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The Premier League should abandon the 2019/20 season

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We all want sports back in our lives, but none of the options for finishing this season make any sense

Premier League Football and Coronavirus Protective Mask Photo by Visionhaus

This week there’s been a big push in the United States to get sports back as soon as possible. I’m sure it has something to do with that conference call the President had with all the major leagues last week, but my question is: why?

Don’t get me wrong, I want live sports back just as much, if not more, than the next guy but the plans that are being thrown around? That ain’t it, dog.

This week the plans for Major League Baseball’s “Arizona plan” were leaked. The plan would be for all 30 teams to isolate themselves in Arizona and play all their games in empty stadiums in a concentrated area. The NBA is rumored to have a similar plan in Las Vegas. The Premier League is reported to be thinking of doing the same in the Midlands.

And that’s where I ask, for what?

Do we really need to pull players away from their families for an indefinite period of time so they could play something that slightly resembles baseball and we can crown a World Series champion? Do we really think we’ll ever look back on that World Series champ and say “Oh yeah, what they did was totally comparable to what any other World Series champ did.”

It would barely be baseball. The players would be in the stands, six feet apart, not interacting with a dugout. You want high-fives after a big home run? Nope. How about mobbing the guy who just had a walk-off hit? Can’t do it.

It’s wake up, go to the ballpark, play a game with little human interaction, go back to the hotel, and repeat. You can’t even go to the hotel bar.

How long will it be until this becomes a mental prison for the players?

And it’s not only the players. How many other people does this affect? How many other people will have to leave their families to go be in isolation? Team staff, equipment managers, clubhouse attendants, team medical staff, broadcasters, producers, cameramen. That’s a lot of people.

Is it for the fans?

Like I said before, I want live sports back as much as anyone but this wouldn’t be sports. The whole idea of televising sporting events was to bring the game to those who couldn’t be inside the stadium. To bring the stadium experience into your living room. Well, if the stadium is empty, there is no stadium experience.

Sports are about the feelings they give us. The camaraderie it creates between us and other people. It’s about high-fiving and hugging strangers either at the stadium or at the bar. We want to see the crowd react when your pitcher gets a big strikeout. We want to see the player run off to the corner after scoring a goal to celebrate in front of the fans. We want to see the players feed off that energy.

If that’s not there, what do we have?

I know that in my first diary I wrote that for selfish reasons I was happy that Manchester United played that final game against LASK. I wasn’t ready for it to go away. But anyone will admit, that game was different. It was weird and it changed how we watched it. When you see a match with zero atmosphere, it’s hard to build up that atmosphere and tension yourself when you’re watching on TV.

Odion Ighalo didn’t just score the opener for United. He scored a sensational opener.

This should have made us go nuts. An away goal in a European tie! Yes, it’s only the Europa League against an opponent that we should be beating anyway, so this was never going to be a goal that would come close to garnering the emotion of Anthony Martial’s goal the previous Sunday. But it should have been something, especially given the skill.

Instead, the reaction was a few claps and a very subdued “wow, that was really nice.”

It’s just not the same, and I think if we rush to bring behind-closed-doors sports back just so people at home can have something to watch on TV for a few hours a night, we’ll quickly discover this isn’t what we’re actually yearning for.

Are we doing this for the players?

It’s hard to imagine that sequestering players for an unknown amount of time, away from their families, to play games in front of no fans is in their best interests. How long until the game stops being fun and starts being laborious for them? How long until they start feeling like prisoners?

The argument for baseball is that the players want to get paid. Their season hasn’t started yet and if there’s no baseball this year, then they don’t get paid. While it sucks to give up the massive paychecks that these guys earned, the overwhelming majority of them can afford to not get paid this year. The minimum salary in Major League Baseball is $555,000.

Anyone who made that can afford to not get paid this year. On the other hand, minor leaguers make significantly less than that: the average minor league player makes around $88,000. You know what you can do? Pay them! Give them their salaries. If you want to scale them back a bit to 78-80k, that’s fine! The average salary in the United States is $56,516 — 88k is more than enough for these players to get by for a year.

If the owners can’t afford to take that kind of hit this year, well then they shouldn’t own a baseball team.

Any plan to resume sports leagues anytime soon is about money.

