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COVID-19 event news: ECB Tests, Top 14 and Aer Lingus Classic

England v West Indies

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has chosen Emirates Old Trafford and the Ageas Bowl to host the three-Test series against the West Indies behind closed doors next month, subject to government clearance.

The series was originally due to take place at Lord’s and The Kia Oval in London, and Edgbaston in Birmingham, from June 4-29 but was postponed due to COVID-19. The ECB has since had to reassess its options and the homes of Lancashire and Hampshire have been chosen mainly due to the grounds featuring on-site hotels.

The first Test will take place at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton from July 8-12, followed by back-to-back Tests at Emirates Old Trafford (pictured) in Manchester from July 16-20 and July 24-28. The announcement has been made possible by the UK government’s decision last month that sporting events could go ahead in England behind closed doors from June 1.

The West Indies squad will arrive in the UK on June 9, travelling to Emirates Old Trafford for quarantining and training. This will be their base for a three-week period before moving to the Ageas Bowl for the start of the first Test.

The ECB’s independent Host Venue Panel (HVP) recommended the use of two full matchday broadcast venues for the Test series. A decision on other scheduled matches for England men and England women this summer will be determined at a later date.

International venues were encouraged to submit their expressions of interest during a five-day window, based on several fundamental principles. The ECB said four venues submitted an interest in staging matches by the deadline of May 11, with the final recommendations for the use of the Ageas Bowl and Emirates Old Trafford later ratified by the ECB Board.

Venues had to demonstrate key principles to create a bio-secure environment, meeting key criteria covering biosecurity, medical screening/testing provision, social distancing and venue/cricket operations.

The Ageas Bowl and Emirates Old Trafford will receive an administration fee for staging the Test series and all additional central costs will be met by the ECB. Edgbaston has been selected as a contingency venue and will be used to stage additional training throughout July. Ticket purchasers for the original England v West Indies Test series will be entitled to a refund.

ECB director of events Steve Elworthy, who is leading on English cricket’s bio-secure operational plans, said: “Our main objective is to deliver a safe environment for all stakeholders including players, match officials, operational staff, essential venue staff, broadcasters and media.

“We are in daily dialogue with Government and our medical team, who have been incredibly supportive during this period. These are our proposed dates and they remain subject to UK Government approval.”

Lancashire Cricket said the selection of Emirates Old Trafford was supported by the on-site four-star Hilton Garden Inn, which has 150-bedrooms. Ahead of the fixtures, the venue has been introducing additional safety protocols and procedures, including rigorous deep cleaning measures, providing PPE for all players and staff on-site, social distancing measures in place adhering to government guidelines and increased hand sanitisers at each touch point for all on-site.

Daniel Gidney, chief executive at Lancashire Cricket, added: “We will work alongside the ECB and the government to ensure that specific measures are implemented across the stadium and the fact that you have everything you need being on-site, in terms of space within the grounds of the stadium, over 700 parking spaces, on-site accommodation and sizable hospitality suites such as The Point, which in usual circumstances can hold over 1,200 people. The health and safety of everyone involved in delivering an international matchday is the number one priority for us.

“This is a hugely positive step for our industry and we are honoured that the ECB have recognised us as one of the venues capable of delivering these events to industry defining standards, and this enables us to be prepared when we are able to welcome back guests and visitors to Emirates Old Trafford, as we will be able to put these protocols in place and see where we need to adapt or whether we need to introduce additional safety measures.

“I’m extremely confident in our team’s ability to deliver these events. The staff at Emirates Old Trafford have delivered multiple events with global reach over the years, such as the iconic One Love Manchester benefit concert, organised and put on at a week’s notice, industry pioneering conference and events including TheStadiumBusiness Summit and Awards, as well as six games at the ICC Cricket World Cup, plus an Ashes Test in 2019.”

In other news, the ECB has confirmed Ian Watmore’s appointment as chair, with its 41 board members voting unanimously in his favour. With the last stage of his appointment process concluded, Watmore will step into the role in September. He succeeds current ECB chair, Colin Graves, following a successful five-year tenure.

In April, the ECB said it would investigate claims that its incoming chair left his previous role with the English Football League (EFL) after allegations of misconduct. In February, the ECB announced that Watmore would succeed Graves as the body’s new chair. Watmore left his role as an independent non-executive director of the EFL, organising body of the three leagues below the Premier League, in November 2018, citing poor health.

