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Ben Cronin | Stadium variables complicate safe spectator return

When Liverpool recently ended their long quest to win the Premier League title, the closed-door trophy celebrations were not the way players or fans would ever have pictured them. The club did its best to disguise the absence of 54,000 ardent supporters, but no amount of music, fireworks or confetti could compensate for the shared experience of ending thirty years of hurt and collective longing at a full-capacity Anfield stadium.

Manager Jürgen Klopp and his players have had the good sense not to gripe in the context of a global pandemic. But privately they will have once again acknowledged what has been plain to see during Project Restart: sport as a product is significantly diminished when it is stripped of its fans.

The club, and teams from further down the football pyramid that depend even more heavily on matchday income, will therefore be heartened by the UK government’s tentative plans to let spectators back into sports venues in England by October 1. Authorities have indicated limited numbers of fans could be allowed to watch games, provided a selection of pilot matches pass by without any hitch.

The test events include the include the indoor World Snooker Championships at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield from July 31 to August 16, the Glorious Goodwood racing festival from July 28 to August 1, and two county cricket friendlies between Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and Surrey and Middlesex.

Reports that more than 10,000 fans applied in an hour for the 1,000 available tickets for the first of the events, the match between Surrey and Middlesex at the Oval cricket ground in London on July 26-27, have already assuaged some concerns that spectators might stay away for fear of contracting Covid-19. This seemed like a genuine threat when a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll in April found 39 per cent of adults surveyed in the US who had attended a sporting event in the preceding year would rather wait until a vaccine is found before returning to stadiums.

Those familiar with the meagre attendances in English County Cricket will know that a friendly match would do well to attract 1,000 fans, even outside of a global pandemic. Although an admittedly small sample under highly unusual conditions, the numbers provide evidence that there is a pent-up demand and an appetite among UK sports fans for things to return to normal.

For the matches to be the precursor for something more widespread, the authorities will need to be reassured that measures implemented to safeguard spectators were successful. Monitors attended the match at the Oval to ensure stadium operators managed fans in a sensible and socially-distanced way and that they were capturing the data that would allow any outbreak of the virus to be traced.

Even if regulators are satisfied, there still needs to be a substantial leap for live events to return to anything resembling normality. Surrey chief executive Richard Gould has said the economics of employing 100 staff to manage 1,000 spectators are not viable in the long-term, and even 30 per-cent stadium capacity would be financially unsustainable.

Unfortunately, the complexities in maintaining the prevailing social distancing requirements rise exponentially the larger the number of fans that are allowed into a venue. A draft document produced by the Sports Grounds and Safety Authority, for instance, provides illustrations of the impact either a 1-metre or 2-metre social distancing regulation has on occupancy of a typical stadium block of 224 seats. Drawing an imaginary bubble around spectators, the guide manages to achieve a maximum of just 33 per-cent occupancy with a 1-metre distance between fans and an even more meagre 22 per cent with 2 metres between fans.

An additional wrinkle comes from the divergence in the design of sports grounds, which will make it hard to develop a simple template for other stadium operators. Experts say capacity requirements could vary in other grounds depending on factors such as the size of concourses, density of seating, width of gangways and even size of seats.

Those involved in staging the cricket test event describe how 1,000 spectators was a relatively easy target given the large open spaces in the 25,500-capacity venue. Other stadiums that can claim similar design advantages will be better placed to limit the damage from the current 1-metre requirement.

An infinitely preferable outcome for everyone is that the virus is brought sufficiently under control for the UK government to deliver on a suggestion that it could remove the social distancing requirement altogether come November.

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