A clear choice stands before sports leagues in the many countries where the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t remotely under control. While a second (or third) wave crests, lockdown discipline crumbles, vaccinations lag and a new, more infectious variant spreads, those leagues have two options.
They can take a break, or they can keep going.
Which is to say that they must choose between competitive fairness and safeguarding revenue.
It’s pretty clear which one the leagues are going with. The NFL soldiered on all season, in spite of the outbreaks, postponed games and players sitting out. That meant compressed schedules for some teams and the attendant competitive disadvantage. And whatever you think of Dabo Swinney’s lowly ranking of the Ohio State team that creamed his Clemson Tigers in the Sugar Bowl on Friday, the point stands that a team with 11 games on its record faced a Buckeyes team with just six — and the Tigers were without their COVID-positive offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.
But the games had to go on.
The English Premier League, and every other major league for that matter, is taking the money. And it is doing so at the expense of its own competition. On Saturday, a fourth EPL game was postponed since the beginning of December. After Newcastle-Aston Villa was called off on Dec. 1 because of positive cases in the former, the Everton-Manchester City bout on Monday was postponed as well.
On Wednesday, Fulham was supposed to play Tottenham Hotspur but had to ask for a postponement. Fulham’s Sunday game with Burnley has now been put off as well, after more cases were discovered within the Fulham squad. Some question marks linger over Sunday’s Chelsea-City showdown, as City reportedly is without five players who are COVID-positive.
Spurs might run into trouble as well. Sergio Reguilon, Erik Lamela and Giovani Lo Celso broke London’s lockdown rules to celebrate Christmas with West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini and a large group of family and friends, an event from which pictures leaked out. Lamela and Lo Celso have tested positive since then. Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho was particularly peeved because he had sent Reguilon a suckling pig in the belief that he was celebrating Christmas alone.
But in spite of these issues and indiscretions, the Premier League is determined to forge ahead, even as calls grow to interrupt the season while the United Kingdom deals with the worst of its second outbreak, with much of the country on strict lockdown. West Brom manager Sam Allardyce said publicly that he would back such a break. “I am 66 years old and the last thing I want to do is catch COVID,” he told Sky Sports. “I’m very concerned for myself and football in general.”
Still the league presses on. Just like all the other leagues.
Just as the Football Association has told clubs that they are required to compete in their FA Cup matches so long as they have 14 players cleared to play — a starting lineup and the three substitutions allowed, in effect.
The calculation here is quite clear. The Premier League schedule is already packed in tight because last season dragged deep into the summer and the rescheduled Euro 2020 is on the docket for June 11, meaning all club business must be concluded by then. A stray postponed game here and there can be made up, even if it puts the participating teams at a disadvantage. But if the entire show is delayed, it’s unclear when those rounds of games could be played.
And there is the rub. Contracts with broadcasters call for an exact number of games. If those games aren’t delivered, the Premier League would again put itself in a position where it might be liable for hundreds of millions of pounds in refunds to its various TV partners. It narrowly escaped that fate over the summer, by getting the games played from mid-June through July, the traditional offseason.
That meant players got almost no break between campaigns and the teams had little time to prepare, which resulted in all manner of wonky results early on — and a relative kind of parity brought on by the strain suffered by all.
The soccer hasn’t exactly been better for it, even if the chaos has been entertaining. And it might well be that Manchester City’s title hopes are undone if it is forced to play on in spite of missing regulars for a slew of games. For that matter, Liverpool has lost three central defenders — Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip — to injuries that could keep them out for half a year, possibly as the upshot of the fixture congestion. Newcastle reportedly still has several players suffering long-term effects from their sickness.
The league will not compromise on the number of games each team is required to play. The quality of the competition, or its credibility and fairness, aren’t what the league is concerned about — only the quantity. All that matters is getting the games done and collecting on those TV contracts. And there is some justification there, it would be hard to forgo all of those hundreds of millions back in a pandemic.
The sport itself is the victim. But that is evidently preferable to sacrificing profits.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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