How will Covid-19 affect the summer transfer window and FFP?
Background image: KrisFricke, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Karren Brady isn’t wrong. You may disagree with her conclusion that the season should be declared “null and void” immediately to mitigate Covid-19’s effect on English football but the West Ham vice-chair is spot-on in summing up the situation.
The Premier League hopes that an interlude of three weeks from now will enable it to restart but that may well be dreamland.
The Lancet Medical Journal just published a report from Chinese doctors who discovered the coronavirus can survive in humans for more than double the current 14-day self-isolation period. According to the research, “patients with the new coronavirus keep the pathogen in their respiratory tract for as long as 37 days.” It goes on to report the median term for the pathogen to live inside a person is 20 days. Under those conditions, everyone who emerges from self-isolation remains a risk to the unexposed.
It’s also believed “four out of five people will probably have mild symptoms [but Covid-19] can be deadly for the elderly and people with conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.” That explains why professional athletes [past and present] such as Mikel Arteta and Callum Hudson-Odoi report rapid improvement. Extremely fit, their immune systems are stronger than average. Yet, getting better doesn’t mean anything if you then transmit the disease to someone else.
In addition, limited testing masks the extent to which the pandemic has spread. If 80% of people with Covid-19 don’t experience serious symptoms, they aren’t tested under current US and UK protocols. That concerns World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is.
Effective quarantine period
If robust testing continues to be an impossibility due to a lack of resources, governments may conclude self-isolation should be lengthened to a period longer than the virus can survive in humans. Depending on whether a government accepts the virus’ median duration or maximum, that could be anywhere from a month to six weeks.
While the longer period may seem more sensible when your sole concern is people’s physical well-being, the pandemic also threatens everyone’s economic health. Some people can work at home. Others cannot. In addition, small businesses, especially restaurants, pubs, gyms and other places where people gather, cannot survive forever if people stay away. They must still cover their overhead without any revenue coming in.
As an entertainment, football also faces a greater threat the longer the game remains in limbo. Lower and non-league clubs stand at the most serious risk but top-flight clubs will suffer as well. Expect that to be reflected in the transfer market.
If the season resumes, stadiums may not sell out until people feel secure that the pandemic is, if not eliminated, then contained. While Premier League teams rely more on revenues from broadcasting, sponsors and merchandise, they will still feel a pinch without bums in seats. In addition, fans who lost income due to employers closing up shop will be skint themselves and therefore less likely to buy tickets and merchandise. Sponsors who took a severe hit may seek discounted deals to renew or even be reluctant to continue their deals at all.
Those losses will be transferred at least in part to player investment. Stars such as Paul Pogba and Jadon Sancho may no longer command fees above the £100 million threshold. Interest in them may cool and the players could find themselves stuck at their current clubs. As well, they’ll find it even more difficult to negotiate pay raises with ownership tightening their belts.
Then there is the question, assuming some current seasons do resume and carry into the summer while others do not, as to when the window should open and close? After experimenting with a shortened summer window last season, the Premier League voted in February to return to the UEFA schedule this summer. It’s one thing for late transfers to impact teams in the early doors, another for them to occur while a club attempts to qualify for the Champions League or avoid relegation.
At the moment, various league policies towards coronavirus develop and proceed independently, each on a separate schedule. The transfer window is universal. If the Premier League resumes its season while Serie A and La Liga already prepare for the new campaign, even a single player movement could devastate an English club. UEFA, as the governing body, must determine the optimal transfer window period and duration.
In addition, Aleksander Ceferin and co may need to make a decision regarding Financial Fair Play. With all clubs losing games and revenue, their ability to reinforce squads under current rules will be significantly reduced. Several will report heavy losses as they pay out full wages to idle players.
Proclaiming an FFP moratorium is a risky proposition. Free to spend despite depleted coffers, some clubs may put themselves in financial danger in hopes of manufacturing a quick recovery. Such scenarios are exactly what FFP is intended to prevent.
On the other hand, FFP allows clubs to show a loss in a given year or two but it must, at minimum, break even over a three-year period. Perhaps that span could temporarily be extended to four or five seasons from the 2019/20 campaign for clubs in suspended or cancelled leagues.
Getting football back on track will pose different challenges for leagues in different countries. Factors such as how many people acquire the virus, how many recover and how quickly will affect other conditions, such as local, regional and national economies. From a continental perspective, UEFA will be equally challenged to coordinate a return to normalcy. Organising the next transfer window and reviewing Financial Fair Play may be key to the game’s recovery.