Watmore was cleared by the ECB of any possible wrongdoing following a conduct review.

Top 14

France’s National Rugby League (LNR) has officially abandoned the 2019-20 seasons of the Top 14 and Pro D2, the top two divisions of domestic rugby union.

The LNR’s management committee met yesterday (Tuesday) after initially announcing on April 30 that the season would be called off. With nine rounds of games left to play in the current season, Bordeaux-Begles were eight points clear in the Top 14 standings, while Stade Francais found itself bottom of the table.

The season was suspended in mid-March due to COVID-19, but the LNR had yet to decide how to officially end the campaign. That has now been announced with no champion declared for 2019-20 and no promotion or relegation enacted between the Top 14 and Pro D2.

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe had earlier announced that no professional sport would be played in the country until September at the earliest. Finishing the season behind closed doors was not said to be an option for the LNR, with French rugby clubs reliant on revenue from ticket sales and hospitality services at their stadia.

The LNR said in a statement: “Faced with an operating loss for the 2019-20 financial year resulting from the health crisis, the Steering Committee of the National Rugby League will propose to the Extraordinary General Assembly, which will take place on June 11, the subscription of a Loan Guaranteed by the State (PGE). This loan will allow the LNR to maintain all of the payments to the clubs initially scheduled for the 2019-20 season.”

Aer Lingus Classic

Aviva Stadium’s staging of the inaugural Aer Lingus Classic college American football game on August 29 has been cancelled due to COVID-19, with the encounter between Navy and Notre Dame moving back to the US from Ireland.

College football was due to return to Ireland with the Naval Academy and University of Notre Dame set to resume their historic rivalry by commencing a long-term deal signed back in October 2018 to stage games at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.

Ireland is no stranger to hosting college football matches, with previous Dublin clashes between Navy and Notre Dame in 2012 and 1996 two of nine games held in the country. This year’s event was due to commence a five-game deal, but Navy and Notre Dame now intend to open the 2020 college football season with the 94th consecutive playing of the longest continuous intersectional rivalry in the country at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.

“We are obviously disappointed not to be traveling to Ireland this August,” said Naval Academy director of athletics Chet Gladchuk. “But, as expected, our priority must be ensuring the health and safety of all involved.  I am expecting that we will still be able to play Notre Dame as our season opener, but there is still much to be determined by health officials and those that govern college football at large.

“I realise many are disappointed and were looking forward to the spectacle of this event and a visit to the Emerald Isle, but I do know there is a complete understanding of why it’s in our best interests to make every effort to relocate the game.”

Such was the interest in the game, that it was set to create a new world-record, with 39,566 US visitors booked to travel for the August 29 event; which would have made it the largest number of Americans to travel outside of the United States for a single sporting event. The previous Navy v Notre Dame fixture at Aviva Stadium in 2012 will continue to hold the record when 35,000 fans travelled from the US.

The five-game Aer Lingus College Football Classic Series is now due to start in 2021, which is estimated by Grant Thornton and Fáilte Ireland to be worth a €250m (£222.7m/$280.2m) boost to the Irish economy over the coming years.

The moving of the 2020 fixture from Dublin will see a direct economic loss of €80m to the Irish economy according to the Steering Committee of the Game Series, which is a public-private partnership.

The series is now set to commence on August 28, 2021 when the University of Illinois will play the University of Nebraska at Aviva Stadium. This will be the first time that either team has travelled to Ireland with the game expected to draw strong interest from sports fans both in the US and Europe as Nebraska is one of the most successful college football teams in history and Illinois has significant links with Ireland.

Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said: “College football is one of the greatest spectacles in world sport and we had been thoroughly looking forward to welcoming Navy and Notre Dame here this summer for the first game of the Aer Lingus College Football Classic Series. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control, that is now not possible, but we hope to see both universities return to Aviva Stadium in the coming years.

“Longer term, the Aer Lingus College Football Classic five-game series, now due to begin in 2021 with Illinois vs Nebraska at Aviva Stadium, will provide a significant economic boost for the Irish tourism and hospitality sector.”

Navy and Notre Dame said they will continue to work closely with the event organisers to plan for a return to Ireland in the coming years. Ticketholders for this year’s game will be contacted by their purchase provider in the coming days.