Sport Editor Kit Shepard looks at the three sports that coronavirus could disrupt the most in Birmingham and the surrounding area
COVID-19 has decimated the calendar of seemingly every sport in the UK. As the pandemic continues to dominate daily life, the sweeping cancellations have left British sport in a state it has not been in since the Second World War; non-existent.
Like everywhere else, the West Midlands has seen all professional sport jeopardised for the foreseeable future. However, there are three sports which could be especially affected in the region, as the coronavirus poses unprecedented logistical and financial problems that will, in some cases, not be resolved until well after the pandemic.
For the West Midlands’ top football teams, there are more questions than answers at this stage. The Premier League appears intent on finishing the season in full, even if this cannot be achieved until late summer. This would suit Wolves, who are separated from the Champions League places by just five points.
A completed season would give Nuno Espirito Santo’s men a chance to make up ground on Chelsea and Manchester United, fourth and fifth respectively, and qualify for Europe’s elite competition for the first time since 1959.
On a more negative note, their hopes of silverware were dealt a blow last week, as UEFA announced that cancelling the Europa League is on the table. At the time of suspension, Wolves had reached the last 16 of the competition and were as good a bet as any to go all the way.
For Aston Villa, the main question is what happens if the season cannot resume. Currently two points away from safety but with a game in hand over all the teams around them, Villa would be relegated if the season ended today. This scenario would undoubtedly provoke outrage throughout the club, because Villa’s game in hand is a result of them reaching the Carabao Cup final. Relegation in this instance would effectively punish them for doing well in a different competition.
Alternatively, should no more games be played but the season declared null and void, Villa would be spared from the drop. This is a far more pleasant scenario for them, but harsh on teams like West Brom, their West Midlands neighbours. The Baggies occupy the second and final automatic promotion spot in the Championship, and would be denied a return to the top-flight if the season was expunged.
Elsewhere, Birmingham City are nine points from the Championship play-off places and eight points above the relegation zone, indicating that a cancelled campaign would merely prevent the Blues from cementing their place in mid-table purgatory. Nevertheless, failure to finish the season creates a plethora of problems, so the FA will surely do everything they can to avoid this.
The potential chaos has already begun lower down the football pyramid, as the league seasons at levels below the National League have been declared null and void. One loser of this decision is local club Halesowen Town, who are set to miss out on promotion from Southern Division One Central. The Yeltz have had promotion aspirations all season, but have seen their efforts rendered worthless. In a forceful statement, the club’s owners promised to battle this decision ‘in the strongest possible terms’ but, as things stand, Halesowen will start next season in the same division.
Birmingham is home to Edgbaston, probably the most recognisable English cricket ground outside of London. Famous for its raucous atmosphere, the stadium hosts at least one test match a summer, but could be eerily silent over the coming months.
The timing of the pandemic could not be worse for English cricket. April marks the beginning of the season, but no cricket will be played until at least 28th May. This return date seems optimistic, so the Edgbaston test between England and the West Indies, which is scheduled to start on 12th June, may not take place, possibly leaving Birmingham without a test match this year.
The real worry for cricket is what happens at county level. Even the top professional cricket teams generate a minute revenue when compared to their football equivalents, so clubs such as Warwickshire face considerable financial challenges if games cannot be broadcasted and tickets cannot be sold.
Last summer, an incredible world cup final and subsequent Ashes series ensured that the sport’s popularity soared across the nation, something the England and Wales Cricket Board were set to capitalize on through the launch of the Hundred. Packed with the best players in world cricket, the brand new competition aims to make domestic cricket more appealing to a broader, younger audience.
Edgbaston, currently being used as an NHS staff testing centre for coronavirus, is the home of Birmingham Phoenix, one of eight franchises in the competition. The Phoenix squad, which includes world cup winners Chris Woakes and Moeen Ali, as well as New Zealand captains Kane Williamson and Sophie Devine, boasts the star power to dazzle local fans.
It now appears the Hundred will not go ahead exactly as it was intended to. The tournament, scheduled to begin on 17th July, may still happen, but with the timeframe around restrictions relating to large gatherings and travel unknown, the matches may be played behind closed doors and overseas players could find entering the country challenging. This would drastically reduce the competition as a spectacle, severely limiting its ability to push cricket further into the mainstream in Birmingham.
What’s more, whenever the cricketing summer can begin, it will probably be competing with the lengthened football season for sports fans’ attention, a popularity contest it is highly unlikely to win. Instead, Warwickshire and the Phoenix must salvage what it can from the year and stay afloat financially, a stark contrast to the lofty ambitions it would have had at the end of the 2019 season.
The coronavirus cancellations will stimulate a domino effect that the sporting world will feel for years to come, and the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham could be a victim of this.
Though COVID-19 will hopefully be totally under control by 2022, the event could still be impacted in multiple ways. Most urgently, coronavirus has disrupted construction work and, considering the uncertainty that the pandemic has stimulated, there is no guarantee that the projects will be fully completed on time.
Should organisers succeed in building the facilities on schedule, the games could face other issues created by the pandemic. Last week, it was confirmed that the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo have been pushed back to 2021, forcing the IAAF to move the 2021 World Athletics Championships to 2022, where they will finish on 24th July, just three days before the Commonwealth Games are scheduled to begin.
The short turnaround gives Birmingham 2022 organisers a dilemma: move the games back and create yet another set of logistical problems, or keep the same dates and risk several top athletes withdrawing from the event. Since the World Championships is a more prestigious competition, the Commonwealth Games could miss out on hosting athletics’ biggest names, including Wayde Van Niekerk, Omar McLeod and England’s own Dina Asher-Smith.
Birmingham 2022 still has every chance to be a memorable event that bolsters the local community for years to come, but the absence of superstar athletes would remove some of the gloss from a once-in-a-generation event. Fortunately, with the games still over two years away, there is plenty of time for the schedule to be adjusted.
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