Few Games, Little Training, No Fans: Israeli Sports Laid Low by COVID-19 Lockdowns

Professional teams are back with a limited schedule, but without ticket-buying fans they face more losses. Youth sports, Olympians also suffering

Yoav Cohen
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Maccabi Tel Aviv's Basketball court is seen in an undated photo.
Maccabi Tel Aviv's Basketball court is seen in an undated photo.Credit: Nir Keidar
Yoav Cohen

Guy Harel, CEO of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball club, is frustrated. “If the government thinks that we’re not important enough then they should tell us,” he says. “We provide a living for many people and their families. If they don’t help us, there won’t be sports here. The Culture and Sports Ministry is trying to help, but it’s part of the government. We were told that they’re willing to compensate us for lost income, but we have yet to receive the money …. If we don’t get support, there are clubs that may not be able to pay November salaries.”

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Harel’s words sum up the crisis gripping Israeli sports due to the coronavirus pandemic. Like other industries trying to survive the uncertainty, Israeli sports has had to contend with illogical directives, policy zigzags and rigid restrictions, too.

Last March, professional games were suspended, except for teams representing Israel in European leagues whose members were allowed to train and play, creating a sense of inequality and causing great bitterness. When the first lockdown ended in spring, the leagues resumed playing but without any spectators. Basketball’s Premier League switched to a reduced format to end the 2019/20 season as fast as possible. Soccer’s Premier League started playing again, stopped a second time and recently resumed. The start of basketball’s current season was postponed until November 1.

Whenever they can, teams have been practicing in capsules and go into quarantine when they’re off the field or court, but the constant interruptions in their training and playing regimen has long-term consequences for professional athletes.

“Two weeks or more without practice is fatal for a professional athlete. Returning to routine takes quite a lot of time, and there’s a considerable fear of injuries,” said Almog Cohen, a Maccabi Netanya soccer player, in a Facebook post. But, he added, there is a solution: “We can train in capsules and without contact.”

The professional leagues exerted pressure and finally got an okay to resume activities. The coronavirus cabinet rescinded restrictions on training from October 14. Soccer’s 2020/21 Premier League season opened October 25 with a game between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Be’er Sheva. For the first time since the second lockdown, an entire league cycle was played over three days. In basketball, the official opening date came on November 1, long after the playing season should have begun. In the first stage only some games are taking place and even those may be subject to rescheduling.

Maccabi Tel Aviv take part in a playoffs game in Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv, September 22, 2020.Credit: Nir Kedar

Before the restrictions were lifted, the Premier League found a creative, if absurd, way to start playing: On October 2, it announced that its 12 teams had registered to join the Balkan League. That automatically deemed them as taking part in European league play, enabling them to bypass Health Ministry regulations and resume training and play.

In effect, the 12 Israeli teams held a tournament among themselves, with four groups of three teams each. Two winners would advance to the second round and only then would play against teams from the Balkans. All the games, which began on October 13, are taking place in Israel, but the official framework is the Balkans.

“You have to be creative in the present situation. It’s like practicing via Zoom and doing fitness training at the beach,” says Cohen. “The Balkan League gave us a solution for three to four weeks and that helped us continue preparing for the coming season. It gave us breathing space on the professional level, but there’s still a problem on the financial level.”

Government help

The Finance Ministry announced in September that it would give the Basketball Premier League teams 35 million shekels ($10.3 million) in financial assistance. But it’s doubtful whether that will suffice.

“In the Premier League there are city teams without an owner writing checks. The safety net plan was announced in mid-September, but no team knows how much it’s getting. We’re totally in the dark,” says Hapoel Jerusalem’s Harel. ”Almost all our costs are unchanged. Furloughing players is problematic, because the situation is so uncertain. Meanwhile we have no income.”

The coronavirus has led to an upheaval in soccer, too. In the first wave of the pandemic, for example, Premier League teams furloughed players and cut salaries. In the second lockdown, just before they were due to resume training, Hapoel Tel Aviv, Hapoel Kfar Sava, Bnei Sakhnin and Maccabi Petah Tikva players were placed on unpaid leave.

The treasury said it would provide the teams with 75 million shekels of aid, allocated through the Sports Ministry based on criteria such as losses due to the absence of ticket and subscription sales. Team executives say the aid criteria don’t have much bearing on the teams’ finances.

The Zippori Center pool in Jerusalem in August, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

“Team owners have been forced to spend tens of millions out of pocket. Soccer employs thousands of workers, and when they are furloughed there’s a problem. You still have to keep essential workers in a period like this and to continue to pay salaries,” says Assaf Ben Dov, CEO of Maccabi Haifa.

The return to normal activity hasn’t solved all of sport’s financial woes. Spectators are still barred from arenas and stadiums, which deprives teams of considerable income. Basketball sources estimate that the leading teams lost tens of millions of shekels last season because they played to empty bleachers. Medium-ranked and small teams lost between hundreds of thousands and a few million shekels. Sources say soccer’s Premier League teams lost over 100 million shekels last season due to the absence of spectators.

“The sponsors were also having problems, and the revenues from them declined,” says Ben Dov. “We had to return money to the season ticket holders for their loss of five playoff games. In other words, we had to create a new array of revenue and to work in accordance with new and more flexible sponsorship packages.”

