Season one after the Covid outbreak

15.09.2020

After one of the most unusual seasons in football history due to the turmoil caused by the coronavirus outbreak, leagues and clubs have already started or will soon commence the new, 2020/21 season.

However, the impacts of the virus on the game are still visible. For one, the European Club Association (ECA) expects a revenue decrease of approximately EUR 4 billion for the ECA member clubs in the next 2 years. In a league-by-league analysis of the five major European championships, hereby we highlight the status quo regarding this season’s schedule, transfer window, irregularities caused by the pandemic and more interesting aspects.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought – without doubt – an unprecedented complexity to logistic, financial and legal issues and dilemmas to virtually every type of industry, including the football ecosystem. Global sports events scheduled for 2020, such as the Olympic Games or the UEFA European Championships, have had to be postponed, and live football all around the world was put on hold in April, with the only exceptions being the domestic leagues of Nicaragua, Burundi, Tajikistan and Belarus.

Now, more than half a year after the outbreak and despite the ongoing virus outbreaks in many countries, most European football leagues have indeed managed to finish the season – a fact which seemed very unlikely in April. Apart from the French Ligue 1, all other four leagues out of the big 5 have completed their remaining games, approximately one-third of all matchdays, with games played behind closed doors. Our chart shows the clubs who have managed to qualify for this season’s UEFA Champions League campaign; the domestic champions for 2019/20 are highlighted in yellow.


Ligue 1

The French Ligue 1 was the only league among the big 5 European football leagues that had to cancel the season, following a government ban on mass events due to the impacts of the virus in France. Consequently, the 2019/20 campaign was ended abruptly by the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP), the governing body of the French first and second division, on 28 April 2020, after matches had been indefinitely suspended on 13 March. Paris Saint-Germain FC were awarded the championship title, being 12 points ahead of Olympique de Marseille. As of the day of the cancellation, a total of 101 matches, approximately one-fourth of all season matches, were left to play. Amiens SC and Toulouse FC, having finished the season in the last two places, were eventually relegated to Ligue 2. An appeal by the two clubs over the decision by the LFP to end the season early amid the COVID-19 crisis was rejected by a French court, while a vote by all LFP member clubs confirmed the relegation of the two sides, too.

Olympique Lyonnais filed a complaint against the early cancellation of the season, but for a different reason: Lyon finished 7th in Ligue 1 when the season was called off, and thus missed out on the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, costing the club millions in lost revenue. Despite the rejection, Lyon are still pushing for compensation from the LFP, reportedly for a total of almost EUR 120 million.

On 21 August, as the first of the big 5 leagues to start the 2020/21 domestic campaign, Ligue 1 has begun its 83rd season, which is scheduled to finish on 23 May 2021. During the long summer break between March and August, not all French clubs were unoccupied: Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain marched through the knockout tournament of the UEFA Champions League, only being eliminated in the semi-final and the final, respectively. In addition, the Coupe de France as well as the Coupe de la Ligue saw their finals happening with PSG winning both of them.

Although Ligue 1 was the only leading European league not to complete its season, the French top flight has been given a green light for a return of fans into stadia. Up to 5,000 mask-wearing, socially distanced fans are allowed to be present at Ligue 1 games. Among them are also the fans of FC Lorient-Bretagne Sud and Racing Club de Lens, the two clubs that were promoted to the top flight. Lens have returned to the top flight after not having been among such ranks for 5 years – they can also boast having won the French championship in 1997/98 and regularly recorded one of the country’s highest attendances, even in Ligue 2. Lorient were relegated to the Ligue 2 in 2017, when they lost their promotion/relegation play-off match after an 11-year stay in France’s first division.

A novelty in this season is the official name of the French top flight. Thanks to a sponsorship deal, the league is officially referred to as Ligue 1 Uber Eats. Uber Eats, the food ordering and delivery service, has agreed a 2-year title sponsorship deal worth a reported EUR 8 million per season, and replaces Conforama, Europe's second largest home furnishings retail chain. In line with the other European top flights, the summer transfer window has also been aligned to the impacts of COVID-19 on the football schedule. With the season curtailed, Ligue 1 opened its window as usual on 8 June through to 9 July – but only for domestic transfers – while a secondary window opened on 15 August through to 5 October.


Premier League

The English Premier League commenced its season, similarly to the Spanish top flight, on 12 September. It remains questionable whether there will ever be such a dominance by any club in the English top flight as it was seen from Liverpool FC in the previous season. Eventually, Liverpool ended up 18 points ahead of Manchester City, crowning themselves English football champions after 30 years without an EPL title. In addition to the biggest ever point lead at any time in the season (25 points), the Reds also set up other records such as the earliest title win (with seven games to spare) and the most consecutive home wins (24, of which seven were carried over from the previous season).

