While the case numbers of COVID-19 are rising in many parts of the world, there has been a gradual resumption of attended sporting events. Everywhere from the NFL stadiums in the US to the racecourses in the UK, restrictions are slowly being lifted to allow fans back to elite sports.

The majority of sporting events have been held behind closed doors since the pandemic went global in early spring 2020. Barring a few nations such as Belarus and Nicaragua, sporting events in most countries presented the eerie sight of athletes and teams playing in deserted sports arenas. While this allowed many sports events to carry on, it was an often soulless spectacle.

Moreover, many sporting institutions have been threatened with financial ruin without the regular revenues gained from attendees. It has been estimated that Scottish football will have lost £70 million due to the crippling financial effects of the pandemic, and this is a common story across all sports in most nations.

As a result, there has been a real push from sporting institutions to encourage governments to allow sporting fans to return to stadiums. It was argued that with members of the public being allowed to gather inside indoor spaces like bars and restaurants, the outdoor environments of football stadiums and racecourses would be much safer.

Eventually governments in many countries introduced measures that would allow fans to attend sporting events in limited numbers. The German Bundesliga football league was one of the first major sporting institutions to welcome back fans. In October, a number of Bundesliga matches took place that saw crowds ranging from as little as 300 to nearly 12,000. 

Such measures have recently started to be introduced in many other countries such as the UK. Last week saw limited numbers of fans attending football matches in the English Football League and Premier League. For the moment, only 2,000 fans are allowed to attend these matches, and there are strict precautions. This means that fans have to be sat far apart, and they will only be allowed to leave the stadium in a staggered system to follow social distancing procedures. 

It’s a similar procedure to what has happened in the horse racing world. Classic UK racecourses such as Haydock, Ludlow, Kempton and Lingfield welcomed back spectators for the first time in eight months. This followed the country’s tiered system of social distancing that put a crowd cap of 2,000 at the racetracks. 

Prior to this, horse racing had taken place behind closed doors since June. This meant that fans of the sport had to follow the action via television or live streaming on some horse racing betting sites. While it was easy for horse racing fans to read an 888sports review on horsebetting.com to see whether the site had live streaming, some people still felt that there was nothing like being able to attend the race meeting in person. 

There were two pilot events that were held in Warwick and Doncaster that have previously attempted to bring fans back to horse racing. However, these pilot schemes were dropped at the last minute due to rapid rises in the UK’s COVID-19 case numbers in October.

Initial reports from the UK sporting events suggests that attendees are happy to follow the social distancing protocols which includes wearing face coverings and signing up to a specific code of conduct. While the admission of hundreds of fans is a big morale boost to the sports industry, it’s clear that such limited numbers aren't sustainable. As a result, there are still big questions about how long it will be until the sports stadiums are full again.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that it is highly unlikely that NBA teams will be able to play in front of capacity crowds for the whole of the 2020/21 season. Much of this will depend on how effective the various new vaccines are in tackling the pandemic. But even so, Fauci said that unrestricted capacities at stadiums would be "the last thing that you’re gonna see."

While this might be demoralising for US sports fans, Fauci did provide a brief moment of optimism when he said that there is a possibility of there being full stadiums for the start of the next NFL season in September. 

Such news will be warmly welcomed by the sporting elite, but for many grassroots sports clubs, there are big questions about how long they are going to be able to survive. More often than not, it’s a simple question of cashflow. With overheads factoring in maintaining their sporting arenas and paying the athletes, it’s unrealistic to expect that these sports clubs are going to be able to survive another year without regular income. 

There have been a number of government bailout schemes in countries like the UK, but it’s debatable as to how long these can sustain the smaller sporting institutions. Similarly, the Premier League has finally agreed to support a £250 million bailout to help smaller clubs in the English Football League.

While such endeavours will help these sporting institutions to stay in business for another few months, it’s clear that the pandemic is having a major effect on the sporting world. Barely a day goes by without anything from a Premier League football match to an NFL game being called off due to players falling ill from COVID-19. Plus with even socially distanced sports like Formula 1 racing feeling the effects of the pandemic, it could be a long time before the sporting world returns to normal. 

Disclaimer: Play responsibly. Players must be over 18. For help visit https://www.gamcare.org.uk/

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