Football in the Covid anti-Goldilocks zone

Leyton Orient had a big game due on Tuesday against Tottenham Hotspur in the EFL Cup. It would have had huge emotional resonance, since Tottenham’s captain Harry Kane, who spent some time at Orient on loan, has paid to sponsor Orient’s shirts for charity. And two years ago, Justin Edinburgh, a former Tottenham player and a man who had just led Orient to their first title success in my lifetime, suddenly died. There was a huge fund-raising effort in his memory around the match.

It was not to be. At the weekend several Orient players tested positive for Covid, the game is off, Orient will most likely be thrown out of the competition.

It feels to me that it is the start of the slow process of the season grinding to a halt for lower league clubs. It won’t be the first team it happens to. There isn’t regular testing at Orient’s level – in fact the cases only came to light because Tottenham paid for the Orient squad to be tested, in order to preserve their own “Covid-secure bubble” which would enable them to continue to take part in the Premier League and UEFA competitions.

You know how there is a Goldilocks zone for planets? Where conditions are just right for life?

Well, I feel like there is an anti-Goldilocks zone for football. At the elite end, it is fine. Games can continue in empty stadiums as there is sufficient TV interest and revenue to make it worthwhile, and there’s enough money for a testing regime.

And at the lowest level of the sport it feels like matches can continue. In fact non-league teams might see attendances capped, but could end up having higher crowds than usual from people starved of live football. I’ve certainly got a couple of trips to Walthamstow FC pencilled in while I still can’t go and watch Orient.

But it seems to me that League One, League Two and the National League are in this anti-Goldilocks zone. They’ve got hardly any income coming in. There’s hardly any TV revenue. Their fanbases are sufficiently large that you can’t accommodate them safely while the nation has coronavirus restrictions, but not sufficiently large to generate masses of streaming revenue.

There’s not enough money knocking around for a regular testing regime. Let’s say you tested a squad of 22 players, once-a-week, and tests cost £100. That’s £115,000 over the year before you’ve touched on testing any of the coaching or back office staff.

And the streaming income is tiny – and inequitably distributed. I griped about EFL setting the price point at £10 a game, but this post I read changed my mind, as Colchester United Chairman Robbie Cowling broke down the income streams. It is bleak. 146 year old Macclesfield Town have already gone into liquidation this month.

The way it works currently is that the home team keep all of the revenue for the tickets they sell through their own website and they also get the revenue for the first 500 that buy via the away team. For example: for Saturday’s game against Bolton, we sold 452 iFollow passes, (so we keep all of the revenue from those), and Bolton sold 2252 iFollow passes, (of which we get the revenue from the first 500).

This has put a very new aspect on the revenue that is available to clubs this season. Bolton made more money in gate receipts from our home fixture than we did because they had the revenue from 1,752 iFollow passes whereas we had the revenue from 952 iFollow passes. In normal times, we would have expected about £54,000 in home gate receipts from this fixture but we will receive just shy of £8,000, whereas Bolton would have expected about £600 for the 5% commission we pay them but will have received about £14,000 more than that.

We sold just over 300 streams for the away game against Bradford, so we earnt £0.00 for that away game and I expect that to be the case for every away game this season. So based on twenty three away games, Bolton look set to receive about £345,000 from the streaming of their away games this season whilst we can look forward to approximately £0.00.

As I say, I expect the season for lower league teams to slowly grind to a halt. Already so far this year 10 preliminary FA Cup ties have seen teams hoisted out of the tournament for positive Covid tests. There seems no reason to suppose that won’t happen later in the tournament when larger non-league teams and the lower tier league teams join the fray.

League games you can, in theory, at least keep postponing indefinitely. Though I note that at present Leyton Orient don’t have a single Tuesday night free which isn’t in an international week until 8 December. And that slot might yet be filled if they progress in the EFL Trophy.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it feels like trying to push ahead with a full league programme, the FA Cup, EFL Cup and EFL Trophy for 2020-21 was a crazy idea.

I hope all the players affected get well soon and don’t suffer the long-term health effects that some people have seen from the coronavirus. I expect we will see many more players fall ill, many more games cancelled, and many more clubs go under before the nominal end of this season.