A safe sporting haven for rent?

Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 18 May 2020

Rather than dwell on his team’s loss in its first “ghost match” in the German football league, Oliver Hartwich comes up with an example of the creative thinking we will need: New Zealand as a safe haven for professional sports fixtures

As New Zealand moves towards some new form of normality, the question becomes how to benefit from eliminating Covid-19 in New Zealand. It is worth looking at other countries’ specific problems.

Take Germany’s football league, for example.

It may not be the best time for me to write about football because I am grouchy. After a two-months coronavirus break, my life-long passion FC Schalke 04 lost its first match 0-4 to arch-rival Borussia Dortmund on Saturday, its biggest local derby defeat since 1966.

To make it worse, I then got to watch scenes from the game on New Zealand’s 6 o’clock news because the German Bundesliga was the first professional football league in Europe to resume games.

But besides the ghastly result, the scenes barely looked like football as we knew it. The stadium, with a capacity of 81,365 and usually sold out months in advance, was empty. The masked substitute players were spaced out on the bench. The players did not even celebrate their goals with each other. It was eerie.

It is not obvious if playing football like this makes much sense. But it does make money. A lot of money. And that is why German football matches – ‘ghost matches’ (Geisterspiele) as they call them in Germany – are happening at all.

For the current season, the German football league receives more than €1.16 billion ($2.1 billion) from TV stations for the right to broadcast the matches. This sum is paid in instalments, but payments stopped when Germany went into Covid-19 lockdown.

Ever since, the clubs and the football association have been frantically trying to get back to the pitch. According to media reports, about a third of the 36 clubs in the first and second division could face bankruptcy if those TV payments don’t come in.

Running a competitive league in a country which still practices social distancing is an obvious problem. To get around this, the clubs have agreed to put the teams in strict quarantine, test each player every few days and only leave their club bubbles for 90 minutes on the pitch once or twice a week.

Yet this approach is not simple. In the lead-up to Saturday’s first post-lockdown matchday, three people working for 1st division club 1. FC Köln tested positive for Covid-19. A few days later, two players from 2nd division club Dynamo Dresden also tested positive. In Dresden’s case, the entire club went into isolation and missed the restart of the league. The matches will have to be postponed and played later.

Then, just before the match day, 1st division club FC Augsburg reported its head coach Heiko Herrlich went into self-isolation for breaking the Bundesliga’s coronavirus protocol by going to the supermarket to buy some toothpaste and face cream.

As these examples show, there is a constant threat hanging over the remaining eight match days of the Bundesliga. Any breach of the rules and any case of infection could jeopardise the entire project of completing the season. And if the season is not completed, funding from TV rights will not flow. And if the money does not flow, a few traditional clubs might go under.

And if that happens, the future of professional football looks bleak. What would be the point of professional football in Germany without the likes of Schalke 04?

This is just the Bundesliga. Other European football leagues face similar problems. They may eventually return to the pitch, but matches would happen without crowds – and there will always be the possibility of a sudden stop if players or officials get infected despite all precautionary measures.

Whether it will even be enjoyable to watch such ghost matches without the usual football match atmosphere is another question altogether.

What Europe’s billion-dollar sports leagues need more than anything is certainty, to plan ahead to secure their financial survival. The best that European clubs can hope for is to somehow conclude the current season. But they probably would not want to face the same uncertainty in the coming season.

Enter New Zealand.

After eliminating Covid-19, the country is moving fast towards restoring professional sports. NZ Rugby, for example, states on its website it hopes to resume competition fixtures from 20 June.

Even better, these fixtures will happen in a country where head coaches can buy toothpaste.

Given New Zealand’s ability to provide a safe haven for professional sports, why not capitalise on it? Especially at a time with so much underutilised capacity in the hospitality sector, it would be mutually beneficial to allow professional sports teams in for a few months to escape the European nightmare.

Once the border re-opens to foreign nationals, it would probably keep a two-week quarantine for visitors (other than Australians, presumably). That means ordinary tourists would be unlikely to visit.

However, a two-week quarantine would not necessarily deter professional sports clubs if their financial survival depended playing without coronavirus interruptions.

European leagues and clubs could play in New Zealand. They would inject money into the economy at a time it is needed. Their presence and the matches played would be invaluable advertisements for New Zealand, which would pay off in the years after the global pandemic.

It could also provide a boost to New Zealand’s hospitality sector. Imagine what it might do to bring the Premier League, the Serie A or the Bundesliga to New Zealand – even if it is just for the preparation of the 2020/21 season.

You may think I am dreaming but this kind of creative thinking is needed to make the most of our country’s Covid-free status.

New Zealand fought hard to beat the virus and now it deserves to seize an economic opportunity. Safely and selectively, the border can be re-opened to anyone prepared to undergo a strict quarantine – whether they are football players, investors or students.

And on that optimistic note, I have decided not to dwell too much anymore on that 0-4 defeat against the club whose name I will not even mention again. Schalke 04 will hopefully do better next Sunday when the stadium ghosts will watch it play FC Augsburg.

And who knows, perhaps I might get to watch Schalke 04 at Wellington’s cake tin before too long.

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