Back in June when things slowly began to re-open after lockdown, I started going for walks along The Marina which is my favourite part of Cork City. Currently, it is pedestrianised which makes the walk all the calmer, not that it needs to be.
Today is different though, instead of it being quiet in a peaceful sense, there was an eeriness to the silence which was highlighted further as I passed the hallowed turf- Páirc Uí Chaoimh. In June, like every other summer, the Páirc should be bustling with activity, colour, and most of all fans. There out of sheer fanaticism for the game or just for the day out. This summer, of course, is unlike any other.
And so I continue to walk past the great theatre without headphones as one does not need to be distracted by art when you can simply take in visually – the bigger picture. Something which must be looked at in relation to the survival of sport as we know it.
Three months have passed since that fateful summer evening and stadiums across the island remain virtually empty with only 200 spectators allowed at all sporting events. The right decision in the short term especially when public health is at risk during a pandemic. There is more at play here than our physical well-being, however. People’s mental health and livelihoods are at risk with the stakes getting higher the longer the situation remains the same.
If the situation does not improve or correct action is not taken, thousands of jobs will be at risk. IRFU boss Phillip Browne spoke of his concerns recently that professional rugby will cease to exist within the next 12 months if fans are forced to stay away. The IRFU is expecting to lose €30m this year due to the pandemic. At present they are spending €5m a month on the professional game including players, wages etc. If the situation continues in its current state in 2021, the IRFU will be in debt of up to €10m from having a surplus of €28m according to Browne.
The same can be said for the League Of Ireland where season ticket sales and gate receipts are the primary form of revenue for clubs. It accounts for 28% of the total income for the league according to UEFA’s 11th footballing landscape report which was published in January of this year. During the pandemic, Cork City had to lay off their entire playing staff due to the impact of Covid-19 and this will only be the tip of the iceberg if stadiums continue to be empty.
The question is, how can fans gradually be allowed to return to stadia – which is crucial for the industry as a whole – in a safe manner. One could take a look across the Irish sea where trial programmes are in place where between 1000-3000 fans were allowed back into 15 different clubs in the football league for a test run. Although the recent spike in Covid cases has stalled the programme for at least a short period of time, it does give food for thought. Ulster played Toulouse in the Champions Cup last Sunday week and 5,000 fans were allowed into the Stade Ernest Wallon which has a capacity of 19,500. Most importantly, strict health guidelines were in place where every supporter had to wear a mask and strict social distancing was in place. At all these sporting events, no positive cases have been reported as of yet.
This could possibly be the way forward until a vaccine is available. The Irish government has recently published its own programme which highlights the need to get fans back into stadia. It includes having up to 500 fans being allowed in at stadiums such as League of Ireland grounds while up to 5,000 fans are expected to be allowed at the largest stadiums such as Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium. However, if strict social distancing and compulsory wearing of masks is applied, surely there is potential to have more spectators in the grounds. All of this of course depends on if Ireland gets to stage 1 which is currently not the case.
Despite reading the previous 800 words of misery, it is important to finish on a positive note. Trials for a vaccine are taking place across the world and there are enough bright minds within the sporting world to bring forth a solution to a problem which has never been encountered before in our lifetime. A problem shared is a problem halved after all.
Until then, we will remain on the outside looking in, with not all of us lucky enough to have The Marina for company.