“The biggest revenue for Israel’s leading clubs come from season ticket holders and tickets,” says Sharon Tammam, acting CEO of Maccabi Tel Aviv. “For us, for example, it’s the most important source of income. Last season there were five games without spectators, and considering the fact that these were games that should have drawn full attendance, we lost 50,000 ticket sales. That alone cost us five million shekels. “We also lost income from merchandise that the fans buy in the stadium.”

Regarding the present season, Tammam says the club is “already in a financial hole” because it can’t sell season tickets and luxury boxes to business people. She estimates the loss revenue at about 50 million shekels.

The absence of spectators hurts player morale an affects the quality of playing. “The audience is important when it comes to creating a new generation of fans. Without it sports are meaningless. You have to work with players who are used to playing in front of thousands of fans,” says Harel.

Meanwhile, the postponement of the Olympic Games in Tokyo until next summer forced the Israel Olympic Committee to rip up its training program and cut its budget by nearly a quarter to 24.8 million shekels. The coronavirus crisis has deprived it of about 1.2 million shekels in revenue from its Olympic Experience museum. “Demand for tickets and visits to the museum in an Olympic year is especially high,” says Gili Lustig, CEO of the Israel Olympic Committee.

The International Olympic Committee says that if it can’t hold the games in Tokyo next summer, they will be cancelled altogether. Lustig says the game will probably take place, albeit in a different format, but it hinges on there being a rapid and reliable coronavirus test.

Despite the uncertain future, the committee is continuing to pay stipends to Olympic athletes, a total of 9.5 million shekels. Sponsors such as Castro-Hoodies, Issta Sport, Herbalife, Bank Hapoalim and Harel insurance, have said they will continue to provide support, as have the individual sponsors of athletes, including Altshuler-Shaham, Rav Bariach, Suzuki, Playtika and businessman Yaakov Shahar.

“It’s hard to train if you don’t know what’s going to happen, which is why we’re constantly conveying the message that there will be an Olympics. We have to create certainty in a period of uncertainty,” says Lustig. “We’re also being helped by a group of 14 psychologists, to help the athletes stay focused. There are athletes whose Olympic dream is likely to burst. In artistic gymnastics, for example, careers are relatively short, certainly on the individual level.”

Another professional issue is the difficulty to build a training programs Athletes suffered from the interruption in training in March and April due to the first lockdown, and the uncertainty regarding the dates of international competitions throughout 2000 made it difficult to create orderly professional programs.

“Usually there’s a yearly program that includes the timetables of the competitions,” says Lustig. “Due to the coronavirus, competitions were canceled or postponed. In swimming and athletics, for example, there won’t be any European championships. In addition, there are usually test events that help the athletes learn where they stand in terms of ability. This time that isn’t happening. We’re having local competitions in which we’re measuring times, and there are leading athletes who are now training in the United States and participating in competitions in a suitable format, like the NBA ‘bubble.’

Lustig says the Sports Ministry has been cooperating with the effort and Olympic athletes were permitted to train right after the first lockdown. Initially training was without contact and later, in sports such as judo, contact was allowed. Athletes were divided into capsules.

The coronavirus has taken a toll on amateur sports, as well. Clubs, sports associations and the after-school programs have been on hold since the start of the pandemic, with consequences that go far beyond sports.

About 25,000 children in soccer clubs have been inactive almost continuously since March, in addition to tens of thousands more who participate in after-school activities. In basketball there are about 32,000 teens and children sitting at home, with another 40,000 inactive because after-school activities were discontinued.

Growing flabby

“The more time that passes, the harder it will be to reactivate the children. It will also be harder for the parents to send them to after-school activities. That’s why most of the financial assistance should go there. In all of the State of Israel there are 120,000 active athletes. That’s like a small town in Germany,” says Lustig.

Lustig says the absence of sports for the young is going to have long-term effects

“Children and teens are still under lockdown conditions and can’t train. That’s probably the worst blow to Israeli sports,” he says. “Sports contribute to a healthy lifestyle and prevent overweight. One of the things that the government has to consider is how to help the teenagers. There’s an opportunity here to invest in the outlying areas and the Arab community, to create jobs and to expand the base of the pyramid. For example, by giving an opportunity to one child per family to participate in after-school activities free of charge. We also have to help the coaches for these age groups, especially because they can’t make a living now.”

Yifat Shasha Biton, chairwoman of the Knesset coronavirus committee, cites the restrictions on sports as an example of restrictions imposed on the public offhandedly and illogically.

“It’s good that they’ve restored competitive sports for adults, but that’s not enough. Teenagers and children also need regular physical activity for their health, for their emotional needs, for social relationships and the group framework. Many of them are building their future in professional sports and it will take a long time before they can resume regular activity.”

In response, the Culture and Sports Ministry says it has given the issue of children and teenagers in sports top priority. “The ministry is working in all communities along with the Health Ministry, and on all possible fronts. The director of sports is in close contact with Health Ministry professionals and legal advisers to ensure that at least in the near future the children and teens up to age 18 will return to professional sports and won’t suffer.

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