Most of the sporting world has now responded to the spread of Covid-19 by postponing and cancelling sports events around the world. To date, these include the Six Nations Rugby, the Formula One Grand Prix, the Tokyo Olympics and – closest to home – the English Premier League (EPL).
What is the Premier League planning?
Last week, the EPL stepped up its plans to resume the season in what it has labelled ‘Project Restart’, and some top-flight English clubs have already re-opened their training grounds in readiness for the season to resume on 8 June 2020, albeit most likely behind closed doors. All 20 Premier League teams are due to meet this weekend to vote on whether or not to complete the 2019/2020 season.
Given the vast amounts of money in football, mainly from broadcasting and commercial sponsors, a very delicate balancing exercise has to be undertaken between the financial benefit and legal arrangements of continuing and finishing the season vs the overriding principle of health and safety of all participants on and off the field, and of course the wider public. We have already seen the Dutch and French football leagues abandoned and the EPL now has to decide if it will follow.
What concerns do sponsors have?
Quite rightly, commercial sponsors of the EPL are in a state of limbo as most of these contracts have not yet been fulfilled due to the postponement of the season.
The most obvious example is shirt sponsorship – these sponsors will pay football clubs to use their logo and branding on playing shirts and/or training kit and, quite often, such commercial agreements are high value (sometimes running into tens of millions of pounds) and are usually paid in instalments across the length of the sponsorship agreement.
Notably, such agreements will traditionally run until the end of the playing season, which is traditionally 30 May. Therefore, if the EPL season is to be extended, both the sponsors and the EPL clubs may be forced to vary their agreements accordingly. However, if the parties have endured a troubled relationship over the course of the season to date, one party may see this as an opportunity to end their contractual obligations at the original end date of the season.
It remains to be seen what approach sponsors will take; however, with the increased likelihood of EPL matches being played behind closed doors and at neutral venues, and therefore restricting EPL clubs’ income via gate receipts from fans, the EPL clubs more than ever will be seeking to extend such sponsorship deals. This may well give the sponsors the upper hand on any negotiations for this season and potentially into the next.
What about the fans?
If the EPL does resume on 8 June 2020, the remaining fixtures (as indicated by the government) are likely to be played behind closed doors and at neutral venues in the interests of safety and fan welfare. But what if you are a season ticket holder and have already paid to see those remaining fixtures? Well, as fans are very unlikely to be able to attend these matches, their tickets would be unusable as they would be unable to receive the service they have paid for.
In a nutshell, fans will have legal remedies. These are usually found in the terms and conditions for the ticket purchase. However, notwithstanding those terms and conditions, there are remedies under the Consumer Rights Act 2015. Providing fans have purchased tickets direct, the principal remedy is the entitlement to a full refund of the face value of the ticket, minus any booking and postage fees. But if fans have purchased their tickets from a secondary seller, they will not benefit from this protection and they will need to solely rely on those ticketing terms and conditions for any remedy or refunds.
Depending on whether you are an EPL club, sponsor or an avid football fan, compromise might well be the name of the game for the foreseeable future.