Shutting down elite football would result in thousands of players and staff being furloughed from the Premier League all the way down to the National League at public expense, say experts and club officials.
Not only that but the creaking financial structure of the English leagues would be threatened with collapse if a temporary suspension of games led to a full shutdown.
The immediate future of the national game has been questioned as a new variant of the coronavirus spreads rapidly across the country and the number of Covid cases have risen among clubs leading to scores of postponements.
High profile breaches of Covid rules among footballers who organised and attended parties over Christmas and players ignoring social distancing on the pitch and in the changing rooms are fuelling calls for a shutdown.
While there have been demands for a temporary suspension of matches, it is feared that a break would actually lead to the season being curtailed and that brings a raft of additional complexities and problems.
But the first impact of a shutdown would be that clubs would turn to the government for help.
‘Clubs would start to use the furlough scheme for all administrative staff but for players, too,’ said football finance expert Kieran Maguire, a lecturer at the University of Liverpool.
‘Would the furlough make a huge dent in say, Paul Pogba’s salary? No. But could Manchester United still claim in respect of Paul Pogba? Yes, they could.
‘Why not? If they are being denied the ability to generate revenues or claim their money through broadcast income.’
The furlough scheme, which runs until April 2021, allows employers to claim 80% of a staff member’s salary up to a maximum of £2,500 per month
It may not seem much when Pogba earns in the region of £1.2 million a month, but furlough could be an important part of even the biggest club’s financial survival plan when one considers that Manchester United’s most recent accounts reveal it has a staff of 992 people, of which 112 are players.
If a club like Manchester United were to furlough everyone it would generate almost £2.5m per month.
‘From a PR point of view it will go down like a lead balloon,’ said Maguire. ‘But they could legitimately do it.’
The furlough would mean that players could not even train, so top clubs would be unlikely to furlough their elite players.
The scheme for players becomes more significant further down the leagues. The average player’s wage in the Premier League is £218,000 per month, in the Championship it is £64,000, in League One it is £10,600 and in League Two £6,000.
The financial impact of a suspension would be severe and a full shutdown could be potentially devastating.
A suspension would result in the Premier League clubs paying the broadcasters a rebate on top of the £340m they are already paying for last season.
A shutdown would wipe out a significant proportion of the £3billion in broadcasting revenue earned by the Premier League each year, which would have an enormous impact on top tier clubs and all those beneath who benefit from payments.
‘If the Premier League stopped that would be extremely difficult,’ said Robbie Cowling, chairman of Colchester United, who has no doubt he would furlough his staff. Clubs in the EFL receive quarterly payments from the Premier League funded by broadcast income, some of which have been paid in advance.
’The broadcasting companies would not be getting what they paid for and they would want something back and the Premier League may want to claw back from us what they have already paid.’
So, what are the arguments for and against a shutdown? And what would be the impact of suspending games? Sportsmail considered the options.
Is a temporary suspension now inevitable?
No. There has been much talk of a hiatus or circuit break in football and it can seem like that is now the only option, but so far, the Premier League, EFL and government have been steadfast in their efforts to keep football – and other elite sport – open.
A number of top clubs are supporting the idea of a ‘circuit breaker’, with Newcastle and Aston Villa — who have both been hit hard by Covid cases — among those who feel a suspension would ease health concerns. West Brom boss Sam Allardyce and Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder have also suggested a break.
But there is a big question about what a short break would actually achieve and it would have a devastating impact on the national game.
Would a temporary halt be helpful?
Probably not, if your aim is to reduce the spread of the virus.
Public health experts and virologists spoken to by Sportsmail do not see a big benefit in suspending football to reduce the transmission of the virus among people in the game.
Certainly, in the Premier League, infection rates within football’s highly regulated environment are lower than in the country as a whole, so top tier footballers and staff are arguably at less risk than the average person in England.
Last week, 36 players and staff from the Premier League tested positive for Covid from 2,295 tests. This is an infection rate of 1.39%, compared to 2.06% nationwide.
In the EFL, it is less clear cut. Last week’s tests revealed 123 cases out of 4,038 tests, an infection rate of 3.05%.
However, some analysts suggest the risk for most players and staff is comparable to people nationwide since there were a large number of cases at a small number of clubs and people aged 18-35 show an infection rate around 3%.
Even so, some players in the EFL believe they are being asked to take unnecessary risks by continuing to work.
With the introduction of additional testing this week it is hoped infection rates will come down by identifying infected people, including those with no symptoms, before they can spread the virus.
