Football authorities are increasingly confident that some fans will be allowed back into stadiums by October.
It comes as the Rugby Football Union claimed that the reduction in social distancing rules to one metre would increase the potential capacity at Twickenham for the autumn Tests from 9,000 to 35,000.
Fans being allowed into any sports events will still depend upon the Government relaxing its rules on the numbers permitted to meet, or special dispensation being given, and this issue was discussed at a recent meeting of the governing bodies with the sports minister, Nigel Huddleston, and Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy medical officer for England, which set out the conditions for fans to return under “stage five” of sports protocols.
The Premier League has now set up a club advisory group with one senior source suggesting there has “definitely been a sea change in government opinion” in the past fortnight as to when fans will be allowed back in, which has led to far greater optimism.
Up until recently it was feared there would be no supporters before January, but that has been revised to this autumn with optimism that a limited, although significant, number will be allowed to return by October.
Factors for all sports include concerns from Public Health England that there will be an increase in journeys around the country, while the issue of how to manage fans safely arriving and leaving stadiums, and whether they need to wear face masks, will be a worry.
Once inside, social distancing, especially reduced to one metre, and with events being in the open air, will be less problematic.
The Football Association is prepared to offer Wembley as a test venue for all sport. It is also understood to have told non-League clubs – from steps one to seven – that it is working towards a possible resumption in September/October, with an acceptance that crowds were needed for their survival.
Clubs below the Premier League, and especially those in the English Football League, are far more dependent on gate revenue.
A similar case is being made by rugby union. England are scheduled to host New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and Australia in November at Twickenham, which has a capacity of 82,000, while the RFU has predicted that if the games have to be played behind closed doors, it could cost it up to £85 million. A crowd of 35,000 would at least generate around £3 million per match.
A RFU spokesperson said: “The Government’s change in social distancing guidelines from two metres to one metre-plus is welcomed. Our analysis of the difference between the number of possible spectators at Twickenham Stadium at two metres and one metre social distancing is around fourfold – 9,000 at two metres and up to 35,000 at one metre. While this is a positive move, for the RFU to fully financially recover we need to see a return to capacity crowds.”
There was an optimistic response from cricket about the prospect of fans returning. Richard Gould, chief executive of Surrey, said: “One-metre distancing certainly brings forwards the prospect of welcoming supporters into The Kia Oval. Our priority will be to get members back into the club as soon as we receive approval.”
Meanwhile, Barry Hearn claimed the relaxation to one-metre could open up the O2 Arena to host Dillian Whyte’s WBC interim heavyweight boxing title fight against Alexander Povetkin in August rather than outdoors behind closed doors at Matchroom Sport’s HQ in Brentwood, Essex. “If pubs are going to have the one-metre rule, I am writing to the government about indoor sports arenas. The one-metre rule needs to be consistent,” Hearn said.
“If the guidelines are altered, it could well change the Dillian Whyte fight scenario. The one-metre rule opens the possibility of getting 9,500 fans in the O2 Arena with a seat between each fan. It looks like we could go back to crowds in the near future, with things changing from week-to-week.”