The Bundesliga was one of the first major sports leagues in the world that returned to action in May. Now, it will try to open the stadium gates to fans again and follow the example of MLS club FC Dallas, some USL teams and the efforts in South Korea's K League and Japan's J1 League. While Germany's top 36 clubs have approved a framework for such a scenario that includes personalized tickets, closed standing sections, no away fans and no alcohol, they hit a roadblock, as political authorities have so far rejected the idea of a quick fan return.
"We will have to reclaim normality in small steps," Christian Seifert, the CEO of the German Football League (DFL), said two weeks ago, shortly before Germany's local health ministers told the Bundesliga that it cannot become an exception to the countrywide ban of large public gatherings of more than 500 people. The ban will remain in effect until Oct. 31.
"We cannot take any necessary risk," Jens Spahn, Germany's federal health minister, wrote on Twitter. "The DFL's concept is good in theory. But the important thing in a pandemic is practicability."
However, Seifert and key figures such as Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge are keen to open their gates to fans who desperately want to come back to the stadiums once the new season starts on Sept. 18. To make this happen, they need to present a convincing case that football matches with fans would not contribute to the spreading of the virus in any major way.
But can they really do that? And how do they plan on getting there?
Addressing medical concerns about reintroducing fans
The crucial point of the DFL's plan is that they would gather personal data from all spectators before attending the game so that they would be able to inform fans who were close to a person who later tests positive for COVID-19. The DFL says that finer points -- for example, how it could be ensured that people who are tested after a match forward this information to the clubs -- still have to be worked out.
Personalized tickets -- essentially, tickets that include the name of the attendee -- and detailed seating plans would be part of the solution to monitor possible chains of infection. According to the DFL framework, tickets would be sold only to fans who provide valid contact information and thus can be reached after the event.
Away fans wouldn't be allowed to attend matches until the end of the year in the hopes of reducing the number of people traveling across the country to games. Home clubs would decide individually who could get the right to the limited number of seats. Bayern Munich, for instance, announced that season-ticket holders would receive preferential treatment when applying for seats. If the number of applications exceeded the number of seats, a lottery would then take place.
The DFL framework also determines that no alcohol would be sold at matches, because the league fears that selling alcohol could make it impossible to enforce hygiene and physical distancing rules inside the stadiums. Standing terraces wouldn't be used until the end of October, as the thinking is that it's easier to enforce physical distancing between seated fans.
But even if clubs come up with solutions for everything that could happen inside their stadiums, the real headache is logistical: How do you handle the arrival and departure of fans? Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayern Munich, for example, have stadiums located in the suburbs, where the majority of spectators could arrive by car, either individually or in small groups. But several stadiums are in more urban areas, and the clubs have to come up with solutions that would prevent hundreds or thousands of fans using public transport at the same time.
"Once the spectators are sitting on their seats, everything is fine, but we have to get them there," Hubertus Hess-Grunewald, chairman of Werder Bremen, explained. "It is important that distance is kept at the entries, through vomitories, and in sanitary facilities. With this in mind, architects are currently calculating the specific capacities." Local infection figures and regulations also have to be factored in because local health offices would have the final say once the ban for public gatherings is lifted. Receiving approval from a mosaic of authorities fuels the fear that some clubs could be handicapped if these offices permit vastly different numbers of fans.
"It is commendable that the DFL makes an effort to outline an effective hygiene concept, but a countrywide regulation is necessary," said Roger Lewentz, the sports minister in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, home to Bundesliga club Mainz 05. Bavaria's state premier, Markus Soder, who was an early supporter of the Bundesliga restart in May, said it's "hard to imagine" to have Bundesliga matches with 25,000 fans any time soon.
"How many fans are allowed to enter the stadiums is not the DFL's decision," Seifert said. The CEO of the German Football League has proved that he knows how to play the political game, and thus his central message was: "We don't expect anything and don't demand anything. We only prepare ourselves." Seifert and club officials were disappointed that representatives of Germany's 16 state governments didn't have a positive response to the league's plans.
How do the fans feel?
The Robert Koch Institute, Germany's government agency for disease control, announced an average of 1,156 new COVID-19 cases per day over the past week and a seven-day reproduction rate of 1.14, meaning that the number of cases is increasing exponentially. While Germany has done fairly well in managing the pandemic, a recent uptick in infections has worried lawmakers that a second wave may be on the horizon. But just like governments could quickly put safety measures back into place, things could take a turn for the better at any point.
