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Conrado Valle

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The 2,500 Valencia fans who traveled to Milan on February 19, 2020 were curious that they will take their temperature as soon as they get off the plane. Italy, which at that time had reported three cases of a virus identified as SARS-CoV-2 (two Chinese tourists and an Italian repatriated from Wuhan), was the first country in the European Union to establish detection measures for the coronavirus that had been detected weeks earlier in China. Now we all know even its variants; then, at that Milan-Malpensa airport, the sanitary control began and ended.

In San Siro 40,000 Atalanta fans gathered, 33% of the population of Bergamo

Visit to Piazza del Duomo, walk through the Vittorio Emanuele Gallery, pizza here, beer there and so on until it is time to take the metro to go to San Siro. There the Valencianists met 40,000 Atalanta fans who traveled to Milan to attend the Champions League round of 16 match. His team had never gone this far. 40,000 people is the 33% of the population of Bergamo. 40,000 people who kissed, hugged and celebrated a goal in the Champions League as it deserves. They and the thousands of Bergamascos who saw it on television. That night Atalanta did not score one, they celebrated four.

Two days later, Europe looked back to Lombardy. But this time it wasn't for football. The Italian region reported 16 cases of coronavirus. One day later, 60. On February 22, the first death from this virus was reported against which there was no cure or vaccine. Lombardy became the focus of expansion of the pandemic in Europe. In Valencia, on February 26, the first positive was confirmed. The journalist Kike Mateu, who covered the game in San Siro, became ‘Patient 0’ in the city of Turia. In the newspapers, coronavirus and soccer were written in a single headline. Days later, with the pandemic out of control, the mayor of Bergamo dramatized what happened that night in San Siro between Atalanta goals: “It was a biological bomb.”

What has been lived since then is the history of humanity. Also of soccer. The world we lived in began to change. Valencia was the first club in the Spanish League to take action as a result of the outbreak in the journalist's environment, canceling press conferences and public events of its players, including a tribute to Guaje Villa in Mestalla, restrictions that were announced on 28 February, when Spain was preparing to see the Classic between Real Madrid-Barcelona with 80,000 people at the Santiago Bernabéu. That same weekend Serie A postponed the matches that were to be played in the north of the country and UEFA announced that Valencia-Atalanta would be played behind closed doors. The trickle of measures was making a puddle until, finally, on March 11, Álvaro Morata scored in the 121st minute for Liverpool-Atlético the last goal of the old normality of football, the night we heard the last time in a narration the voiced by Michael Robinson.

The world began to stand still the term confinement became a trend, and the soccer industry, like so many others, lowered the blind. All domestic competitions were suspended. Well, not all of them, the pandemic made us discover ‘Gallic soccer villages’ in Nicaragua, Belarus, Burundi and Tajikistan, countries whose leagues continued their course as if the coronavirus were not with them.

“The pandemic has only aggravated problems that were already structural in the football business model”

‘The European Champions Report 2020’, KMPG

Videoconferences were the window to the outside world of our homes and through them football began to regenerate, “to which the crisis of the pandemic only made problems worse that were already structural of the business model ”, as KMPG stated in its study ‘The European Champions Report 2020’ and FIFPRO emphasized in its annual report: “The crisis has highlighted the need to improve financial sustainability in the football industry.” That structural problem that KPMG talks about has its own name: wages. That improvement to which FIFPRO refers, also: digitization.

“Wages were already a problem and the Covid-19 crisis has only done it to corroborate it; the elite players have been made of gold by the income by television of the clubs and now they have to accept the new reality ”, comments a high executive of soccer in Spain that asks to maintain his anonymity. The ECA (Association of European Clubs) predicts that the salary-income ratio will increase from 59.6% (2018/19 season) to 70.1% (2020/2021). But without a pandemic, it was expected that it would rise to 62.9%. With the players locked in their homes and the stadiums with the padlock on (Barcelona raised € 60M per year just for visits to the Camp Nou), a high percentage of clubs had liquidity problems and labor terms such as ERTE began to ring in the head of footballers from teams that would never have imagined it and historic ones like Bayern Munich (6%) or Juventus (13%) reduced their personnel costs.

Elite gamers made gold for TV revenue and now they have to embrace the new reality

Symptoms of the crisis were palpable in the summer and January market windows. According to a CIES report, the transfer market was reduced by 43%. From € 5,800M to € 3,300M. Player transactions without transfer payment went from 26.2% to 32.3% and transfers grew from 23.1% to 30%. In South America, only 491 transfers were recorded in the summer. All this also splashed the value of the players. According to KMPG, The 500 most valuable footballers decreased their value between February 2020 and January 2021 by 9.6%. Basically because “the clubs had less purchasing power and more need to sell”, a trend that will continue at least in the next two years. Only women's football maintained its inertia on the upside, mainly because it is still at low levels, with an increase in operations of 35% (from 385 to 522).

The ECA estimates that in 2020 and 2021 football will suffer € 4000M losses and 90% will affect the clubs. And the outlook would have been worse if the majority of competitions had not been resumed, although doing so behind closed doors is an economic burden for the clubs. La Liga, for example, estimated at around € 300M the reduction in revenue due to the closure of stadiums in the last 11 days of last season. But that amount would have tripled if television rights had also been lost. There is the case of Ligue 1, which decided to suspend its tournament in April and such a decision, according to Deloitte, cost its clubs € 122'9M in television rights.

