English football could be set for a similar period of financial instability to the one caused by the collapse of ITV Digital in the early 2000s, says former Barnsley chairman John Dennis. 

The broadcast company folded in 2002, leaving several clubs who had budgeted for huge television windfalls, including Dennis’ Barnsley, in severe debt and eventually administration.  While he does not think the Reds’ current owners will allow something similar to happen at Oakwell due to the coronavirus, he believes the impact across football could be comparable. 

Dennis said: “There will be nothing like as much money in the game after this. It will be very similar to what happened when the ITV Digital deal collapsed. No one had any money, the transfer market dried up completely and a lot of clubs were in trouble. There are a lot of doomsday scenarios being talked about, especially for the EFL. If that is the case, Barnsley’s model of developing and selling on young talent  – which has worked pretty well in my opinion – probably won’t generate as much money. It’s a bit trite to talk about business and sport when we have seen 30,000 deaths in this country, but it could be a dangerous time for football.”

Dennis, who still watches his hometown club, hopes the consortium headed by Chien Lee and Paul Conway will help Barnsley through the crisis. He said: “I don’t think modern owners’ responsibility is to fund the club in normal circumstances but I do think their responsibility is to be in a position to fund the club in times of crisis. This is a time of crisis so one would think that the folks who own the club will want to protect their investment and I would anticipate that they would adhere to their responsibilities. But it is a very difficult situation because we don’t know how long this will go on for and when fans will get back into stadiums.  At some point, some club owners – not necessarily Barnsley’s owners – will decide they can’t carry on.”

Dennis has outlined some of the issues the Reds are facing at the moment. He said: “Like a lot of businesses, they have virtually no revenue coming in. The first concerns will be working out if they have to give refunds to broadcasters, sponsors, advertisers and season-ticket holders.  They have furloughed staff and spoken to players about wage deferrals but they will still have significant running costs and the revenue they expected to see them through to the end of the season won’t be coming in. 

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“A lot might depend on whether there are funds left from transfer fees received in the last 12 or 18 months. They will also, I imagine, be looking at the instalments they owe other clubs for previous incoming signings and worrying if clubs who owe them instalments for outgoing transfers can pay them. Then there are the issues of whether and when to market season tickets and of the players who are out of contract and whether the club will pay them for another month or more if the season is extended.”