Israeli soccer league can't withstand another lockdown, agent says

Israel’s leading sports league is limping along after receiving its first pandemic aid from the government.

 EYAL GOLASA (22) and the Israel National Team were tripped up by Ales Mateju (left) and the Czech Republic on Sunday night, with the blue-and-white falling to a 1-0 away loss that puts its goal of staying in League B of the Nations League in peril.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
EYAL GOLASA (22) and the Israel National Team were tripped up by Ales Mateju (left) and the Czech Republic on Sunday night, with the blue-and-white falling to a 1-0 away loss that puts its goal of staying in League B of the Nations League in peril.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 Israel’s soccer league, which received the first tranche of government pandemic subsidies last week, would not survive should there be a third lockdown, according to the executive director of a group that brokers deals for players, coaches and teams.
“There will be too much financial damage if there is a third national lockdown. The league will not be able to recover from this,” Raphael Gellar, who heads Forward Sports Group, told The Media Line. Israel has only partially emerged from its second full lockdown last month.
The government gave the league’s 14 teams NIS 75 million ($22 million) last week, just before the national soccer team lost to the Czech Republic. Most of the league’s income comes from people paying for tickets. Because of COVID-19 health restrictions, all the matches are being played without fans.
The teams’ season was cut in March because of the pandemic. Still, they completed a full season this summer by playing multiple games weekly, instead of one per week. The 2020-2021 Israel soccer season began in late August, without fans in the stands.
“Gate receipts from walk-in fans, plus away fans and season-ticket holders produce the majority of revenues for the teams, and this pandemic has devastated the teams,” Gellar said.
Assaf Nachum, spokesperson for the Beitar Jerusalem football club, agreed.
“We used to have 10,000 fans at each game, and this is when we weren’t leading the league. Ticket sales have taken an absolute hit,” he told The Media Line.
Other moneymaking ventures, such as the club’s youth groups, have halted.
“Despite internet sales, our merchandising can’t keep us afloat. We have no concessions at the stadium, and all those parents aren’t paying for their children to be in our youth program, a part of the Beitar Jerusalem family,” Nachum said.
“As a result, we’ve laid off 30% of our front office personnel and players have taken a 30% pay cut.”
According to the Israel Professional Football League (IPFL) that oversees the league, in the 2019-2020 season, the league’s annual gross revenue from gate receipts was about NIS 160 million ($47.5 million).
Those revenues have disappeared, said IPFL spokesperson Kobby Barda.
“Sure, we don’t need to pay for security, electricity, parking, cleaning and other game-day expenses. But without fans, it’s very difficult,” he told The Media Line.
He cited Hapoel Tel Aviv as an example.
“With no season-ticket holder sales, they immediately lose one-third of their revenues. Not only that, one of their sponsors, Arkia Airlines, stopped paying to sponsor them. This presents them with a liquidity challenge.”
“Last season they were a league semifinalist. Now they have let go of almost all their top foreign talent and are mostly relying on homegrown players from their youth teams. It represents a big drop, and all because of the pandemic,” Barda added.
Dr. Yftach Gepner, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s School of Public Health and the university’s Sylvan Adams Sports Institute, told The Media Line: “Direct revenues are vital. They are the bread and butter for each team. The coronavirus pandemic has literally stopped these revenues.”
“Israeli football clubs, and really all sports teams around the globe, are economic engines for their markets [local businesses],” he said.
Excluding fans from events means no revenue for businesses that serve fans -- food and beverage concessions, accommodations, transportation, merchandise and more.
“For instance,” he said, “the famous annual Giro d’Italia international biking competition [which held its first three stages in Israel in May 2018] cost NIS 80 million [$23.8 million] to bring to Israel. However, the indirect revenues it brought into the country were a multiple of this number.”
The Culture and Sports Ministry is trying to find a way forward, its chief, Yehiel “Hili” Tropper, told to The Media Line.
“Unfortunately, I can’t determine at this time exactly when [the audience] will [be allowed to] return to the soccer pitch because the [COVID-19] illness rates aren’t stable. The return to the soccer grounds, when it happens, will be gradual, cautious and safe. We’re doing everything we can to move up the fans’ return to the pitches. Personally, as a fan, I miss the soccer pitch,” said the minister, who was appointed to that post in the middle of the pandemic.
“When I started in this role, it was agreed with Finance Minister Israel Katz that there would be NIS 100 million [$30 million] in support for soccer and basketball clubs. This amount will ensure the clubs’ stability. We’re also fighting for the re-opening of many types of sports so that the majority of people can go back to making a living. We’ll continue to provide economic support to all types of sports.”
One soccer club spokesperson, who preferred not to be identified, told The Media Line that he has to remain positive.
“It’s not fun. But the cup is half full. At least we can train, and we can play. That’s a lot better than other parts of the economy.”
“Soccer was among the first sectors to open, and our team played in Europe in the summer and fall. We’re happy. It’s a blessing to play.”
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