Masked Coaches, Empty Stands: A Soccer League Tries to Reopen

(Bloomberg) -- Germany’s Bundesliga becomes the world’s first major sports competition to emerge from the coronavirus lockdown this weekend, and people in the industry from London to Los Angeles are asking themselves: Can it actually work?

Players are being tested twice a week, coaches will have to wear face masks and fans will be banned from stadiums when the soccer league resumes Saturday with the Ruhr region derby between arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund and Schalke.

There’s been intense pressure to end the two-month hiatus. The Bundesliga is a 4 billion-euro ($.4.3 billion) business that’s come to a grinding halt after 15 straight years of revenue growth. Clubs have lost tens of millions of euros and viewers have been quitting the local pay-TV sport networks of Sky and DAZN. Teams such as Werder Bremen have warned they may run out of money and player values have fallen off a cliff.

A successful return would be a route out of the crisis, but the excitement is mixed with trepidation. Some players said they’re worried about contracting the disease. Health officials have warned the games could jeopardize Germany’s hard-earned success in fighting the pandemic.

Bundesliga officials say their plan to ward off infections is sound and they’ll reassess the situation carefully every week. Organizers of competitions like the U.S. National Football League and Major League Baseball are watching closely, and will be able to benefit from the Bundesliga’s experience, said Christian Seifert, the German league’s chief executive officer. Restarting, he added, is a necessity.

“For some clubs it means economic survival,” Seifert told reporters last week. “The decision secures jobs, not just for players on the pitch but also at club offices, media companies and suppliers.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel, an avid soccer fan who regularly attends matches of the German national team, approved the restart earlier this month. The Bundesliga has issued a 51-page document that lists the safety and hygiene measures introduced to resume games, including:

  • Quarantine-type team training camps
  • Strict distancing throughout arenas
  • Coaches and benched players to wear masks, occupy every other seat
  • Temperature checks for non-essential staff
  • No team buses -- players arrive in smaller vans or drive themselves
  • Each team brings its own sealed food. No catering
  • A ban on handshakes, team mascots and team photos
  • Showering alone or at the hotel

Europe’s other top-flight competitions are still in deep-freeze. Britain’s government says it may let professional sports resume next month, but officials from the English Premier League, Europe’s richest domestic football competition, are wrangling over how it might work. There’s disagreement over whether to hold matches away from both the home and the away team’s grounds to reduce the risk of crowds gathering nearby.

France and the Netherlands have canceled their seasons altogether. Spain’s La Liga, home to global megaclubs Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, says a tentative restart date of June 12 may be pushed back depending on how the pandemic develops. Italy’s Serie A is waiting for government approval to restart on June 13.

The delays represent a potential advantage for the Bundesliga, said Richard Broughton, a media analyst at Ampere Analysis in London.

“This will allow the competition to steal a march on rival top leagues and drive better brand awareness in the absence of any meaningful competition -- with the aim of improving its standing for next season, and boosting future rights deal values,” he said.

For that to happen, the league will need to fire up the enthusiasm of foreign audiences, many of whom will be unfamiliar with rising star players such as Kosovar midfielder Milot Rashica and Leipzig’s Lukas Klostermann or teams like FC Augsburg and SC Paderborn.

It’s not clear how viewers will react to matches played with no stadium audience. In the U.S., viewing of a professional wrestling competition fell to a record low after audiences were bored by empty arenas.

“Playing football is fun and it’s challenging, but what makes it exceptional is the community aspect of it -- and that’s gone,” Neven Subotic, a defender for Union Berlin, told BBC radio. “I don’t want to pretend that’s not a huge thing.”

Wary Players

The stakes are high for the broadcasters involved. Comcast Corp.’s Sky bought most of the Bundesliga TV rights through next year in a 2016 auction that raised a record 4.6 billion euros. Its main rival, sports streaming company DAZN, has a deal with Discovery Inc.’s Eurosport to sub-license some live matches. The company, owned by billionaire Len Blavatnik, also spent big on German broadcast rights to the Champions League -- the coveted European soccer competition that Sky used to dominate.

While Sky often locks viewers into long contracts, the risk to revenue is greater for DAZN, whose customers can terminate their subscription on a monthly basis.

A representative for DAZN had no immediate comment. A spokesman for Sky’s German unit declined to comment.

Some players in Europe aren’t ready to get back on the pitch. When U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a return of soccer could boost the country’s morale, England defender Danny Rose took to Instagram, saying such a plan shouldn’t even be considered until case numbers in the U.K. -- where 33,614 people have died from the disease -- have dropped massively.

In Germany, at least a dozen players in the first and second division have tested positive for Covid-19, two of them at Dynamo Dresden last week, resulting in a two-week quarantine for the team and the cancellation of its May 17 match against Hannover 96.

The fear of contracting the disease “is the big issue that everyone carries with them,” Subotic told the BBC. The restart, he said, “feels somewhat surreal.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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