"I'm of the opinion that we should give [the DFL] a chance to try this thing out," said Michael Kretschmer, state premier of Saxony, home to RB Leipzig. "The idea has to be that just like in the workplace, just like in the supermarket, a sporting event must be organized in a way that no one can be infected."
While the DFL and clubs will focus on satisfying the concerns held by local and national politicians, they could face backlash from some of those they try to get back: the fans, particularly organized fans and supporter groups.
"We are puzzled by the fact that, while many steps are taken to make the return of spectators possible, there seems to be skepticism with regards to their behavior, which explains the temporary ban of standing sections and away fans," said Markus Sotirianos, board member of the fan alliance Unsere Kurve. He calls for talks on the local level "to come to solutions which can be backed by all involved."
Fan representatives see the DFL's measures as a veiled accusation that fans are incapable of obeying rules when traveling or would certainly get drunk if alcohol were allowed. There wasn't a consensus among the clubs in regard to the ban of alcohol, as 14 of 36 teams voted against it, but not for the reasons the supporter groups would like to hear.
"We voted against the alcohol ban because we think it is pointless that fans [get drunk] in front of the stadium gates, knowing that they couldn't buy a beer for the next couple of hours. That could create more problems at the entrances [and in common areas like walkways and bathrooms] than it would solve," Axel Hellmann, deputy chairman of Eintracht Frankfurt, told German tabloid BILD. However, alcohol checks at the gates would not be performed.
"What bothers me is the subliminal message that the fans are seen as a risk," Sig Zelt, spokesman for the organization Pro Fans, said. "It is even more disappointing that once again the opinion of fan representatives was not taken into consideration."
There's ongoing dissension between organized fans and Bundesliga's power brokers, starting years ago and becoming more heated throughout this past season. Supporter groups criticized what they felt was a rushed and irresponsible restart in May. Now they reckon that the league doesn't want transparency and might take advantage of the situation to implement increased safety measures permanently.
That fear was further fanned when an official recently spoke about personalized tickets that connect the identity of the ticket holder to a seat number in the stadium. "I think that personalized tickets are interesting. Maybe we can use them for different things in the future, e.g., pyrotechnics or acts of violence," said Hermann Winkler, president of the regional football association of Saxony, in a televised interview.
Fan organizations have suggested boycotting any matches that could take place in the fall. However, the average season-ticket holder thirsting for the live experience couldn't be blamed for taking the first opportunity to watch matches from the stands again.
Some leagues have already tested the waters in terms of live crowds, and with varying degrees of success. In Denmark, Midtjylland were crowned league champions in front of 4,800 fans in their 11,432-capacity MCR Arena in early July. In Hungary, roughly 10,000 fans were allowed into the 65,000-seater Puskas Arena to watch the cup final between Honved and Mezokovesd in June, but failed to follow distancing rules. Japan's J1 League clubs currently allow up to 5,000 fans to attend games, while the neighboring South Korean K League has decided to sell only 10% of the seats available. Both enforce strict physical distancing rules.
Major League Soccer saw the return of match spectators when FC Dallas played against Nashville SC on Wednesday. The organizers required liability waivers in which those purchasing tickets agreed not to sue MLS or the two teams if they were to contract COVID-19 as a result of being at the game. Dallas put 5,110 tickets, equaling 25% of the capacity of their Toyota Stadium, on sale, but only 2,912 fans were in attendance.
In Germany, Schalke 04 ran a small experiment after local authorities granted them the permission to let 300 fans watch a friendly against third-division side SC Verl in the club's old Parkstadion last Saturday. Yet the fact that fans were allowed to attend the match didn't generate any buzz in Germany, as the feeling was that the number of fans was too small to create an environment comparable to a Bundesliga match in a large stadium.
The fans in attendance were excited, though.
"I'm happy that I can be here, that the club invited me to be here," said one fan when interviewed by a television reporter. Another said he was "thrilled like a little kid to finally be back." Many left the match early, not because of any incidents on the stands, but because Schalke were losing 5-4 against the underdogs.
In the end, Bundesliga clubs would not have to worry about filling 5,000 or even 15,000 seats. What could confound any plans in Germany is not disinterest by fans, but a clear "no" by authorities in the light of a second wave of infections. The league will be prepared, but whether it can welcome stadium spectators again at some point this year depends on factors it cannot influence.