Soccer in times of Covid19

One of the victims of Covid-19 has been the suspension of sports throughout the world. Most major sports leagues shut down in order to limit the spread of the disease since spread of the virus flourished in large gatherings of people. When health organizations began limiting the number of congregations, the sporting world was one of the first industries to start shutting down. This wasn’t limited to professional sports either as youth sporting activities also shut down.The effect was immediate. Entire sporting rituals were suspended overnight.  MLS managed to play play a couple of games before the suspension. Minnesota United had the best start of its short history in the MLS by winning their first two road games. The NBA suspended operations a bit later after several of their players tested positive. By mid March, the EPL suspended operations and was soon followed by all major European soccer leagues. Also in mid-March, the Gophers men’s basketball team won their first game of the Big Ten tournament and then the entire competition was shuttered the following day. Inevitably, March Madness, the start of MLB, and the NHL playoffs were all stopped cold. For a while, Liga MX continued operation before it too succumbed to the virus.

Sports persisted in cold storage for about three months before officials figured out when and how they would reopen. Testing had to improve so it could be done more effectively and with more timely results, protocols had to be developed to ensure the safety of the athletes, trainers, and coaches, and most importantly, the number of infections had to be reduced (now colloquially known as the flattening of the curve) before government officials throughout the world decided that it was safe to resume sporting competitions. One thing that would become evident pretty much more the beginning was that sports would resume without allowing any fans in the stadiums. The sporting spectacle, as we had become accustomed to, would not be the same again until the pandemic was conquered for good.

The sporting industry, both on the professional and youth levels, have become so big that they faced many of the same challenges to reopen as other businesses, trying to maintain a delicate balancing act between opening too soon and risking public health, and opening too late and losing more money and possible financial ruin.

Billions of dollars were lost in the 3 months of the shutdown. It is estimated that the cancellation of March Madness cost the NCAA more than one billion dollars in revenue plus hundreds of millions more lost by cities hosting the events generated by the thousands of fans that flock to the games.

The English Premier stood to lose $1.25 billion if the league couldn’t complete the season. La Liga $800m. The Bundesliga $700m. Seria A between $650-$700 million. The EPL approved a  $125 million pound grant to help clubs through the shutdown. It’s estimated that Manchester United lost approximately $3m pounds of revenue per match. These are only estimates. The true loss of revenue would not be known until the end of the season, however that would be accomplished.

For some sports, the “too big to fail” label would certainly apply. This would cause a huge amount of pressure to reopen. I believe this was the case of worldwide soccer and NBA basketball.

In Europe, where the spread of the virus was more effectively contained than in the United States, soccer started back up in the early June timeframe. Games were played in empty stadiums (only the players, staff, and TV personnel were allowed in). The EPL reopened June 13. La Liga June 7, Serie A June 13, The Bundesliga on May 13th.  Just as the rest of society had also started a reopening as well, it was deemed to restart sports as well.

In the United States by contrast, MLS decided to restart with a World Cup style tournament in early July in Orlando Florida. All teams would stay in a “bubble” in one of the Disney resorts and all games would be played in two adjacent fields with no fans present. At the time of the reopening, Florida was a major hotspot of corona virus infections, with cases growing exponentially. At one point, the infection rate in Florida was a staggering 25% of all cases tested. While Europe got the opening right, the United States bungled through it (as we had with all aspects of managing the pandemic).

MLB restarted in mid-July. The NBA set its restart at the end of July. Hockey set its restart for early August. For all sports except baseball, this suspension marked a weird inversion of their calendars. We are just no used to having basketball and hockey played in the dog days of summer. The pandemic turned the entire world upside down including the familiar sports calendar.

English Premier League: Project Restart

Three months after suspending league play, the English Premier League (EPL) restarted on June 28 with 92 matches crammed into a 40 day period (fixture congestion indeed). Games were played at empty stadiums and each team was allowed 5 substitutes per match. One water break was added per half to compensate for playing in the hot humid summer months. 

Stadium seating was covered with gigantic tarps adorned with home team insignia. The camouflage tarps helped by adding color to what otherwise would have been empty seats. It added the appearance of occupancy when in reality it was only the teams’ personnel and TV crews that attended. On some grounds,  the tarps had giant images of peoples faces to give the illusion that fans were actually present. The camera work focused mostly on the playing field so that it was not so apparent that actual fans were missing. That only became obvious from the low angle camera shots, such as on corner kicks or throw ins. If one concentrated hard enough, watching the EPL restart games was almost like watching the real thing. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the EPL restart was the decision to include pre-recorded fan noise. The fan noise infused the telecast with a dosis of reality; it made the the spectacle more proximate to what  we are used to watching. It wasn’t perfect, but it was by far the best of the viewing experiences from Europe. Games telecast from Italy and Germany didn’t feature the noise and they were just not nearly as enjoyable as the EPL games.

The game schedule was intense. Games came rapid-fire, every day rather than concentrated on the weekends. Each team ended up playing every three or four days. After a couple of weeks, the level of play improved dramatically and moved back into mid-season form. The EPL is a highly technical, physical, and competitive league. On any given year, there are a realistically between 4-6 teams that can win the league title (unlike the monopoly that exists in the Bundesliga or La Liga). The middle of the pack teams can win on any given match. The bottom of the table teams mostly struggle against the giants over the course of a long season, but the possibility of upsets in any given match infuses the league with added drama, especially when the top teams lose out no the prizes such as qualifications European competition such as the Champions League or Europa League play.

