• Jonathan Brannan

HOW HAS A LACK OF FANS AFFECTED SCOTTISH SPORT?

Millions of pounds of lost revenue. Jobs at risk. Social isolation. These are just some of the problems thrown up by a lack of fans at sports stadia in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.


Up to 4,000 supporters in low-risk areas of England will be allowed to go and watch their team from 2 December, but in Scotland, that number remains at 300 with no current plans to escalate it further.


The sports industry is growing ever more frustrated as grim financial forecasts continue to be made in the absence of matchday revenue, with the soccer authorities calling for urgent talks with the Scottish government.


Scottish soccer is estimated to have collectively lost £70m since the pandemic began, with the expectation that it will rise to £100m by the end of the campaign.


It's no surprise given 43% of Scottish clubs' income comes from gate receipts, which is 15% more than the average across Europe. And while most clubs have already sold season tickets, revenue generated by away fans and that of walk-up spectators has been lost.


Three of Scotland's biggest clubs; Celtic, Rangers, and Aberdeen, have all reported financial hits in their accounts to the end of 30 June 2020 with heavy losses forecast if fans do not return soon. Aberdeen say they will lose £5m by the end of the campaign without crowds, while Rangers estimate £10m.


Scottish Rugby, whose revenue revolves enormously around packing out Murrayfield for Test matches, is projecting an £18m drop in revenue, with worse to come if fans are not in place for the 2021 Six Nations in February.


"Right now there is no hope, no plan," Aberdeen chairman Dave Cormack said last week, reflecting the mood in club boardrooms across the country.


Much of the focus is on how much clubs and governing bodies stand to lose, but there are further ramifications for communities.


The Roseburn Cafe is one of a number of hospitality businesses located within a mile of Murrayfield and Tynecastle in the west of Edinburgh. Kadir Kavak is the owner, and says his takings when there is a Scotland rugby game on usually double, or sometimes treble.


But on Sunday, as Scotland were playing out a 22-15 Autumn Nations Cup loss to France in an empty stadium, Kavak was at home.


"I had a day off, normally that's impossible," he says. "When there's a game, we're much more busy than is usual. But these days it's just another quiet, lockdown day."Iain Cooper is the manager of the Pittodrie Bar in Aberdeen, a popular pre-match haunt for fans of the club. On matchdays, there is a queue down King Street in the city for opening at 11:00, and the place barely lets up for the rest of the day.


"Football matchdays are our best financial days," Cooper explains. "We rattle through six or seven bottles of vodka and five, six, seven kegs of Tennent's [lager]."Now it's a struggle. I'd say we're on a very, very thin line. I wouldn't say we're making money. I think we're just bobbing along."There's more than just the bottom line to consider, too, with the impact of social isolation on punters keenly felt. Tavak, owner of the Roseburn Cafe, gets a regular group of visitors from Fife for Scotland games who have become friends, and Cooper says many regulars to the Pittodrie Bar have struggled at times without the regular social contact.


It is easy to consider fans going to a game every week as a luxury. But for others, it is at the centre of their daily life.


Dawn Middleton is the general manager of Motherwell FC's Community Trust, the charitable arm of the club. North Lanarkshire has one of the highest suicide rates in Scotland - one person per week takes their own life in the area, a statistic Motherwell are sadly well aware of having campaigned on the issue for several years.


The club has lost a number of its own fans to suicide in recent years, including three in one week at the beginning of March, many of whom watched their team from the same corner of Fir Park, where the colorful Well Bois group enthusiastically support the team. These issues existed long before Covid-19, but its isolating impact has had a lasting effect."Prior to Covid, social isolation was the biggest risk to health," Middleton said. "Now we're in Covid, that impact is even more. For a lot of our fans, this [Fir Park] is where they came. Sometimes Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday. Suddenly that's gone. So we needed to give something back."


In response, the club has hosted Zoom calls to help with isolation, as well as delivering more than 400 mental health care packages and food parcels with the help of around 90 fan volunteers.


But the value of the Trust's work is not something you can quantify, as they go out in their community searching for those most in need, encountering some traumatic stories along the way.


"You can't call yourself a community club and not care about your community," Middleton says.


"It's very easy to deliver community activity. I could open up the astro [pitch] now and have 140 people play soccer - if it were permitted - but there's a side of community work that's very difficult to do, and that's gaining the trust of people who are most in need of support."


An SPFL-commissioned study done by the Fraser of Allander Institute this year estimated soccer - and the spending of its fans on matchdays - contributed £444m to Scotland's GDP in 2018, which stood at about £162bn, and supported over 9,000 jobs. It is not insignificant, but other industries could argue they deserve to be put first given their greater contribution.

As national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch has pointed out, professional sport was given special dispensation to return in the summer, and soccer clubs in particular can still make money while some businesses are forced to close temporarily. Season tickets have still been flogged, in some cases at record speed and in vast numbers.


Then there is the argument soccer clubs are still signing new players while using the furlough scheme, or cutting jobs, though the riposte is that without a competitive first team, vital sponsorship and prize money would worsen their financial peril.

Stephen Morrow is a lecturer in sport finance at Stirling University, and explains soccer and rugby's minimal income streams do pose different challenges.


"The nature of the industry makes diversification difficult," he says. "The core product is the live match, and it's a perishable product so it's got value at the time the activity's happening and it diminishes as soon as the match is over. So you try to leverage your income on the back of that live match.


"There are some nice imaginative ideas going on around using web broadcasts and internet activity to get some money in particularly in some of the lower clubs. But it's not going to replace the main income streams.


"It's obviously replicated in other industries, but it's a very visible part of our cultural life as well as economically and I think that's where the challenges comes from."


Soccer and, more subtly, rugby, will continue to bang the drum for the return of fans as swiftly as possible. It is a consistent and forceful case being put forward time and again. But while Covid-19 stubbornly lingers and the Scottish government tries its best to combat it, the question is whether anybody is still listening.