Government hasn’t contacted us after successful fan trial, says pilot event boss

The Government has not listened enough to technology companies in the effort to get spectators back into venues, according to the boss of the firm which ran a successful pilot event last month.

This weekend was due to be the first where sports fans returned to venues on a socially-distanced basis.

Instead, sports bodies and clubs across the country have been forced to submit applications for emergency funding after the Government pressed pause on the planned return of fans from October 1 due to a rise in coronavirus cases.

Botan Osman, the chief executive of Restrata whose crowd management solutions were used at the Surrey v Hampshire pilot event on September 3, believes his company can provide assurance that safety guidelines to combat the spread of coronavirus at sports events are being complied with in real time.

He is encouraged by the establishment of the Sports Technology and Innovation Group (STIG), but said there had been no follow-up communication from the Government after the Surrey match.

Osman, whose company also worked with the England and Wales Cricket Board on the successful staging of Test matches behind closed doors in the summer, told the PA news agency: “We believe we may have been in a very different position now had technology been part of this (earlier).

“We haven’t been contacted directly by the Government to say: ‘What did you do at the trial and how could that be applied?’

“I think there’s a balance the Government is trying to strike between fair competition and equidistance from everything and everyone, but I think we’re in a different time right now.

“This isn’t just about having a long procurement process, we have got to get down to the solutions here. In our opinion, we believe we should have been at the table a little bit more because of the Test matches and the trial.

“Technology has got to be a pillar in what you’re doing. Luckily we’re not fighting this in 1917, we’re fighting it in 2020 where you know when you order a burger how far it is from your house. It makes no sense for us to fight something this complicated without deploying as much of that as possible.”

The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has been approached for a response to Osman’s comments.

Sports clubs and fans alike are fearing that there could be a further six months of action happening behind closed doors, and Osman added a new, conditional return date for spectators could be helpful to everyone.

“A new target date with a level of expectation management would be good,” he said.

“I think the previous target date created a sense of assurance that as long as we got to that date and nothing major happened in the trials, we would be OK.

“So just setting a new date may be unhelpful, it might be an assurance that you can digitally show that social distancing was happening in your stadium, a target date as long as X happens and Y takes place. It would refocus the minds. Alongside all of this there are careers at stake, clubs at stake and even sports at stake.”

Osman believes the reason for the Government pressing pause was due to concerns over whether spectators would comply with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) guidelines, rather than the suitability of the guidelines themselves.

But he believes the controlled nature of a sports event – compared to a supermarket for instance – means it would be easier to ensure compliance.

“The attendees are entering into a social contract with you that’s saying: ‘I am coming to your stadium to watch a match, and I am therefore willing to comply with whatever the rules of the day are’,” he said.

“So there is a very unique set of circumstances in sport, the same as in an office or industrial site. That can work to the advantage of the sports industry.”

The Government is yet to confirm any of the emergency funding it will make available to support, but Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston has said that assurances of support have been given to football’s National League, the competition directly below the EFL in the football pyramid.

He has stated that the Premier League should provide support to clubs in the EFL.