The Covid-19 product did not disappoint. Games were enjoyable to watch even with empty stadiums. The drama of who would win the league was absent since Liverpool had amassed such an insurmountable lead, but there was always the race for the top 4 spots for Champions League, the next two for Europa. At the bottom, the aforementioned drama to avoid relegation gives the Premiership three different races to focus on instead of only deciding a champion.

Liverpool had such a huge lead (it had only dropped points once all season!) and it won the league for the first time in 30 years in record setting fashion by clinching its triumph with 6 games to play, the earliest any team had won in the history of the league. LFC also won 18 games in a row and 23 games at home., and amassed the most points at home with 55, an EPL record. After winning the league, Liverpool was essentially competing to win league records.

Besides games that decided the league champion, there were games that determined the fate of the teams at the bottom, the relegation battles are actually much more interesting because they can make or break clubs for years if not decades. (For a recent example of this, see my write up on the Netflix reality show Sunderland ’Til I Die, which chronicles the relegation — twice — of Sunderland from the EPL to the Championship and then again to League One.) For these clubs, the ability to stay in the EPL has impactful financial repercussions making the stakes in the games that much more significant. The reactions of the fans and the emotions they feel are indicative of how important the club and its success is to the livelihood of these people.

Bournemouth’s Struggle

On July 12, Bournemouth was playing Tottenham in a crucial game that felt like it was a must win (the team wouldn’t be mathematically eliminated if it lost or tied but it sure feels that way). Sitting at the top of the bottom third, and three points below the relegation zone, Bournemouth scored what appeared to be a game winning, and EPL saving, goal in the 91st minute off of an overhead scissors kick. The goal was reviewed by VAR because it appeared that the ball was directed into the net by the hand of another Bournemouth forward who was closer to the goal than the player who kicked it. After a lengthy and anxious review, the goal was disallowed. Bournemouth had another golden chance minutes later when one of their young players was a fed a pass and had a a 1-1 vs Tottenham’s French keeper Hugo Lloris in the open field. Lloris, one of the best keepers in the world, closed the gap and got enough of a hand on it to deflect it to safety. Another golden chance was blown. Another chance to stay in the top tier possibly blown.

Bournemouth suffered another defeat a week later, this time against Southampton. And again VAR reared its ugly head as a late Bournemouth equalizer was reviewed and annulled. Several minutes later, Southampton scored a second goal to seal Bournemouth’s fate in the game; the club’s chances of staying in the Premier League would now come down to having to win their final game at Everton and hoping that West Ham could beat Aston Villa.

Bournemouth was living and suffering the same drama that was so aptly captured in the Sunderland Netflix show. As the final day of the season loomed, Bournemouth still had a chance to stay in the Premier with a win but they would need help from West Ham. A win by the Hammer against Aston Villa would mean Bournemouth would stay and Aston Villa would go down to the Championship.

(The drama that unfolds late in the season, both at the top and the bottom is what makes the European leagues so special. Leagues like MLS which don’t feature promotion and relegation lack that competitiveness in games played out to decide the fate of the teams at the bottom of the table.)

Championship Sunday

The table was thus set for a dramatic final Sunday on July 26, called Championship Sunday. All games are played simultaneously to avoid any kind of sporting impropriety. At stake where two of the top 4 spots (for Champions League), and the last relegation spot.

At the top of the table, Manchester United played Leicester City in a Champions League playoff game with the winner taking the final Top 4 spot. United, who had suffered some bad seasons after their legendary manager Alex Ferguson stepped down in 2013, had made a remarkable recovery during the restart, winning 6 and tying 3 games. In overtaking Leicester, they had overcome a 14 point deficit to the Foxes since January.

Chelsea beat Wolves 2-0 to clinch 3rd place in the league. Under rookie coach Frank Lampard, the Blues, spearheaded by American Christian Pulisic, won five of their last 9 games to cement their place back in the Top four of English football. Pulisic, who started the season slowly (mostly due to a groin injury), had a fantastic restart and ended up the season with 9 goals and 4 assists. His fearless runs pierced unsuspecting defenses. When he wasn’t scoring, he was setting up teammates or drawing penalties. Pulisic really strutted his stuff for Chelsea and gives them hope to challenge Liverpool and Manchester City at the top the next season.

Speaking of Manchester City, another season of excellence ended with them in second place. They still tallied 85 points, but due to Liverpool’s ridiculous run, this wasn’t nearly enough for City to claim their third consecutive championship. But Pep Guardiola still has most of him top talent returning (except for David Silva, whose ten year of excellence ends), which will make City a team to fear for years. And with the UEFA’s two-year suspension lifted, City can still try to claim it’s the best club in the world by winning that competition.

At the bottom, Bournemouth took care of business by beating Everton 3-1. But when Aston Villa went up 1-0 on the Hammers in the 84th minute, it looked like all hope was lost for the Cherries. West Ham equalized nary a minute later and the teeter-totter was in full swing again as Bournemouth still could hope that West Ham could rescue them from relegation with a miracle last minute strike. That never materialized as the Hammers never got near the goal again. The result doomed Bournemouth to the second division of English football.

The celebration at the end of the Villa West Ham game was momentous. Both clubs celebrated in the middle of the field together. They patted themselves in the back and shouted into the air. They danced and shouted as if, somehow, they both had just won a title themselves. In a way, they had. They had both survived atop the best football league in the world.