Ghost games will lead to one of three scenarios…

Date published: Monday 18th May 2020 8:51

It was a bitter irony that my BT Broadband speed was so low this weekend at 1.9 meg maximum (they only ‘guarantee’ 5 here. Thanks. For. That.) that it was impossible to stream anything, let alone the German football BT Sport were broadcasting. That they consider it acceptable to charge actual money for this service in 2020 says much of their priorities.

However, even from the off-tube radio commentary on talkSPORT and from photographs, it was easy to discern what the Bundesliga games sounded, looked and felt like. Subsequent write-ups have been quite positive and of the ‘it was a bit weird, but not as bad as I thought it might be and definitely better than nothing’ variety. It wasn’t a disaster, that’s for sure, but one game isn’t nine games and it definitely isn’t 38 games.

Given speculation that the whole of next season’s Premier League might be played this way in order – they hope – to keep the river of TV money flowing past the club’s doors, what would it mean for the game if Empty Football became the norm?

There are really only two ways this can go. Success or disaster.

Let’s take success first. What would that look like?

Imagine everything is as it normally is. Games are on BT Sport, Sky and highlights on Match of the Day. All pundits and presenters are in their usual uncomfortable-looking chairs and sofas. Still no-one knows quite what to do with their legs. There is still pre and post-game debate and still dodgy VAR decisions to gripe about. All is as it was, except the ground is empty.

Humans are nothing if not adaptable. Maybe we will adjust to Empty Football quite easily. The actual play would look like it always has done, so what’s the difference really? If the TV companies pumped crowd noise out, rising and falling with the action, and projected your face onto a holographic virtual crowd of dummies, maybe it would satisfy TV audiences as much as the ‘real’ thing?

It’s also worth considering the possibility that the actual football being played might be of a better standard. It’s not entirely impossible that players, released from fan pressure and fear of negative reaction, might play with more freedom and expression. It could be more fun.

So if it looks pretty similar on TV and is popular enough for broadcasters to justify keeping paying big money and the football is as good or bad as it ever has been, football could thrive or at least survive even without paying punters, at least at the top level until crowds return. Everyone keeps their big money and everyone is happy and can pretend that Armageddon isn’t imminent.

But…

The exact opposite might prove to be the case, especially after the nine games each club has to play to finish the Premier League season.

In this scenario, once we have got over the Empty Football novelty factor and this season is put to bed, the thought of starting again with a blank sheet, with every game seeming more like a meaningless training match, may be very unappealing indeed. At least right now there is something riding on some of the remaining games for some clubs, that wouldn’t be the case at the start of a new season. Nine months would stretch out before us as a featureless wasteland. The taste of the ghost games we’ll have already had could be enough to put us off for good.

Because as most of us understand, the appeal of football is at least as much about the things that orbit the game, as the actual game itself. This is why football survives and thrives despite on many, if not most occasions, being quite boring for long periods of time.

So much of what binds us to the game is the informal community it provides on a regular basis. It is the language it gives us, the common reference points, the civic and societal structure, the self-identity opportunities and even the tasty pies, that keep us coming back for more. This might be especially true for regular match-goers, but it is just as true for armchair football fans. There is a symbiosis between TV viewer and fan in the ground. The viewer feeds from the energy, sound and dynamics of the crowd. There is some kind of psychic bond in the collective appreciation of the televisual spectacle. The feeling that we are all part of something should not be underestimated as a driver for all live events. Ghost games can’t offer that, and when you strip out the humanity, and leave only the sport itself present, you drain the blood out of the football body, leaving it unable to function as a living entity.

Widespread disinterest in this fat-free version of the game may not be dramatic, or even noticed at first. There will be no protests, no noise about it, but the drift away will nonetheless be profound. Disinterest is a silent destroyer.

Viewing figures are anaemic much of the time anyway; there is no fat to trim. Are we to believe that TV audiences will be the same or higher? It seems unlikely. Mid-table clashes between smaller, lesser supported clubs would surely be a graveyard for broadcasting revenues. Is there any point in showing something of little interest to a small amount of people, and why should either broadcasters or viewers pay for the privilege?

Worse still, the denuded experience may seriously cramp interest in Premier League football per se, meaning that even when it returns in its full fat version, the habit is lost for some. In losing the highs and lows, the feeling goes away. Absence can make the heart grow fonder but more typically it makes the heart grow cold.

While a lot of football media in recent weeks has been dedicated, possibly motivated by self-interest, to telling us how much we love football, how much we miss it and how desperate we are to see it again, no-one has tried to measure how many who were previously interested, now really don’t care that much and are getting by without football quite easily.

Those who write about football tend to be an unrepresentative group because it takes up so much of their lives. I hear stories of national newspaper football reporters utterly at a loss to know what to do with their lives without three games a week to report on. So playing any form of football seems like a big thing to the industry, but less so to many others who have plenty going on in their lives to occupy themselves with. It’s hard to quantify or measure, but clearly some must be missing it far less than others and those will be the first to jump off the good ship football and perhaps will never, or rarely, come back.

We can’t measure it other than by anecdote, but the way football’s wealthiest clubs and players are behaving right now is already disgusting to the point of being grotesque to some.

They feel that it has been shown all too clearly to be a greedy industry that will do anything to keep feeding its own appetite for greed and has so poorly run its businesses that even a short break has left it on the verge of bankruptcy, purely because it is paying its players absolutely huge amounts of money, even now despite not playing. And those players, despite being incredibly rich, will not accept that this is sending the clubs into financial oblivion, seemingly happy enough to cling to the wreckage of the very ship the financial model that paid them such ludicrous wages has been grounded upon, for as long as possible. To some, it looks bad. Very bad.

And games being played to an audience of none purely to release TV money will sicken some even more. If many turn their back on this level of the game, their guts soured by what they’ve seen, who would be surprised?

The Premier League may well follow the Bundesliga’s example of ghost games to finish the season, thinking it will be the start of a revival, when in reality it may be the beginning of a lingering death and that may be all too obvious once the nine games have been played.

And once that realisation has been made, the pressure to allow crowds back into grounds will be urgently made to the government, who will cave in to that pressure and will sell it to a sceptical public on the grounds of economics, employment and morale. They may even say it is as safe to attend, or as safe as anything ever is, even though this will be a guess at best. Expect many discussions over the summer about the nature of risk, in pursuit of smoothing out doubts.

Which side would your money be on? A season-long Premier League of games played out to no-one, with the same level of audiences as usual watching on TV, or unpopular ghost games leading to the financial collapse of the league and many of its clubs, or the return of crowds – as soon as they can get away with it?

In the coming months we are about to find out which of these scenarios will become reality. My tip? As ever when it comes to all things Premier League, it’s all about money, so follow the money and there’s your answer.

John Nicholson

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