Soccer in Poland targets new fans online in May restart

With soccer fans around the world hungry for live games to watch, the Ekstraklasa in Poland is ready to show them.

Germany will lead Europe’s top-ranked leagues to restart on Saturday after the shutdown, and Poland is set to follow on May 29 with a streaming service to reach new viewers as part of an ambitious digital strategy.

The global attention on games in South Korea this month suggests a demand for soccer that returns to play safely during the pandemic.

A successful restart in Poland would also keep it on track to host the Europa League final in Gdansk. It was scheduled for May 27 and UEFA hopes for a late-August date.

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Ekstraklasa president Marcin Animucki told the Associated Press he had interest from Germany, Italy, Portugal and parts of Asia to broadcast the 11 rounds of games remaining.

Curious viewers can also join more than 150,000 registered users — mostly exiled Poles in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States — of the Ekstraklasa’s new online platform screening games.

“All we need now is live matches from the stadia,” Animucki said in a telephone interview from Warsaw.

A plan to reach fans on devices that suit them is key for any league competing for attention with big-market rivals and their slew of international broadcast deals.

Ekstraklasa has a YouTube channel showing game highlights, and an OTT (over-the-top) streaming service that is geoblocked only in the Balkans and at home, where the league has its richest-ever deal with a pay-TV broadcaster and state-run TVP.

“In the other international territories we are ready to provide two matches per weekend to TV broadcasters,” Animucki said.

On restart weekend, the headline match is league leader Legia Warsaw’s visit to Lech Poznan, the former club of Poland and Bayern Munich star striker Robert Lewandowski.

The league was shut down in mid-March after Legia lost at home to second-placed Piast Gliwice, the defending champion.

Clubs have had no revenue since, Animucki said. Completing the season earns the final 25% instalment from broadcast deals, which should share at least $53 million among the 16 teams.

“We are saving workplaces for plenty of people,” he said, noting 100,000 workers in Poland are connected to sports industries.

Official statistics suggest Poland has coped well in the pandemic. The nation of 38 million people had 883 known deaths linked to COVID-19 by Friday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

On April 25, Poland’s government approved soccer returning to play games in empty stadiums.

“I think we were the first league to have government permission to play. We sent a good signal to the other leagues,” said Animucki, who works closely with the Bundesliga in neighboring Germany.

Each of the 16 Ekstraklasa clubs had 50 key staff isolated at home before all were tested for COVID-19. The one positive test was not a player.

Each team will now play in its own stadium, where an inner area — branded “zone zero” — is restricted to those who were tested. Other people attending, such as media, must wear face masks.

No ball kids will surround the field. Instead, 24 disinfected balls are prepared and positioned to allow play to restart quickly.

The 11 rounds left — four in the regular season, seven in each of the eight-team championship and relegation groups — should finish on July 19. Pre-pandemic, that would be the opening weekend of next season.

Animucki suggested the next Ekstraklasa could begin on Aug. 16 and get ahead of the Europa final that would be technically part of the previous season.

One scenario UEFA has had to consider, if international travel proves too restrictive, is completing the Champions League and Europa League as mini-tournaments in a single country. Both competitions stalled in the last-16 round.

“It would be great to have the possibility to produce the games for UEFA,” Animucki acknowledged.

First, his league must follow the Bundesliga’s example: “We can learn. We will see how the restrictions are going and what has to be implemented.”

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