We’re pretending it’s about being able to give the fans something, or bringing back some shred of normalcy, but it’s not. It’s about money. Broadcasters are going to pay to air the games, the players will get paid, and after all the expenses are handled the owners will make money. If this plan was going to end up costing the owners money, they wouldn’t be on board with it.

We keep talking about the mental health crisis of everyone at home right now, but is that worth sacrificing the mental health of other humans just to give us something to watch on TV for three hours? Something that ultimately won’t help us as much as we think?

I don’t think so.

That brings us to the Premier League. We know the only reason they’re trying to stage games is because of that £762 million of broadcasting money they’d have to pay back if they don’t finish the season. It’s even more complicated because some clubs have already spent some of that money. They need it.

The Premier League is a business, and if they’re going to be all about money that’s fine. But then you have to own it. You are no longer about anything other than money.

More than any other league, the Premier League has always been concerned about “the integrity of the competition.” This is a league that has fined clubs for fielding overly rotated sides. If you play out the season behind closed doors, you can’t ever say again you care about the integrity of the league.

There are three teams currently sitting on 27 points. Brighton are two points ahead with 29. Anything can happen, but how is it fair if we’ve taken away home games?

The difference between playing home and away is massive. Bournemouth currently sit in the relegation zone on goal difference. They’ve taken 17 points from 14 home matches (1.21 points per match), while they’ve taken 10 from 15 away matches (0.66 points per match). A clear difference. In fact, if they’d had one more home game and one fewer away one, you can say they may not even be in the relegation zone.

Home field changes things. Norwich City are bottom of the table. They beat Manchester City at home this year. The fans played a massive part in that match. Would they have won that game if it was behind closed doors? Not in a million years.

Or take Watford. They have home wins over United and Liverpool this year. Away from home they lost 3-0 and 2-0 to those same sides respectively. Would they have a chance if those games were behind closed doors? Doubtful.

Why are we in such a rush to complete a season that would completely throw into question the integrity of the competition?

Just end it. There’s no point in football without the fans. Abandon the season and we’ll start again next year.

The key word in there is “abandon.” I think the wording of this is really important. The season needs to be abandoned not declared null and void.

To me, declaring something null and void means it didn’t happen. Everything gets wiped from the books. Abandoned, on the other hand, means it happened and wasn’t finished.

Games were played, goals were scored. We don’t have to pretend that none of that ever happened. No, the season happened, it didn’t get finished. It was abandoned.

But in Europe it’s not as easy to just cancel as it is in the United States, because all these leagues are intertwined through UEFA. A common argument against abandoning the season is that we need to finish the season so we know who’s going to be in the Champions League next year.

No, we don’t. There’s a really simple solution to this. Pause the Champions League (and the Europa League). Literally just press the pause button.

The UEFA thing is an unnecessary extra complication to everything. Different countries will be ready to resume playing football at different times. Germany is trying to get going again as early as May (behind closed doors, so you know my thoughts on that). Germany can do that because their country handled the Coronavirus outbreak far better than most other countries did.

Most countries won’t be ready at the same time, and that affects UEFA. They don’t play games in one country, they play games in many countries.

So again, just hit the pause button. Resume the 2019/20 Champions League next March right where you left off (if you want to replay the first legs of ties that are in the middle, fine). Then you’ll have your winners, leagues will finish their season and you can start anew with the 2021/22 competitions as usual.

Not having to finish this season and not having European football until March will give the domestic leagues a lot more flexibility. If England is ready to start playing (with fans) at the end of July, you can start the season a bit earlier. You can play midweek games in the fall so that the season ends earlier too. Remember, you already are going to have to make some shifts to accommodate the 2022 winter World Cup.

On the opposite side of things, if Spain isn’t ready to play (with fans) until late September, they can play midweek games in the fall to catch up and still finish the season on time.

Would returning to European ties a year later be weird? Absolutely. Would it be perfect? Absolutely not.

But it’s far better than locking these players up in confinement camps that will surely become mental prisons to play a bunch of matches behind closed doors. These guys are humans too.

We need to just be patient. I know that’s not easy. I know we all want football back as soon as possible. But we want football back, not a version of it. Let’s do it the right way.