AFC Bournemouth, Watford FC and Norwich City FC, who were relegated to the EFL Championship, have been replaced by the promoted clubs Leeds United FC, West Bromwich Albion FC and Fulham FC. Leeds are back in the EPL after a 16-year absence; having won the Championship, West Brom sealed the second automatic promotion spot after two years in the second division; while Fulham rejoined the top flight after winning the play-offs, after only one year in the Championship.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit English football hard, too, with the campaign having been halted for over 3 months, following a decision on 13 March to suspend the league after a number of players and other club staff got infected with the virus. The initial suspension, until the beginning of April, was then extended with matches having resumed on 17 June. The Premier League’s CEO, Richard Masters, estimates that clubs lost GBP 700 million in revenues due to the disrupted previous season. On top of that, he expects further missed earnings of GBP 547 million if the capacity of fans in stadia will be limited to 25% throughout the whole season.

Moreover, amid the coronavirus shutdown, Premier League’s broadcasting partner in China, PP Sports, reportedly has not paid its GBP 160 million instalment for the 2019/20 season. Consequently, England’s football top flight terminated a lucrative GBP 523 million deal 2 years early – the league’s biggest overseas rights contract. The Suning-owned streaming service will now take legal actions against the termination, while the EPL is taking steps to return to Chinese TV, according to EPL executives. On the domestic level, however, the top division of English football has confirmed that all 28 EPL fixtures that take place in September will be televised live. According to the current domestic TV rights cycle, broadcasting partners Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon bring in an aggregate EUR 1,858 billion in revenues.

The Premier League transfer window opened the day after the season finished, on 27 July, and is set to close on 5 October, a day before the UEFA competition squad deadline. However, there will be an additional, domestic window that continues through to 16 October, when clubs will only be able to trade with EFL teams (English flights below the first division). As a further consequence of the time constraint caused by the pandemic, EPL's 2021 winter break, introduced in the previous season to give players a full week and a weekend off in mid-February, has been scrapped due to the late start of the current season.

EPL clubs are usually prime spenders in player trading, but it is yet to be seen how financial constraints will limit their transfer activity this time. Nevertheless, Chelsea FC, for example, have already spent more than EUR 220 million on players like Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell, Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech. The current transfer window is thus likely only to confirm that the English Premier League is still the league with the highest aggregate player values among the big 5, as our analysis shows.

Following a successful event at the end of August that saw 2,500 fans attend a friendly between Brighton and Chelsea, the Premier League announced they want full stadia back as soon as possible, given safety protocols effective roll-out. Fans will be potentially welcomed back onto the grounds from October as clubs prepare to fill their stadia up to between 20 and 30 per cent – meaning away fans might not be able to attend matches for the rest of the year.

Moreover, EPL is to implement the full FIFA VAR protocol, introducing a number of new measures: most significantly, referees are to use the on-pitch monitors more often for decisions over goals, red cards and penalties; their lack of use last season drew much criticism.


LaLiga

While in other leagues a partial return of fans into stadia has already been realized or is at least on the horizon, even the start of the 2020/21 LaLiga campaign was questionable. Against all odds, and in accordance with the start date of the English Premier League, the Spanish top flight managed to begin their season on time last Saturday (12 September).

After their relegation to the Segunda División, RCD Espanyol de Barcelona, RCD Mallorca and CD Leganés are these days nowhere to be seen in LaLiga. While Mallorca suffered an immediate return to LaLiga 2, the Periquitos from Barcelona said goodbye to top-flight football after a 26-year stint in the top tier. As for the three newly promoted clubs, LaLiga welcomed Cádiz CF, SD Huesca and Elche CF to the new season. While Huesca were absent from the Spanish top flight for only one season, Elche and Cadiz are now playing in LaLiga for the first time in 5 and 14 years, respectively.

Although the work on the New Bernabéu is going ahead as fast as possible amid the Covid-19 restrictions in place, Real Madrid plan to play their games at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano for the foreseeable future. Los Blancos managed to snap away the title from FC Barcelona in a strong finish last season, after games were suspended on 12 March and recommenced on 11 June with matches played behind closed doors every day until 13 July. The current 90th LaLiga season is scheduled to end on 23 May 2021; the transfer window was opened on 4 August and runs through to 5 October.

