This weekend will see the start of the 2020-21 Bundesliga season, and with that a green light to start allowing fans back into the stadiums -- home fans only, with plenty of caveats and regulations -- for the first time since the initial shutdown in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
With three of the big five leagues -- English Premier League, French Ligue 1 and Spanish Primera Division -- already underway and the German Bundesliga and Italian Serie A to follow this weekend, there are plans to bring fans back into soccer stadia around the continent. Here is the state of play across Europe's top five domestic leagues.
Leagues impacted: Bundesliga, Bundesliga 2
When does new season start? Sept. 18
Financial cost to leagues without fans: All TV deals remain in place, but matches without fans meant losses at the gates, as well as in sponsorship money. Borussia Dortmund have the biggest capacity stadium, with over 80,000 tickets sold per match prior to the pandemic. Every match without fans costs the club about €4 million. Other clubs have smaller stadiums and lose less money in sheer numbers, but still a sizeable amount.
What's the latest? Bundesliga fans will be allowed back into stadiums when the new season kicks off with champions Bayern Munich hosting Schalke on Friday (Watch LIVE on ESPN, 2:30 p.m. ET, in the U.S.).
Following a virtual meeting of the federal states' chancelleries on Tuesday, home fans will be allowed back in stadiums -- with no away fans present, no alcohol allowed and a ban on standing. The number of fans allowed back into each stadium will be communicated in due course.
- Connelly: What makes the Bundesliga so much fun
- Americans in Europe: Goals for Reyna, Pulisic & Co. in 2020-21
- Hamilton: How Nagelsmann set the standard for young managers
The German Football League (DFL) agreed on a framework for the return of fans in August, with contract tracing regulations in place. Those attending matches will need to supply contact details in case of a new infections during the COVID-19 crisis. Every club has worked on location-specific hygiene concepts which includes prevention measures inside the stadium and on the way to the grounds. They must be approved by local health authorities before supporters are allowed back.
At present, a maximum 20% of capacity will be allowed in.
Best-case scenario: The return of fans goes without incident -- though, as was seen on Monday night at a DFB-Pokal match between Dynamo Dresden and Hamburg, there's still potential for problems -- and gives way to a full reopen in due course.
Worst-case scenario: A spike in cases nationwide, traced back to fans in Bundesliga stadia, causes a return to matches behind closed doors. If the seven-day coronavirus case average in a home city is above 35 per 100,000, a game must be played without spectators in attendance. -- Stephan Uersfeld
Leagues impacted: Premier League, EFL Championship, L1 and L2. National League, National League North, National League South
When did new season start: Sept. 12
Financial cost to leagues without fans: There's no catch-all figure for losses, due to each club having different stadium sizes and admission prices. At the top end, Manchester United are losing between £4m and £5m every time a game is played behind closed doors at Old Trafford, while in League 2, Salford City expect to be down by £40,000 per game, even when stadiums are allowed to open at 30% of capacity under the latest government plans, which are still under review.
What's the latest? English football is in a state of flux, waiting for the green light from the government to allow a limited number of fans to return to stadiums from Oct 1. With new restrictions on social gatherings to be imposed from Sept. 14, test events this month at sporting venues, including football and horse racing, have now been shelved, so Oct. 1 looks optimistic. However, the EFL (English Football League) announced late Tuesday that they would allow up to 1,000 fans for pilot events this weekend, provided that their plans were submitted by end of day.
The tentative plans had allowed for stadiums to re-open at 30% of capacity. Although that would not move the needle much at Premier League grounds in terms of making up for lost revenue, 30% of capacity would enable many L1 and L2 clubs to return to some kind of normality and financial certainty. Any lengthy postponement of a stadium reopening plan would put the future of many of those teams in jeopardy.
Best-case scenario: The best-case scenario is that Oct. 1 remains the date for some fans to return, but the recent spike in coronavirus cases across the UK has placed a significant question mark over those plans.
Worst-case scenario: The worst outcome for all concerned is that fans aren't allowed back in this season. -- Mark Ogden
Leagues impacted: Spanish Primera Division, Spanish Segunda Division and below
When does new season start? The season began in the first and second division on Sept. 12, although Real Madrid will wait to begin on Sept. 20 and Barcelona, Atletico and Sevilla (and, by association, Elche) will wait until Sept. 27 due to their extended runs in the Champions League and Europa Leagues. Spain's third tier down begins league play in October.
Financial cost to leagues without fans: Estimates vary and figures, by definition, are so far incomplete with no clubs declaring their full budgets yet, but virtually every club has seen a significant decrease. Figures in the sports daily AS suggest that Barcelona's operating budget has dropped from €1.05 billion to €733m, and Real Madrid from €822m to €650m, for example. In total, they estimate the first division's budget, across the 20 teams, to be likely to drop by over €800m this season.
