Over the last few years, we have come to worry more than a little about the well-being of the FA Cup. Semi-finals at Wembley Stadium, falling television audiences for the final and dwindling crowds for matches involving Premier League clubs have all taken their toll on this most venerable of sporting institutions, but at least we can console ourselves with the fact that it still has a grip over the smaller clubs that enter it. The FA Cup still carries the potency to be able to thrust smaller clubs into the spotlight for a brief period of time, and its appeal to the very – and, considering the origins of the word, somewhat ironic – English love of schadenfreude. When the smaller clubs start to become affected by it all, though, we have to start wondering whether it is worth continuing to support.
All of this brings us quite tidily to the small matter of Wembley Football Club. This is a club with a unique attachment to the competition. It remains the club that is the lazy option for television companies and hacks looking for an angle to shine upon the early rounds of the competition on account of its name alone and has featured in the national media on more than one occasion in spite of the fact that it is more than thirty years since it made its only appearance in the First Round Proper of the competition. But why all the fuss about Wembley FC, and why now? The answer is a simple one: sponsorship. Terry Venables arrived at Vale Farm earlier on this year as a technical director to the club and it has now been announced that the club will be involved in something approaching a reality television show from the start of next season, all thanks to the American fizzy beer-peddling sponsors of the competition themselves.
There was considerable consternation when these American fizzy beer-peddling sponsors first arrived on the scene as the new sponsors of the FA Cup last summer, but there were those amongst us that praised their decision to broadcast a match from the Extra Preliminary Round of last years competition live through the social networking site Facebook – a match between Ascot United and, you guessed it, Wembley - as an inventive way to promote the very beginning of last years competition. This year, however, their big stunt s threatening to blow up in their faces. Wembley FC will now be wearing the logo of this particular company across the middle of its shirts from the start of this season – Wembley FC, for those of you that may have been wondering, compete in the Combined Counties Football League – but they have now also decided to bring in a number of former players, including David Seaman, Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, Graeme Le Saux, Brian McBride and – for some reason, most implausibly of all - Claudio Caniggia to help with their efforts for the coming season.
The club itself seems cock-a-hoop at the publicity that it will be receiving with chairman Brian Gumm stating that, ‘We’re not a big club but we have big ambitions. With [name of American fizzy beer-peddling company removed] as our sponsor we now have a shot at making those dreams come true’, but what does it say about the sponsors attitude towards the early rounds of the competition that it will bring in a number of former professionals – those listed above have an average age of over forty-three years old (although Seaman is expected to work in coaching capacity only and his age does rather raise the average somewhat) – with smirks on their faces and the intention of showing these youngsters how it’s done? Does it merely express a level of disrespect for the tournament itself, or merely for those that toil their way through the early qualifying rounds of the competition? Many will be considering such possibilities over the next few days.
It’s true to say that non-league football spends its existence in a perpetual whirlwind of near-insolvency, and it is also true to say that there are many that will say, “there is no such thing as bad publicity” and point to other investment in facilities that the aforementioned American fizzy beer-peddlers have already put into the facilities at Vale Farm. It feels, however, as if this could be a marketing stunt too far. It only seems likely that it will alienate those that already watch football at this level, and the involvement of the television channel ESPN – who will be producing a reality TV show about the club called ‘Dream. On. The Journey of Wembley’ – is likewise a disappointment. This is a company whose coverage of the FA Cup since it won the contract to broadcast this competition has, by and large, been excellent. To get involved in such a stunt, however, may be interpreted by some as a revelation of their true attitude towards the very early stages of the competition – which they do not cover – and wonder why they would seek to get involved in a project that many already perceive as devaluing the competition. There are others who might raise an eyebrow at the idea of the sponsors of a competition sponsoring and promoting one of its entrants.
If the early rounds of FA Cup have any appeal, then this will surely be likely to be diminished if its early stages are played out as an effective pantomime for the benefit of sponsors and – if we’re lucky – a small number of clubs. What might Wembley FCs rivals in the Combined Counties League make of a rival club getting the expansive amount of publicity that this one club is getting as the result of a sponsorship deal with an internationally famous company that is also sponsoring one of the major competitions in which they are all competing? If this company wish to act in a way that benefits grassroots football in a significant way, they may in future seek to do so in a way that doesn’t patronise the clubs at the lower levels of the English pyramid and the very competition that they are putting money into, and they may seek to divide this money a little more equally amongst the many, many clubs that compete in it before summer has even ended. No-one would suggest in a million years that investment in this level of the game isn’t very welcome, but in many respects the ways in which that money is spent is just as important as the fact that it is being spent in the first place.
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