Old Trafford chiefs are understood to be keen on the prospect of becoming the first major venue to welcome back fans for their European tie on Dec 2. Manchester currently remains above the national average of infections, with 342 cases per 100,000 people. A Government decision on which tier the city falls in will be announced on Thursday.
Arsenal are also awaiting a Government decision on the tier facing London ahead of their Europa League tie against Rapid Vienna at the Emirates the following evening.
Setting out his post-lockdown vision, Mr Johnson, as disclosed in yesterday’s Telegraph Sport, also confirmed a reprieve for outdoor grass-roots sport. A much-needed return for children’s sport plays a key part in plans after The Telegraph raised awareness of the plight facing youngsters during its ‘Keep Kids Active in Lockdown’ campaign. There was also good news for indoor sports which can all take place within the rule of six under tier one rules.
However, it is the announcement that fans can start returning over the coming weeks that is worth hundreds of millions of pounds to a revenue-starved sporting sector.
Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, hailed “a big step forward for sport”. The Premier League also welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement, but said “our ambition remains to work with Government to increase attendance to more substantial levels”.
“Until this can be done, many fans will be unable to attend games and our clubs will continue to operate matches at a financial loss,” a statement added. England’s top tier, which is one of eight key organisations, on the Sports Technology and Innovation Group (Stig), is working with Operation Moonshot on a blueprint to quickly scale up numbers inside stadiums.
United have worked extensively in recent months on creating a “bio-secure environment” for fans, and believe they can already safely house as many as 23,500 fans – about 32 per cent of capacity. United said in a statement on Monday that “we reiterate that we are ready to welcome fans back to Old Trafford as soon as it is safe to do so”.
Encouraging data around three Covid-19 vaccines, the latest from Oxford University and AstraZeneca, and a nationwide roll-out of rapid testing has given the sector further cause for hope that stadiums can be full again by the spring.
Most venues estimate they need to be at least a third full to turn a profit. Mehmet Dalman, the chairman of Championship Cardiff City, told Telegraph Sport “it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough to make it economically viable”.
The FA has yet to decide whether it will allow fans back to the Carabao Cup final in late February, but most domestic clubs across football and rugby are expected to welcome back fans at the earliest opportunity. In rugby’s Premiership, Exeter Chiefs initially estimated they needed at least 5,000 fans to break even, but chairman Tony Rowe last night told Telegraph Sport “this is very encouraging and I’m pleased – I may even smile”.
Darren Childs, chief executive of Premiership Rugby, also said the return of crowds was a “welcome boost”, coming days after rugby union received the lion’s share of a £300million Government bail-out for the sector.
The Government had been keen to ease resentment in sport after arts venues such as the London Palladium, Albert Hall and O2 were given permission to sell tickets for up to 5,000 spectators last month. The Football Supporters’ Association said on Monday the decision was overdue. “Fans have always felt football should be treated the same as other sectors,” a statement added.
In racing, the Jockey Club also welcomed the news, saying it has “detailed and careful protocols in place since racing resumed behind closed doors” to ensure spectators can return.
Sport England CEO Tim Hollingsworth said the Government’s announcement on grass-roots sport was crucial. In tier two areas, indoor sport can take place within households or against one person from another household, such as a singles tennis or badminton match.
In tier three areas, indoor sport will be restricted to within households, but gyms remain open. Adrian Christy, Badminton England chief executive, said club players in tier two and three areas will be disappointed with the decision to rule out competitive matches. He said his organisation would continue to work with Government.