LaLiga fans in the United Kingdom can look forward to the new season, too. UK pay-TV broadcaster Premier Sports has agreed to show two free weekly LaLiga matches during the upcoming season, with selected Friday and Saturday fixtures to be shown live. Over the next weeks, LaLiga and its sales agency, Mediapro, will also negotiate broadcast rights in seven European countries including Germany, France and Italy for the period of 2020/21 to 2025/26. Revenues from international broadcasting deals bring in approximately EUR 900 million per season currently, which is only around EUR 0.25 million less than their income from domestic TV deals (EUR 1.152 billion).


Bundesliga

After their outstanding performance in the UEFA Champions League, claiming the trophy without a single defeat in the whole competition, FC Bayern München will also try to defend the 2019/20 domestic league title and the German Cup in the upcoming season starting this Friday. After a pause of football between 13 March and 16 May, DFL, the governing body of Bundesliga 1 and 2, managed to return smoothly to action, being the first major European football league to do so with a rigorous safety protocol in place amid the pandemic – a blue print for other leagues.

For the kick-off of the new season, Bundesliga clubs are allowed to fill their stadia with a capacity of up to 20% while strict hygiene requirements will be imposed. This includes a ban on alcohol and away fans not allowed to the stadia. Games will be forced back behind closed doors if the infection rate in the home city is too high over a seven-day period. It is agreed that the current rule in place will be reassessed at the end of October. Whether clubs are able to make use of this agreement already for the first matchweek remains questionable as the governmental institutions have loosened that rule less than a week before the first matchday.

New entrants for this season are DSC Arminia Bielefeld, who have ended their 11-year absence from German top-flight football, including a one-season-stay in the third division, and VfB Stuttgart. Despite their relatively long absence, Arminia will already record their 18th season in Germany’s first division taking into account their glorious days back in the early 1980’s and stint at the beginning of this century. After only 1 year in the second division, Bundesliga is welcoming back Stuttgart – the 5-time German champions are most likely hoping that their latest return is a permanent one.

The Bundesliga transfer market opened for only one day on 1 July, in order to enable players to register with their new clubs following pre-agreed deals. It then reopened on 15 July and will run right through to 5 October. In line with the French, Spanish and Italian top flights, the Bundesliga will continue to allow five substitutions per game to cushion the impacts of the pandemic on the football schedule, while English Premier League clubs have voted against this novelty and have returned to three substitutions per match only. While UEFA has returned to three substitutions allowed for the qualifying rounds of Europe’s club tournaments (Champions League and Europa League), the ECA has been lobbying UEFA to bring back five substitutions per game in the group stages.

When the Bundesliga returns for its 58th season, multinational sports media conglomerate ESPN has secured the TV rights for live match coverage in the USA, replacing former rights-holder Fox Sports. The contract will run 6 years and will see the Bundesliga earn reportedly EUR 35 million per season, which is four times as much as the previous deal with Fox. 


Serie A

The 2020/21 Italian top-flight campaign starts next Saturday and promises much excitement given the tight finish last season. Eventually, Juventus managed to earn the trophy only one point ahead of FC Internazionale Milano, securing their 9th successive and 36th overall Serie A title – records within the big 5 leagues. Moreover, a familiar face has joined the Bianconeri: Andrea Pirlo, who was initially signed as under-23 manager, has replaced former head coach Maurizio Sarri in the summer.

Just like other leagues, Serie A’s schedule was also heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic: after being halted on 9 March, matches resumed only on 20 June. Given that Italy’s top flight had the most remaining games left to play, the league thus finished as the last major European football league to do so, on 2 August.

After a long season, US Lecce, Brescia Calcio and SPAL were finally relegated to Serie B. Benevento Calcio and FC Crotone were the two teams directly promoted from the second division of Italian football, both after a 2-year absence. After beating AC ChievoVerona and Frosinone Calcio in the promotion play-offs, Spezia Calcio earned their first appearance in top-flight Italian football and are the 66th team to participate in Serie A.

The Serie A transfer window officially opened on 1 September and will run through to 5 October; the winter window will run from 4 January to 1 February 2021.

When the league returns next Sunday, all matches will be played behind closed doors. However, the Italian Football Federation drew up a protocol in July, which would allow stadia to open at one-third of their maximum capacity. A resumption of spectators might be on the horizon for the first matchday in October, with authorities closely monitoring the development of COVID-19 cases and impacts of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Serie A clubs are discussing a private equity deal, which would let investors control a newly-created holding that determines the league’s broadcasting rights for the next 10 seasons.