Written by Callum Walker
The news that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced new restrictions for the United Kingdom, including the postponement of the phased return of fans, has not gone down well with the sporting fraternity. But, with coronavirus cases increasing daily, was there any surprise that this method of action would be taken?
Rugby Football League chief executive Ralph Rimmer has been adamant that the sport was on a knife-edge and that the return of crowds was essential to the survival of many clubs who were facing a potential revenue fall of £2 million a week.
Things had been looking up for rugby league when a pilot programme was announced which would have enabled up to a thousand spectators into stadiums. But, that too has been paused with the UK on a level 4 COVID-19 alert with transmission classed as “high or rising exponentially”.
Four games had been scheduled with live crowds at Wigan, Huddersfield, Castleford and Leeds, starting on September 30. Even then though, Salford were unable to join the scheme because of its proximity to a high-risk area, suggesting that such proposals would certainly have twists and turns in the future.
There was more positivity coming out the sport when Catalans Dragons were able to host a Super League fixture before a crowd of 5,000 against Wigan. From that, it was hopeful that fans could be present for the Challenge Cup semi-finals and finals as well as the Grand Final.
🗣️Ahead of speaking to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden, Rugby Football League CEO Ralph Rimmer has said he believes the sport can manage the return to crowds at games.
— Sky Sports Rugby League (@SkySportsRL) September 22, 2020
Centralisation at approved stadia has been the name of the game in recent months to save on broadcasting costs which has also enabled them to be televised, giving fans at least some kind of access to their beloved sport.
With the news eking out every day that cases were rising though, it seemed rather presumptuous to expect that crowds could return in the midst of a growing crisis. It almost seemed as though those concerned with the game were burying their heads in the sand and hoping that the spectator return would help keep clubs’ heads above water.
Rimmer has always maintained how important it is to get crowds back as quickly as possible, but in the ever-changing environment it seems unlikely that will happen anytime soon. Centralised games at different stadia each week have at least given the sport some kind of respite, but with consistent positive tests in and around most clubs, rugby league in 2020 continues to survive against the odds.