14 May, 2020
Is it possible to practice for world-class team performances by kicking a ball against a wall on your own?
Here at Forbes Sports we have been sat around in our home offices anxiously awaiting arrival of news about what will happen with pretty much every sports season, event, or league which used to take place in the entire world.
Details are starting to emerge. On 10 May 2020, the Government gave the Premier League the green light for play to resume by 1 June, a little under three months after it was suspended. However, matches will be behind closed doors and stadiums will not reopen for spectators unless they can show that social distancing measures can be observed. Any of you who has queued in line for a half-time pie will no doubt be scratching your heads in wonderance as to how that is even slightly possible to achieve anywhere.
Players and clubs are divided on whether it should even happen. Brighton's squad has gone down with three diagnosed infections. Looking to Europe for inspiration shows a familiar story; Dynamo Dresden's full squad has been to quarantine for fourteen days following two new infections, leaving them missing three of their remaining nine games when the Bundesliga restarts on 16 May. They had only just returned to full-contact team training on 7 May after introducing small-group sessions from 8 April. Both clubs followed every precaution advised, but still failed to escape illness.
The cost of sports interruptions is massive. There is reimbursement of ticket revenue, lost advertising, huge wage outlay, and estate upkeep to name but a few. Liberty Media, which owns Formula 1, posted first quarter revenues of $39 million last week, a drop of $207 million on the same period the year before (www.espn.co.uk/f1/story/_/id/29149376/f1-considering-new-race-venues-revenues-slump). It is no wonder they are keen to explore alternative venues and get the season back underway.
Massive budgets and glitzy glamour aside, these clubs, leagues and organisations are subject to broadly the same rules as any other employer. Their duty is to keep their employees as safe as reasonably practicable, and that means trying to reduce the risk of infection as far as they can. When you add in a similar liability to the public, visitors, and anybody else who may be affected, it is a massive undertaking.
Many clubs have already started. Liverpool FC re-opened their training grounds for players to train in isolation, one per pitch, from last week. That allows five players to train simultaneously, on different pitches, for 45 minutes at a time. They are given a training rota and have to follow marked paths taking them in to training and out via different routes. They never come in to contact with any other players and, to prevent them from needing to access the buildings, temporary showers and toilets have been installed on the pitches. Their training clothes are even sent to them at home after being worn. Testing in football clubs generally is much higher across the board than in the average population.
All of that is very commendable, but how do you protect players on the pitch, particularly when playing against clubs which do not have the budget or means to take such measures? According to one Aarhus/University of Southern Denmark study, amateur players are at lower risk than the elite as they only spend around 60 seconds per match within 1.5m of another player, and where they do come in to close contact with another player it lasts less than one second (www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2020/05/11/la-liga-study-shows-risk-players-spreading-coronavirus-football/). However, it is not just the risk of infection during the match that counts; what about travelling to the stadium, using changing facilities, or interacting with other members of the household? Even playing behind closed doors and following stringent hygiene measures does not protect you from the weakest link in the chain. What if a player transports the virus after coming in to contact with it from outside of the club?
To avoid liability to their employees, clubs are going to have to think long and hard about how they can introduce measures to prevent infection whilst balancing the need to not only stay competitive, but world-class. On top of that, they are going to have to assess how they can prevent their players from transmitting infection whilst not having the virus themselves. Details are starting to emerge about how that may be approached, but I suspect that we may start seeing the introduction of mandatory daily body temperature logging, spraying of vehicles and equipment upon entry and exit to grounds, and disposable training kit. Hygiene measures will need to be ramped up, with some early reports suggesting that even pitches may need to be disinfected. The days of post-goal congratulatory hugging and ice-bath sharing are most likely long gone, at least for now, but I must confess I have no idea how players will undergo post-match effleurage, physio and rehab without exposing other employees, and themselves, to a risk of infection. Will swoosh-endorsed facemasks in team colours be the latest fashion statement for the impressionable sports stars of the future to copy?
Premier League and other similar standard clubs and teams have been competing at an elite level for decades, honing their tactics and training to gain even micro-advantages wherever it is possible to do so. They have been so close to pushing the boundaries of performance that going back to the drawing board is going to cause a huge shakeup, from which some clubs may falter or even fail to recover at all. The monumental task ahead is likely to be even more onerous for clubs playing in the lower tiers at semi-pro level, where your paid players are likely to be employees but the club itself has nowhere near the budget the premier league clubs have at their disposal. Those clubs are just not going to be able to afford to maintain the standards which may be required to keep staff safe. There is real scope for a surge in negligence claims against unsuspecting employers if the correct processes are not followed.
In the end, the warning to clubs at all levels is the same as it is to all employers; you cannot countenance the re-opening of "works" unless you know you can make it as safe for everybody as is reasonably practicable. You must revisit each and every work process and conduct a bespoke risk assessment dealing with the risk of infection, either as a full re-write to existing documents or as part of a semi-temporary edit. That means considering the risk from people arriving in carparks, queuing for tickets, congregating in bars, standing in the terraces, and everything in between. For players, it will also involve re-consideration of changing, bathing, and rehabilitation facilities, and policies for dealing with the media and other third parties. You may need more stringent policies for players who have vulnerable/shielding family members.
You should also revisit old policies that may have taken a backseat since lockdown. Perhaps you would normally clean algae from decking outside your clubhouse, but you haven't been able to due to lack of funds or closure of grounds? Paths, car parks and fences may have deteriorated in the hot sun and created potential tripping hazards. It is important to avoid Coronablindness, missing ordinary protective measures in the race to install new ones.
Everything must be documented, including the evaluation process itself; fending off criticism is much easier if you can show that you used a reasoned and considered approach, even if it didn't pay off. It is also wise to collaborate with your staff; see what suggestions they have to offer and involve them in the implementation of processes which are, in the end, designed to keep them safe.
I am not convinced that all of this is the much touted "new normal", but it is certainly what we have for the foreseeable future and the knock-on effects could be dire and long lasting for many. In the meantime, let me know if you think of a way to keep rugby scrums socially distant.