outside courts taken from the BBC elevated camera position during day four of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club - - GETTY IMAGES
An aerial view a roofless Centre Court and the outside courts taken from the BBC elevated camera position during day four of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club - - GETTY IMAGES

Golf’s Open Championship and rugby league’s Challenge Cup final were on Tuesday night close to being named the next pilot events for the return of crowds to sport.

Telegraph Sport has been told the two blue-riband occasions have been lined up to join Wimbledon, the climax of football’s European Championship and the British Grand Prix in hosting more than 10,000 spectators following Monday’s extension of national coronavirus restrictions until July 19.

As revealed by the Telegraph, both Wimbledon and the last four games of Euro 2020 will be at 50 per cent capacity, with Centre Court full for the men’s and women’s singles finals.

But Monday night’s delay to ‘freedom day’ until July 19 dashed hopes of sell-out crowds at other of the summer’s crown jewels, with the European Championship final capped at around 50 per cent.

The last four Euro 2020 knockout matches at Wembley – the last-16 tie in which England could feature and both semi-finals and the final – and the start of Wimbledon will take place at half capacity as part of a fresh wave of crowd pilots.

But Centre Court will be exempt from social-distancing rules in the second week of the championships, culminating in 15,000 sell-outs for the women’s and men’s and singles finals on July 10 and 11, respectively.

The last four Euro 2020 matches at Wembley will have crowds of around 40,000 each, with Telegraph Sport told it is highly unlikely that will increase further.

The British Grand Prix on the eve of July 19 has also been granted pilot status, although no decision has been made on capacity amid hopes it could be cleared to fill its grandstands.

Any event denied that status will be forced to cap its capacity at 10,000 or 25 per cent, whichever is lower.

The Government also confirmed lateral-flow testing would continue to feature as part of its Events Research Programme.

Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, said: “We want to gather further evidence on how we can open up all big events safely, and for good. The expansion of trials of the NHS App and lateral flow testing will mean that bigger crowds will be able to attend a limited number of major sporting and cultural events early this summer as part of our Events Research Programme.

“In the next few weeks, this means more fans enjoying the Euros and Wimbledon, and some of our biggest cultural and sports events.”

A Wimbledon spokesperson said: "We welcome the announcements from the Prime Minister and Culture Secretary that a number of events, including The Championships 2021, will be able to take place with higher spectator capacities than the current Step 3 guidance as part of the next phase of the Government's Event Research Programme.

"We are pleased to have worked closely with the Government, public health bodies, and our local authority in Merton, to confirm that, as part of this next phase of pilot events, The Championships 2021 will begin on Monday 28 June with 50 per cent capacity across the Grounds, building to full capacity crowds of 15,000 on Centre Court for the Finals weekend.

"We are continuing to work closely with the Government to finalise the details of our participation in the Event Research Programme, including the requirements for Covid-status certification for spectators. We will be issuing a further update on Wednesday 16 June to confirm these details."

What does the delay to ‘freedom day’ mean for sport?

By Ben Rumsby and Jeremy Wilson

Football

As revealed by Telegraph Sport, Wembley has been given permission to be around half-full for the European Championship knockout stage – apart from a last-16 match in which England will not feature. However, a four-week delay to ‘freedom day’ wrecked hopes of a capacity crowd at the July 11 final. It is also unclear whether it would have an impact on the end of restrictions on attendance at football matches at the start of next season, which begins less than three weeks after July 19. The game’s leaders are still hoping for the return of full crowds by then – even if doing so means the use of Covid passports.

Rugby union

Failing to lift restrictions on June 21 means the Premiership final the following Saturday and England’s summer internationals against United States and Canada would need to be made crowd pilots to be exempt from the current 10,000 limit on spectators at such events. The Rugby Football Union had been working on the basis of the three games being allowed an attendance of 20,000 (25 per cent capacity) and is certain to lobby to keep that as a minimum. But free-for-all on all major sporting events being half-full has been ruled out, particularly those earlier in the calendar.

Cricket

England’s biggest matches of the summer will come in their five-Test series against India, which does not begin until August 4. The England & Wales Cricket Board will be hoping that means those fixtures could still be staged at full capacity – even if Covid passports are required. The biggest threat is to their limited-overs games against Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the coming weeks. The ECB is likely to want as many as possible made crowd pilots so they are exempt from the 10,000 limit. England’s final Twenty20 game against Pakistan on July 20 is currently scheduled to be the first major sporting event after ‘freedom day’.

Tennis

As revealed by Telegraph Sport, the Wimbledon singles finals will be the first major outdoor event given permission to take place in front of a full crowd since the coronavirus crisis began. The championships will start at 50 per cent capacity but with Centre Court allowed to increase attendance in the second week. Being designated a crowd pilot would allow the venue to double its planned attendance to around 21,000 a day in the first week of the tournament.

Motor racing

Talks have begun over staging the July 18 British Grand Prix at full capacity. As a 550-acre outdoor site, Silverstone is the largest major sporting venue in the UK, with its 70,000 grandstand seats spread around a 3.6-mile track. The vast majority of the 120,000-plus spectators who usually attend a Grand Prix weekend also travel to the circuit by car. That would avoid the prospect of thousands being crammed in together on public transport – something seen as far more likely to spread Covid-19 than a relaxation of social distancing in an outdoor grandstand.

Golf

The final round of the Open Championship also takes place on the eve of July 19 and takes place on a multi-acre site. Even before a delay to ‘freedom day’ was looking inevitable, the R&A said last month it was planning for 75 per cent capacity – around 30,000 spectators – at Royal St George’s. It will need crowd-pilot event status to host anything above 10,000 but, like the British Grand Prix, its cause will be helped by it being scheduled right at the end of the extended restrictions.

Rugby league

The sport’s blue-riband event, the Challenge Cup final, takes place at Wembley on July 17. The Rugby Football League is expected to push for parity at least with the Euro 2020 final at the same venue just six days earlier. It has already delayed putting tickets back on sale for the game until it is clear what the allocation will be. It could also push for crowd-pilot status for Super League matches to go above the current 25 per cent cap on attendance. The Super League Grand final is not until October 9, with the World Cup in England kicking off two weeks later on October 23.

Grass-roots sport

After being forced to delay its return, parkrun is set to resume on June 26 irrespective of the Prime Minister’s announcement. But fitness and leisure facilities face a cliff-edge moment on July 1, when the moratorium of forfeiture comes to an end, business rates are set to be reintroduced, and employer contributions to furlough payments recommence. Industry association ukactive has called for the Government to urgently set out its plans to support businesses, with growing concern that delays in the roadmap will coincide with the end of a range of financial relief measures. An estimated 400 facilities across the sector had closed by the end of the first quarter in 2021, and ukactive says thousands more will be at risk of closure if the Government does not commit to a solution on rent urgently.

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