The return of football was conceived with multiple pacts between different national and international actors, who had to readjust calendars and impose new regulations and health protocols (in Spain this was known as the ‘Viana Pact’). The objective was to save the economy of the clubs and the commandment, that they could fulfill their television contracts. The Eurocup by 2021. The same happened with the America Cup and the Club World Cup. This release of dates allowed the national leagues to end (only the Netherlands and France ended their championships without finishing them) and UEFA set the resolution for the Europa League and the Champions. Of course, with changes.

The pandemic has brought with it a new football. Some measures seem to have been specific, such as the format in a single venue and a single match in the Champions and Europa League. But others have apparently come to stay, such as five changes per game or Calls for up to 23 players. Even the contracts have undergone modifications, including a nuance in their duration in the new ones: “Until July 30 or, failing that, the date of the last official game of the current season.” Not to mention the changes in the routines of training and games, such as showering at home or in the hotel, not all meeting at the same time in the dressing room, the substitutes in hooligans mode in the stands … or a stick in the nose almost every three days (CRP).

“There was a pre-pandemic football and there is another post-pandemic”, emphasizes José Carrascosa, sports psychologist (Saber Competir / IMEDUCV). “The day-to-day of the players has been completely altered: the routines are different and even the coexistence between them is different, because they cannot even make the social relationship that they used to make as a dressing room … that accumulation of changes, all that uncertainty, generates pandemic fatigue in them, ”says Carrascosa. In the same vein as her colleague, María Blanco, from Train Your Mind Psychology, shows: “Footballers do not live in another world and this pandemic has consequences for anyone; perhaps many of them do have more favorable economic and health situations than the rest, but uncertainty affects them like all of them and in the long term we can find high levels of anxiety due to accumulation “. Carrascosa, in fact, attributes to this stress the high percentage of injuries produced since the return of football.

The ball rolled again, but without an audience. The pandemic, beyond the economic consequences for clubs for playing behind closed doors, has also altered the habits of fans, or better known as spectators. According to a report from ROAMS, LaLiga increased its television audience by 11% compared to the 2018/19 season and 18% compared to 2017/2018. This despite the fact that restrictions have prevented 2.6 million Spaniards they watched football where they used to do it: in bars (report from the League and Mediapro). This data translates into the fact that the soccer pandemic, only in Spain, has had an impact of € 4,000 million on hotels and tourism linked to a match; while the clubs have had to regenerate to maintain their social quota.

“With the pandemic, football has shown its ability to adapt to adversity and clubs have known how to maintain their ties with fans using new communication channels,” explains Víctor Oñate, CEO of DV7 Group. A Deloitte survey indicates that the 49% of fans are used to interacting with their clubs on social media social networks and 17% have subscribed for the first time in recent months to the different platforms of the teams (YouTube channel, applications …). “Soccer has shown that it is related well to the growth of the leading entertainment platforms such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, increasing its presence on these channels as content through series and documentaries, but at the same time confirming its value as the only premium content to which people adapt their schedules: you can watch your favorite series whenever you want, but you still schedule your time to see your team live ”.

Club marketing departments have made giant strides in recent months to adapt to the circumstances. “Technology has allowed us to maintain that bond with our fans, activate the relationship with the sponsors and give it the visibility that has been lost with empty stadiums ”, explains Federico Alcácer, general manager of Villarreal. Digitization in football, obviously, has long been here to stay, although it has two major challenges ahead: monetizing those relationships and adapting them to social customs. “The challenge of football is how to interact with the new generations who are no longer easy to put in front of the TV to watch a 90-minute game”, reflects Oñate, who adds: “The fusion of clubs and leagues with video games, eSports and fast consumption formats will be key to define the relationship between clubs and fans ”.

One year has passed since the Atalanta-Valencia biological bomb and the clubs continue to ask one another: When will the public return to the stadiums? And that question leads to another: How many and how will they return? In the survey conducted by Deloitte in its report ‘Football Money 2020’, 93% of the fans admit that “yes” they will return to the stadiums, although only 52% immediately, while 15% indicate that they will wait at least six months. “The uncertainty about when we will be able to open the stadiums to the public makes planning difficult and makes any budget forecast difficult, because the box office is one of the three sources of income that clubs have together with television and commercial agreements,” says Alcácer.

The pandemic will widen the differences between the big leagues and the small ones, which basically live on what they collect at the box office

“Football, in terms of public, will take a long time to return to normal compared to other areas of entertainment due to the political component it has,” adds that anonymous senior executive consulted by AS. Without an audience, the revenue drag will continue and the pandemic will exacerbate the differences between the big and small leagues, who basically live on what they collect at the box office. Between elite and amateur football. But, in turn, in those big leagues, the most affected clubs will be the powerful, which are the ones that collect the most on match days and whose budgets, proportionally, depend to a lesser extent on television. A) Yes, the 20 clubs with the highest income in Europe decreased their income in 2020 by 12% in 2020 (€ 1,100M) and it is many of these clubs that have motivated UEFA to present a new format for the Champions League. Waiting for that mana that will arrive in 2024, the clubs, all, wait soon your vaccine: the public.

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