“It’s bonkers that I can host comedy gigs inside… but not fans socially distanced outside!”

This is the wry, pained observation of Mark Kelly, managing director of Bristol’s Ashton Gate Stadium.

His venue hosted two major rugby matches this past week. On Friday, the local Bristol Bears won the Challenge Cup. The Heineken European Rugby Cup Final was played the next day between Paris-based Racing 92 and a victorious Exeter Chiefs.

In any normal year both fixtures would have been sell-outs at the 27,500-capacity venue but under current pandemic restrictions no spectators are allowed inside stadia in the UK. 

But – bizarrely perhaps – last Friday the venue was able to host indoors (under “COVID-19 safe” guidelines) several hundred guests inside one of its restaurant spaces, with a hospitality package screening of the Bears game that was being played the other side of the wall.

“While Ashton Gate is not allowed to host sports spectators outside, we are able to run other events including outdoor cinema sessions and indoor comedy nights,” explains Kelly. “Before COVID, we were able to cater for 2,500 people for hospitality – but now it’s just 200. With far fewer numbers, it means there is plenty of space to socially distance inside – and feel safe.”

Inside-Out: [top] Permitted: Ashton Gate last Friday with guests enjoying a screening of the match being played in the bowl. [Below] Banned: The stadium’s empty stands for the Heineken European Cup Final. Image credit. Mike Bohndiek, PTI Digital

“We were planning to open our doors last month to a small number of sports fans for the pilot events, but this was cancelled when the government announced the blanket ban,” says Kelly. “We’re urging the government to involve UK stadia in any decisions about fans returning and argue that these decisions should be made at a local level by the experts who work in the industry.”

Kelly is increasingly frustrated that the UK government is not engaging with the stadium operators – and all the expertise and experience they have – when discussing the reopening of venues.

“It is bonkers that I can host indoor comedy gigs and matchday hospitality in one of our restaurants but cannot host fans socially-distanced outside in the fresh air”

Mark Kelly, MD, Ashton Gate Stadium

“I would never allow an event to happen that would put anybody at risk. This is the business we are in every day, keeping people safe while entertaining through sport or events,” he said.

It’s a view echoed by Mike Bohndiek, founder and CEO of stadium technology group PTI Digital. He asks: “How can it be right to have the same venue being able to host indoor events and do so securely and compliantly, but not be allowed to have outdoor events where distancing can be greater, air flow is increased and protocols easier to implement?”

“Sports and entertainment venues are stocked with highly experienced events, security and safety staff who can make the safe return of fans possible,” adds Bohndiek.

Kelly says that the local authorities have been supportive of reopening proposals but the rulings from Whitehall have blocked any opportunity for pilot projects which are seen as the first steps to defining a roadmap to reopening for fans.

“We have been engaging with Bristol City Council, local safety advisory groups and the mayor, Marvin Rees, over the last few months who at the time were all comfortable with our reopening plan on reduced crowds,” said Kelly.

“It is bonkers that I can host comedy gigs, outdoor cinemas and even matchday hospitality in one of our restaurants but cannot host fans socially-distanced outside in the fresh air.”

Kelly, who is also concerned about the wider, long term impact on local supply chains, added: “A lot of our key suppliers are from the South West – wine, butchers, vegetables, coffee – and the negative local economic impact of no sport or events creates a domino effect past Ashton Gate.”

Kelly’s concerns are undoubtedly echoed by stadium operators up and down the country. But for now, the ‘inside-out, upside-down’ logic of central government’s ban on fans remains in place.