Sports Technology and Innovation Group

The Sports Technology and Innovation Group (STIG), a body formed by the UK Government to explore means of returning fans to venues, staged its first meeting yesterday (Thursday) as Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston warned that elite sport should look to support itself amid the financial fears caused by COVID-19.

The STIG has met after the announcement this week from Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the planned socially distanced return of fans to English sports stadia from October 1 has been postponed, due to the rise in COVID-19 infection rates across the country. Following test events across football, rugby union, cricket, snooker and basketball, the pilot programme for the return of spectators to sporting events has also been postponed.

The formation of STIG was announced last month and it has now gathered for the first time. Chaired by David Ross, co-founder of Carphone Warehouse and non executive director of the British Olympic Association (BOA), the STIG’s first meeting was also attended by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who has played a key role in producing Government guidance around the safe return of elite and grassroots sport, alongside representatives from the Premier League, Microsoft, Innovate Finance and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), amongst others.

The group will work closely with sports bodies and the Sport Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) to explore the whole ‘fan journey’ from home to venue. It will recommend technical solutions to the Government that could help bring crowds back into elite sporting venues when it is safe to do so.

The UK Government’s stance on fan attendance comes as another major event was held on the continent, with spectators in place. Over 15,000 fans were in place at the Puskás Aréna in Budapest yesterday as Bayern Munich defeated Sevilla 2-1 to lift the UEFA Super Cup trophy.

Following the STIG meeting, the Government said it continues to work closely with the sport sector amongst others on a range of “innovative solutions” to return to business as usual, including through the Government’s ambition to deliver rapid mass testing across the UK. The STIG will report its recommendations to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden in due course.

Ross (pictured) said: “We need to do all we can to get fans back into sports grounds and cheering on their heroes as soon as we can safely do so. This group of sport, health and tech experts will work at pace to identify any smart innovations that can help speed up the process of allowing supporters back into stadiums.

“We know how crucial sport is to the social fabric of our communities as well as the local businesses who rely on it for income in towns and cities across the country. This group of experts will do all it can to come up with solutions that can help bring back live sport for the millions of fans who are missing it as much as we do.”

Members of the Sports Technology and Innovation Group:

Chair: David Ross (co-founder of Carphone Warehouse and non executive director of the British Olympic Association)

Professor James Calder (sports medic, DCMS advisor)

Natalie Ceeney (vice-chair of Sport England and chair of Innovate Finance)

Professor Nick Gent (SAGE Spi-M, epidemiologist)

Gary Hoffman (chair, Premier League)

Derrick McCourt (general manager of customer services, Microsoft UK)

Sally Munday (chief executive, UK Sport)

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam (Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England)

Shashi Verma (director of strategy and chief technology officer, Transport for London)

Further STIG members are expected to be announced in due course. The group will also include a number of observers, including personnel from Government departments and sports governing bodies.

Meanwhile, Huddleston has commented on the prospect of a funding package for sport amid the continuance of events played behind closed doors. In the wake of this week’s announcement from the Government, major sports bodies have warned of the financial impact they will face from loss of matchday revenue.

The Premier League said clubs are losing £100m (€109.5m/$127.8m) per month, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) said no fans at the autumn internationals and Six Nations could cost it £60m and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) said it has already lost £100m due to the pandemic.

While the arts sector has received a £1.5bn bailout package, Huddleston has hinted there is no guarantee sport will follow suit. In response to a question from Shadow Sports Minister Alison McGovern, Huddleston said in the House of Commons: “I can assure you we’re having detailed conversations with sport, including football.

“We appreciate this latest announcement (banning spectators) will have economic consequences for sport and had been hoping for the return of spectators that bring in so much income. Where it can, we will expect the top tiers of professional sport to look at ways they can support themselves, with the Government focusing on those most in need.”

French Open

The French Tennis Federation (FFT) has been dealt another blow to its fan attendance plans for this year’s French Open after Prime Minister Jean Castex insisted the tournament must be subject to the same strict measures designed to counter the resurgence of COVID-19 in the country.

Castex said the grand slam tournament must be subject to the same restrictions imposed yesterday on sports events taking place in designated ‘red zones’ where the virus is showing signs of intensifying. “We will apply the same rules at Roland Garros as elsewhere,” said Castex, according to the AFP news agency. “We go from 5,000 to 1,000.”

It is understood the 1,000 figure will apply to spectators only, and not credentialed people at the Roland Garros site. The 2020 French Open is due to commence in earnest on Sunday. The FFT was last week again forced to revise its fan attendance ambitions following orders from the Paris Police Prefecture.

Back in March, the FFT said the modernisation of the Roland Garros site – which includes the installation of a roof on the main Court Philippe-Chatrier – had enabled the grand slam event to be rescheduled to the autumn.

In July, the FFT announced plans to ensure a spectator capacity of 50% to 60% at the French Open, which would have allowed around 20,000 fans per day during the early stages of the tournament. Earlier this month, this was revised again with attendance capped at 11,500 per day. Last week’s announcement dropped that figure to 5,000.

NFL

The Carolina Panthers are set to become the latest NFL team to return fans to their stadium after North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced he will permit capacities of seven per cent from October 2 for venues with capacities greater than 10,000.

Bank of America Stadium holds 74,867 people meaning that the Panthers could be watched by around 5,240 fans for their second home game of the season, versus the Arizona Cardinals on October 4.

A Panthers spokesperson told the Charlotte Observer: “We have worked for months to develop and implement a responsible and comprehensive plan for the return of fans and we are confident that it will ensure that the game day experience is enjoyable and as safe as possible.

“We will continue to follow guidelines provided by the CDC, local and state government as well as the National Football League, and will be prepared to adjust our policies as necessary.”

The Panthers announced at the beginning of the month that they would start the season without fan attendance. The Atlanta Falcons this week said they would return fans to their stadium, while the Cardinals have scheduled a test event as they seek to do so.

Image: David Ross