In terms of what is lost in ticket sales, Madrid and Barcelona stand to lose over €250m in a year should a season's worth of games be played behind closed doors. The smaller clubs are slightly insulted here, as a far greater proportion of their income is from TV payments, which so far have been protected by the fact that La Liga did complete their season and therefore didn't have to repay any of that income. Indeed, the mid-/low-range of professional clubs have seen slight increases in their predicted annual budgets for next season given the contractual bump in the latest TV contract, which was signed pre-pandemic. (Although there is a fear that those TV incomes will drop with the next deal -- the existing one runs for another three seasons -- and that some operators will seek to renegotiate.) There is a broader impact too, with some figures claiming that football generates €15,688,000 a year directly and indirectly. The league constantly claims to be responsible for 1.38% of Spain's GDP.
One measure of the impact can be seen in the transfer window, where there is very little movement (although it remains open until Oct. 5). Spain's clubs have so far spent less than €300m -- collectively, less than Chelsea -- compared to around €1.3 billion last season. (A significant proportion of those are signings that were already set up in advance, too, such as Miralem Pjanic -- more financial engineering than real signing -- Alvaro Morata, Suso and Marc Cucurella.) Eight first-division clubs have not spent a euro yet.
What's the latest?
Spain had hoped to return to action with 30% attendance in stadiums, working toward 100% capacity in January. But with coronavirus cases rising again, the Ministry of Health has prevented that. Games are being played behind closed doors and with a new protocol that is even stricter than last season's return. One measure particularly stands out: Clubs can't use dressing rooms. Players turn up in their kit and leave in it, too.
Best-case scenario: A vaccine is found, coronavirus numbers go down and some small numbers of fans are allowed into grounds from November. Or, in the case of some games in the supposedly amateur third tier on down, which is dependent on the RFEF (Spanish FA) rather than the league, possibly even before. Few truly anticipate significant shifts until after Christmas. Javier Tebas, the league's president, is no longer so bullish about reopening stadiums as he was before.
Worst-case scenario: There are fears that Spain is heading toward a new lockdown, or at least local lockdowns, and in some areas the numbers are as high as they were in the spring. No one knows how this will play out, but the spectre of an entire season in silence and empty grounds does not feel entirely impossible. -- Sid Lowe
Leagues impacted: Serie A, Serie B, Lega Pro
When does new season start? Sept. 19 (Serie A), Sept. 26 (Serie B), Sept. 27 (Lega Pro)
Financial cost to leagues without fans: $450m (Serie A) if they go the whole season without fans
What's the latest? Limited numbers of fans (no more than a thousand) have been allowed in to friendly matches on a test basis, but all fans remain barred from official games until Oct. 1. From that day forward, there is the possibility of fans being allowed back and the league has presented a protocol that covers individual stadiums on a case-by-case basis.
The league is asking for an average of 30% capacity across the board (with some clubs, because of the way the stadiums are built, having as much as 40% and others being closer to 20%). This has yet to be approved and the general mood, given there has been a slight spike in cases -- from about 200 a day in mid-July to about 1,500 over the past week -- is that it's unlikely to be approved by the Italian government.
Best-case scenario: Grounds re-open at an average of 30% capacity across Serie A from Oct. 3 to Oct. 4.
Worst-case scenario: Grounds stay fully closed until situation improves. -- Gab Marcotti
Leagues impacted: Ligue 1, Ligue 2, Championnat de France National
When did new season start? Aug. 21
Financial cost to leagues without fans: Reportedly 800m
What's the latest? Since the season started, a small portion of fans have been allowed in stadiums in France's top three divisions. The government, who decided to stop the football season back in March and not resume -- awarding all the trophies on April 30 instead -- this time gave the green light for fans to come back. They also left it to the discretion of local and county authorities to decide how many fans could attend.
Most of them have settled for a maximum of 5,000 fans, regardless of the size of the stadiums. However, some have pushed it a little bit further: For example, Bastia were allowed to have 6,500 fans inside their Furiani stadium for their clash against Boulogne at the beginning of the month. Furiani has a capacity of 16,000 seats; having 40% of the stadium filled marks the highest France have had since the start of the season.
Clubs have easily sold all their allocations, and every spectator has to wear a mask the whole game and always has to remain seated. Social distancing rules are in place too, with at least two seats left between fans (unless they are from the same household) although, especially with the Ultras (or fan groups), this spacing has not always been respected. Nevertheless, it has been successful so far to have some fans back.
Best-case scenario: Local authorities will now slowly increase the amount of fans allowed inside stadiums. There are talks about 10,000 being the next step up, although with the numbers of positive cases rising across the country, no date has been set for the increase.
Worst-case scenario: The number of positive cases keeps rising across France, which in turn forces local authorities to be more careful, especially if it is proven that having fans in the stadium has spread the coronavirus and started new clusters of infection. In that case, we could go back to having no fans at all. -- Julien Laurens