So, as it stands, football people are relatively well protected, although more could be done.
What’s more, the experts say they will not be virus free just because they are not playing.
Some of them will inevitably catch the virus among their community, friends and families. The level of risk will depend on their lifestyle and habits. So, they may end up at more risk outside of the football bubble.
And what happens when football resumes? The risk will reduce only when less virus is circulating in the country as a whole, but a short break of two or even three weeks is likely to be of limited value since it will probably take longer than that for the vaccine to have a dramatic impact on nationwide infection rates.
Surely there must be some benefit to a break?
Yes, if you want to protect specific individuals, such as an older manager, or make a statement about the seriousness of the situation we face as a country.
A manager in his sixties or seventies, or anyone else for that matter, could go on full lockdown with their family during a break in play, isolate themselves completely and that would reduce their risk of infection, since they would have very limited contact with other people.
However, experts say individual risk can also be reduced – but never eradicated -in the workplace by wearing a mask, avoiding indoor areas, like crowded changing rooms, not travelling with the team and skipping hotel stays.
The other argument in favour of a suspension of football is made by former FA chairman, David Bernstein. He says that football sets a poor example with a lack of social distancing on and off the field and with infections rates – and deaths – sky-high, and an urgent need for people to take distancing seriously, it is right to call a halt.
Others argue that it just looks plain wrong to have the game on while Covid rages.
So, it’s just about how it looks?
The ‘optics’, as politicians like to say, are not good when the country is in lockdown and footballers are seen making the most of the festive party season the majority of us missed, or ignoring social distancing on the pitch or swigging champagne on the changing rooms after a good result.
And that matters when seven Premier League players from five clubs decide to organise and attend parties.
But football brings benefits, too?
Undoubtedly. It is good for morale, community spirit, there is a real economic benefit, not least for the thousands and thousands who work in the game. Clubs continue to make a huge contribution to their local communities, even now, without fans. And it is entertainment for millions. How much Netflix can you take?
Could the game really shut down for ‘optics’?
Yes. Even if there is no scientific need to shut football down, it could still go.
When Boris Johnson and the cabinet engineered the latest lockdown after Christmas a shutdown of elite sport was considered.
It survived that scare, but almost straight away stories of players breaching regulations emerged and at the weekend there were endless images of players simply ignoring Covid rules on the field and in the dressing room with little or no sanction.
The fact is politicians have to bring the public with them, especially at a time of crisis, and that is harder when folks are comparing the antics of highly paid players with the NHS’s struggle to save lives and their own bleak lockdown experience.
If the public mood shifts against football, it is in big trouble, which is why government has been all over the game’s authorities demanding they sort it out.
‘We can’t keep going round this loop,’ an exasperated official told Sportsmail. And if we do, the game may yet be taking an early bath.
Just take a break – what’s the difference?
Well, that could get messy.
The immediate problem is financial.
A temporary suspension would mean Premier League clubs would have to pay a chunky rebate to the broadcasters – on top of the £340m they already paying the break in play last season.
That would squeeze the Premier League clubs, but this time around it would almost certainly knock on to lower league clubs, too, which can ill-afford another financial hit.
The bigger risk is that a temporary suspension could become a full shutdown and that would result in a massive refund to broadcasters out of the £3 billion they spend each year on football.
This would be a seismic event in football, and probably change the game forever. It is this scenario that led the Wolves manager, Nuno Espirito Santo to predict that stopping playing would usher in a new structure like a European Super League and crush lower league sides.
Not only would a full shutdown send a shuddering blow through Premier League clubs, it would damage the EFL by slashing quarterly payments, the bail out deal could be rescinded and even the grassroots game would be starved of development funds. A shutdown would threaten the whole creaking financial edifice of the sport.
Why would a break lead to a full shutdown?
Because there is a real fear that a break now would mean the Premier League could not complete its fixtures and there is no agreement in place for how the season would be decided if it had to be cut short.
The clubs did discuss curtailment in the summer, but put off making a decision and it will be hard to gain agreement now.
This season was already choc-a-bloc because it started late and the matches were stretched over 32 weeks, instead of the usual 34. With cup and European games factored in, there are only three free midweek slots between now and the end of the season to accommodate missed matches. And some teams are already behind after postponements for Covid.
Unlike last season, the games can’t run on because the European Championships are scheduled for June.
The Premier League is key in all this because that is where the money is. If the Premier League’s revenues go down, everything else goes with it.
In terms of playing, similar issues face the EFL, where more than 50 games have already been postponed due to Covid outbreaks.