Clubs preparing for a return to action in front of their own fans are also braced to make a loss on the matches they are about to stage.
And they are urging the government to set out a clear plan for them to follow to increase attendances in the next two months.
The government gave clubs the green light to host fans for the first time in almost nine months, as part of the new tier system, which will come into force when the national lockdown is lifted on December 2.
Supporters had to wear masks at the Amex during a test even in August, except in their seats
Under the new rules, elite sport held in tier one areas will be allowed to admit up to 4,000 fans, those in tier two can accommodate 2,000 , while no supporters can attend matches in tier three zones.
Boris Johnson is set to reveal which area will be in which tier on Thursday.
One of the first clubs expected to benefit is Brighton and Hove Albion, which could be in a tier one or two area. Brighton are due to host local rivals Southampton on Saturday December 5.
“The reality is we are going to be losing more money by bringing 2,000 or even 4,000 fans back than probably having an empty stadium, but psychologically it’s really important for us to take the first step,’ said Paul Barber, chief executive at Brighton, which would need around 8,000 in the stadium to break even.
Brighton hosted fans at a test event in August when Chelsea visited the Amex Stadium
“Even though most Premier League clubs will probably lose money, all of us would want to do it for the psychological reasons of the boost it provides staff, for the small reward it gives for some supporters.’
While welcoming the first step towards a return to fans in stadiums, football clubs have urged government to explain exactly how they can progress from the 4,000-fan limit to larger attendances.
‘It’s only sustainable in the very short term for clubs of our size or stadiums of our size,’ said Barber.
‘We will already be adding to substantial losses that we are making. For clubs lower down the pyramid, this is potentially a financial lifeline and a really important one for those clubs, so this is really good news for them.
‘We are looking forward to proving to government that we can bring fans back safely,’ he added.
The visitors to the Amex on Saturday December 5 are local rivals Southampton
No audiences have been allowed to attend events during the national lockdown in England
‘We’re grateful that this is a first step and I think what we’d love to see at some point from the Government is a road map to help us understand their logic and to help us to scale up our crowds.
‘Our aim is to get to a place where we can scale up the number of fans coming back to the stadium safely as quickly as we can,’ added Barber.
‘And, if we can do that, that returns football to a much more viable position that we have been in for some time now.’
Fans have been largely banned from elite sport since the first coronavirus pandemic swept the country in March.
However, Brighton, along with nine clubs in the EFL ran successful test events in August and September, with a view to supporters beginning to return from October 1.
Brighton’s chief executive Paul Barber has created a system for fans to return safely
That deadline was put back as infection rates rose and now clubs, where infection rates are low will be able to host some fans from December 2.
Brighton hosted 2,500 fans in a preseason friendly with Chelsea in August and learning from the event has been widely shared and will now form the basis of other clubs’ return plans.
Barber is looking forward to hosting fans, but he doesn’t think they will provide a huge advantage when the Saints visit next week.
‘In terms of competition fairness, I don’t think that 2,000 or 4,000 fans is going to be the difference, massively, between winning or losing games. I think we all accept that it’s going to add to the atmosphere, which is good for all of us.
‘When Chelsea played here in the summer, Frank Lampard made the remark that his own players just enjoyed being in front of fans again. It didn’t matter that they were Brighton fans.’
Brighton Blaze the Trail for Fans
Brighton and Hove Albion have created a template for the return of football fans to stadiums, which other clubs are expected to follow when the turnstiles open again.
Brighton’s test event, in which 2,500 supporters attended a preseason friendly against Chelsea on August 29, was hailed as a huge success and witnessed by senior government officials.
The results have been analysed by experts from the University of Manchester and have been incorporated into a set of guidelines for Local Safety Advisory Groups, bodies made up of representatives from the local authority, NHS, police and others in each area, which give the go ahead for clubs to host matches.
Brighton’s test event in August will form the basis of fans’ return nationwide
The system includes:
- Distancing on the approach to the stadium to avoid crowds, as well as on concourses inside
- Masks to be worn everywhere except when seated, however that is expected to change and masks will probably have to be worn before, during and after a match
- Fans will have to carry photo-identification so the club knows they are the person who bought the ticket and they can be contacted in the event of a coronavirus outbreak
- Supporters will have to sanitize their hands on the way in and out of grounds
- Each fan sits alone, not even in a family bubble, with seats either side vacant and one row left empty between supporters, which allows stewards to manage the game more easily
- Unique branding was produced by Brighton in mint green for Covid-related information. This was used to communicate with fans before the game and at the match, so they knew what to expect and what to do
- Fans asked to give way to supporters climbing the stairs to their seat (because they would be exhaling more heavily) and turn away from others when passing them
Supporters were socially distanced while seated within the Amex stadium
In addition, the Government’s Sports Technology and Innovation Working Group is looking at other initiatives, such as the possibility of mass testing of supporters so only those who test negative attend the match.
Crucially, analysis by the local health authority demonstrated the match did not result in a spike in COVID-19 infections.
A transport study after the Brighton event found that 60 per cent of supporters used public transport, even though parking was available, with many preferring to stick to their usual matchday routine.
Barber hopes fans could return in the New Year but he thinks spring is more likely
Clubs are also looking at how people will travel to and from the stadium.
Bristol City has developed a system in which limited numbers of fans can be allowed to attend matches from each postcode area, thereby ensuring that public transport is not overcrowded on any individual route.
In addition, Bristol City have said it would work with local pubs to manage the crowds around the stadium.