Here, Peter Watton, from matched betting specialists OddsMonkey, takes a look at how the absence of football fans during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the sport is not the same without them.

Watch any game in the newly started Premier League season and it can take a minute or so to work out what is missing. With the camera focused on the action and a fake crowd noise being piped into the feed, the absence of fans is not immediately obvious. However, once you start to get a glimpse of the empty seats behind the dugout or when a corner is taken, the reality begins to set in.

In the peak of the summer, when COVID-19 rules were at their most relaxed, many fans had one eye on the UK Government’s plans to see the limited return of crowds from the 1st October. However, with infection rates rising once again, the Prime Minister announced that this would not be possible, and clubs have subsequently been told that they shouldn’t expect to see the return of fans until late March 2021 at the earliest (BBC).

With fans set to stay at home until near the end of the season, the football world is again grappling with an issue that many hoped would be resolved by now. Their absence over the next six months is set to be a stark reminder for clubs of how crucial fans are to the sport, and how much more important they are than any new kits, TV money, or sponsors.

A footballing skills shortage?

Perhaps the most obvious thing missing from coverage from an empty stadium is the total lack of crowd shots we’re all used to seeing when a team scores. Even from behind a camera, the missing passion is telling, but for the guys actually on the pitch, it must feel like they’re playing on the moon, especially when you’re so used to hearing the roar of the supporters. Several Premier League players have already said that games are simply not the same without a packed stadium.

Taking this remark from the players a little further: could the lack of fans at matches soon become a sticking point when trying to convince top talent to stay or make the move to British clubs? If, say, the German Bundesliga continues to allow crowds at games, as they have done in recent weeks, will a player choose to move to a Bayern Munich over a Liverpool? Should the Government plan be accurate, and fans are allowed back in March, only one transfer window will be impacted. However, if COVID-19 remains a much longer term problem here, a lack of fans could cause a skills shortage.

The missing twelfth man

Matches played inside empty stadiums also risk removing a major competitive factor in football: the home advantage. How many times in the past have you heard a manager roll out the old cliché that the supporters were the twelfth man and the team wouldn’t have won without the fans urging them on? Well, when there’s no partisan crowd, the stadium may as well be in another city, as there aren’t any locals roaring the players on to run faster, tackle harder, and beat their man.

The absence of home support could, arguably, totally change the outcome of a season by the time it has ended. For instance, a side that have always performed better with their own fans backing them may not pick up as many points at home, which may cause them to slip into the relegation zone. As the current situation is unprecedented, it’s hard to say whether the lack of fans will act as the great equaliser for some teams, but it might leave a few wondering what might have been.

Hitting clubs in the pocket

There’s little doubt that the lack of fans at football matches will hit clubs in the pocket. With next to no matchday revenue, the effects will certainly be felt, but less so in some circles. At the very top of the sport in the UK, it’s a widely known fact that ticket sales, once a club’s major income, are now a distant second place to broadcasting rights. But, for clubs in the Football League and lower, where TV money is nowhere near the levels of the Premier League, the lack of matchday revenue threatens the very existence of some clubs who are already operating at a near loss.

Even the Premier League may not be safe for long should fans continue to be kept away by COVID-19. Broadcasters around the globe pay huge amounts to show matches not just for the quality of the football, but for the spectacle that only a match played in front of a packed stadium can bring. If a worldwide audience starts to switch off and lose interest in watching games that are persistently underwhelming, who is to say what difficult decisions may be made by TV executives. Many of the sides in the Premier League rely on that cash to stay on top of huge bills, so if it was withheld, there would likely be a financial meltdown.

As you can see, the absence of fans at football in the UK due to COVID-19 has acted as a stark reminder of their value to the game. The longer they are not present at matches, the longer the sport will simply not be the same.