The UK government has today (Friday) announced that a small number of English sporting events will be used to pilot the safe return of spectators through late July and early August, with a view to reopening venues to fans, with social distancing measures in place, from October.

The government said the events have been “carefully selected” to represent a range of sports and indoor and outdoor spectator environments. They are expected to include two men’s county cricket friendly matches – such as Surrey v Middlesex at The Kia Oval on July 26-27 – the World Snooker Championship at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre from July 31, and the Goodwood horse racing festival on August 1.

There are also likely to be further pilot events for other sports, in order to build up to and prepare for the full, socially distanced return of sporting events from October 1. UK sports venues have been closed to spectators since lockdown measures were implemented on March 23.

However, in recent weeks certain elite sports have resumed behind closed doors, such as Premier League and Championship football, international cricket and horse racing. The government said the pilot events will provide the opportunity to stress-test its ‘stage five’ guidance, on the return of fans to elite sports events.

Further guidance outlining the licensing obligations for sports stadia and how venue operators must calculate safe capacities in line with social distancing restrictions will be published by the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA).

The stage five guidance makes clear that a series of operating standards must be in place for spectators until further notice. These include the following measures:

  • Prior to any ticket purchase, competition delivery partners should provide spectators with information on the steps being implemented to minimise the risk of COVID-19, including any modifications being made to the venue.
  • Spectators must agree to a new code of behaviour obliging them to take full responsibility for themselves and others by not attending if they have any symptoms or have potentially been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
  • Carefully controlled bookings should be in place, so that social distancing is observed in seating arrangements, alongside a minimising of the numbers of tickets sold to a predefined safe capacity, in accordance with regulator guidance.
  • A crowd management plan should be in place, incorporating the controlled entry and exit of spectators (including staggering entry times), and one-way systems inside the venue to maintain social distancing and minimise the risk of crowding.
  • Additional hygiene facilities, such as hand washing and sanitiser stations, should be provided, particularly at entry and exit points to the competition venue and in seating/standing areas.
  • Signage and floor markings should be developed both inside and outside competition venues to enforce social distancing, seating plans, one-way systems and queuing requirements.

Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said: “I recognise that not every sport, team or club has the benefit of huge commercial revenue, and it is often their dedicated fans that are the lifeblood which helps keep them going. By working closely with sports and medical experts, these pilots will help ensure the safe return of fans to stadia.

“Although it will remain some time before venues are full to capacity, this is a major step in the right direction for the resumption of live spectator sport across the country.”

In other news, the German Football League (DFL) has sent its 36 Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 clubs a guideline to help them create concepts to allow spectators back into stadiums. With the Bundesliga having completed its 2019-20 season on June 27, stakeholders are currently planning for the 2020-21 campaign, which is due to start on September 18.

Indeed, Union Berlin last week said it will offer free COVID-19 tests to more than 20,000 fans as it looks to play in front of a capacity crowd when the new season gets underway. The DFL guideline provides a basic structure for the concepts and lists numerous aspects that must be taken into account. It was assessed by the German Ministry of Health, which saw an advance copy.

The Ministry has emphasised that systematic compliance with the highest standards of infection protection is a fundamental requirement for allowing live crowds back into football matches. The return of certain numbers of fans will also need to depend on the regional trend of infections, while club concepts will need to be approved by their local health authorities.

The guidelines specify that the return of fans should only be considered when local infection rates fall below 35 new infections per week amongst 100,000 inhabitants. If this number falls below five, the guideline provides for a “gradual return to normal operation in local coordination between the club and the local health authorities”.

The guideline contains working models for up to 50% occupancy in seating areas and 12.5% in standing areas. A realistic total capacity for stadia is based on the “number of people who can be accommodated within the available space and in the available time with a minimum distance”.

It has also been recommended that clubs define different time slots for fans to enter the stadium, and devise an “attractive supporting program” to ensure that those fans who arrive in early slots are swiftly guided to their seats.

In the stadium, as many sectors as possible should be “completely separated from one another” and “one-way systems” implemented for the visitors in circulation. Clubs should also revert to online ticketing only, with box offices closed.

The Ministry of Health told sports magazine Kicker: “It is important, among other things, to reduce the number of spectators in order to keep the minimum distance of 1.50 metres, to avoid standing room, concepts for safe arrival and departure and to ban alcohol in the stadium.”

The DFL is set to meet before the start of the 2020-21 season to discuss whether there will be a uniform procedure for all clubs on certain points, such as ticket allocations for visiting fans.

Image: DCMS