Mixed fortunes for pro sports, as clubs look to government for bailout

Many professional clubs are in limbo not knowing what their seasons - and finances - will look like as coronavirus restrictions continue.

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File picture of Kataja Basket player Samuli Vanttaja scoring / Credit: Kataja Basket FB

Finland’s grass pitches stand idle. The basketball courts are empty. The ice rinks have melted.

Pro sports is caught in the middle of unprecedented restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus, and when the state of emergency was declared in March, basketball’s regular season still had games left to play, then play-offs; similarly, ice hockey’s Liiga played a few games behind closed doors before abandoning the remainder of the season.

Football’s Veikkausliiga was due to start in April, and footballers are now getting back to training in small groups, anticipating a possible easing of restrictions in the coming weeks or months that might allow them to begin their summer games – even possibly in front of empty stands.

“It seems that the players already had a strong desire to return to work” says Tommi Pikkarainen, Head Coach at TPS football in Turku.

“The Veikkausliiga gave clear instructions to the clubs related to the safety of training, and of course we will follow them” he adds.

Clubs are now in limbo, but facing mixed fortunes as they try to stay in business during the Covid-19 crisis. Some of the bigger organisations are finding ways to make ends meet, or identifying other sources of income. For the smaller outfits it’s a daily struggle.

File picture of HJK players / Credit: HJK

At HJK football club in Helsinki they’ve managed to avoid lay-offs by introducing temporary pay cuts of around 30% across the board – players and staff alike. At AC Oulu they’re having to do odd jobs to raise money to meet the wages bill.

Three Liiga ice hockey teams – Tappara, Pori Aces and Lahti Pelicans – each secured €100,000 grants from Business Finland to establish new revenue streams (even while cutting wages and releasing players from contracts). Other ice hockey teams were not so lucky with Kuopio’s KalPa and Vaasan Sport both having their funding applications rejected.

“This is a nasty situation for both the club and the players, but we are living in an exceptional time that requires adjustment” says Pelicans CEO Tomi-Pekka Kolu.

File picture of Kataja Basket player Jarekious Bradley, January 2020 / Credit: Kataja Basket

Kataja Basket struggles financially 

In the eastern city of Joensuu, the future is uncertain for Kataja Basket. Before the season ended abruptly the team was in seventh place in the league, and looking towards the extra revenues that play-offs bring.

Now all the players and staff have been furloughed and team management is calling on a bailout from the government.

“I’m hoping there’s going to be more financial help for teams and clubs. Of course I know it’s important to help the companies, but I haven’t seen much for sports clubs” says Johannes Lasaroff, Executive Director of Kataja Basket.

The Joensuu team, which plays in Finland’s Korisliiga, has had to give two weeks notice to all its players and staff – who are still under contract, but not getting paid.

“The season ended and now financially it’s terrible. We had to cut salaries completely. That’s the situation” Lasaroff tells News Now Finland.

The 24-year old former player, who took over running the club last year, says that aside from the sporting impact there are business problem with trying to plan for the future.

“All the sponsor companies are in even bigger trouble than we are, so it’s very hard to make a budget for next year. And when we are not sure about the budget, it’s hard to recruit players for next year” he explains.

On the bright side of that argument says Johannes Lasaroff, all the other teams are in the same situation – unable to organise proper group training sessions for the athletes, and stuck without knowing how the next season might shape up.

File picture of the Neste Rally Finland action, 29th July 2019 / Credit: Neste Rally Finland

Political calls for financial aid 

With other business sectors getting their own targeted bailout funds from the government, there’s some hope that sports will also be allocated a specific pot of cash.

“In a way it should be easy, since the government says that all outdoor mass events are canceled. And all the experts say there shouldn’t be any mass events outside for now” says Sinuhe Wallinheimo, a National Coalition Party MP and former pro-hockey player.

“It should allow the sports clubs to get some kind of bailout or compensation because they have to postpone their season” he adds.

Wallinheimo gives the example of pesäpallo – Finnish baseball – where the season would normally begin in early May.

“If they don’t play, it’s going to be a very big disaster. With Finnish baseball the TV money isn’t there if they play without spectators. For soccer it’s a little bit better but this is why there should be some kind of compensation” he tells News Now Finland.

The Finnish Olympic Committee – which itself had to furlough all staff for three weeks – estimates that clubs need upwards of €80 million during the summer (€20 million was already allocated by the government for the spring) to stay afloat. But if leagues and other landmark sporting events are canceled, the economic damage is going to be much wider.

“If they stop events like the Moto Grand Prix” – which was due to come to Finland for the first time ever in July – “and the Neste Rally it’s going to be a disastrous hit especially for the cities” says Wallinheimo.

“For example in Jyväskylä when the Neste Rally is there it is worth about €25 million that week to local businesses. But all this money will be gone. It’s going to be a big hit for cities, and also for sports clubs that can’t play their season” he adds.

Wallinheimo predicts that sport in Finland will be disrupted even into the autumn, with ice hockey games potentially played in empty arenas.

“In hockey there is 135,000 people every week watching in tight surroundings in these games” he says.

“If there is going to be a second wave there won’t be any politician in Finland or Europe that would allow these people to gather together.”

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