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In the entire history of football it will be but the briefest of footnotes, but this afternoon at The Enclosed Ground Whitehawk Football Club will play it last match, a home match in the Ryman League Premier Division against East Thurrock United. This, however, is only the end of a name. Having won by two goals to nil at Leiston last weekend, the club has now been crowned as the champions of the division and will start next season in the Conference South under a new name: Brighton City. But for a club on the rise, as this one continues to be in spite of the doubts of those that have questioned where the money is coming from to keep the club spending what has been on both players and infrastructure over the last two or three seasons or so, this name change had, perhaps, become an inevitability.
One of the more frequent questions to be asked amongst non-league football supporters over the last couple of seasons has been that of, “Well, where on earth is Whitehawk anyway?” The answer, of course, is that it is in East Brighton, with a ground tucked at the foot of the South Downs which sweep around the eastern perimeter of the town itself, and herein lays the problem that the club has had in recent years. It is only three years ago that Whitehawk FC was in the Sussex County Football League, but its recent ascent through the divisions on the pitch hasn’t been matched by similar progress on it, with attendances stubbornly refusing to rise in a town in which the main draw, Brighton & Hove Albion, has been continuing what has been starting to look like an inexorable rise towards the Premier League.
Attendances at The Enclosed Ground this season have, on the whole, stubbornly refused to increase as the club has had success on the pitch. This season’s average – before this afternoon’s match, of course – sits at 201, but this has been pushed up by large attendances for matches against top of the table rivals Wealdstone and local rivals Lewes. At the other end of the spectrum, just ninety people turned out for their home match against Cray Wanderers, and just seventy-three people saw them play Wingate & Finchley earlier this season, and while the company that has been bank-rolling the club, Kingspan, has show little sign of losing interest in it yet, there will come a point at which it will have to become self-supportive, at least up to a point. Locally speaking, the name “Whitehawk” doesn’t have the strongest of reputations, and with few supporters to disillusion by changing the name, perhaps it will be able to attract more sponsorship and create a new image for itself by, for the want of a better word, “re-branding” itself.
For a club that is seeking to dramatically increase its attendances, however, Brighton in 2013 could hardly be a more challenging environment in which to do have to try to do it. Brighton & Hove Albion moved into the American Express Community Stadium in 2011, and this saw the club’s attendances jump up from an average of 7,351 in the club’s last season at The Withdean Stadium to an average of 20,003 during the 2011/12 season. A continuing upturn in the team’s performance on the pitch this season coupled with the expansion of the club’s ground to a capacity to hold 30,750 people has meant that the average attendance has leaped up again, this time to 25,705, and promotion to the Premier League at the end of this season might even mean that the ground would be at or close to capacity for all matches next season, should they get there. Attracting people away from the Albion – as well as other non-league clubs, such as Lewes – is not going to be easy.
It would also be remiss of us not to mention the geographical impreciseness of this new name. Brighton City sounds mighty impressive at a glance, but Brighton itself isn’t a city – it is a town which makes up part of the city of Brighton & Hove. It might, perhaps, have been a little too cheeky of the club to rename itself as ‘Brighton & Hove City’, but for pedants – and there are plenty of them about – it isn’t strictly correct. The club, however, would unlikely to be overly concerned by considerations. Its joint chairman, John Summers, this week told the Brighton Argus newspaper that, “The vast majority understand we have grown and we want to embrace the entire area. We have always seen ourselves as Espanyol Barcelona, the working class Brighton and Hove Albion,” which may raise one or two eyebrows amongst Albion’s support, but if the club can move away from the benefaction model which has propelled it to where it is today and continue its course as a sustainably run club which does manage to create itself a new identity as a result of this name change, then the owners will presumably consider it to have been more than worth it.
Ultimately, it will not be the name change that matters for Whitehawk Football Club but what happens as a result of it. The club’s demise has been predicted by many within non-league football but it hasn’t come about yet. Something, however, will need to change if bust is not to follow the boom that the club is undergoing at present. Although Brighton City may consider Brighton & Hove Albion to be the target for their support, the Amex is actually nearer to The Dripping Pan, the home of Lewes Football Club, than it is to The Enclosed Ground, and there is an inherent danger in identifying yourself as a second club, which is that the dyed in the wool can usually be relied upon to a greater extent than supporters that fall into the category of being Johnny-come-latelys. If the club cannot attract new support and hold onto it, though, the bubble will burst and the club will have to find its level again at a lower level of the pyramid. As such, this period of success on the pitch is one during which the club has to do everything it can to attract new support. Whether a change of name and a winning team is enough to make some of the people of Brighton change their allegiances and switch to supporting them, though, is not a question that is easy to answer. For now, the bubble remains as bi as it ever has for both Whitehawk FC and Brighton City FC.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
It’s an interesting question how much Brighton and Hove Albion, and Brighton City will compete with each-other for fans. My observations, which may seem counter intuitive at first, are that over a whole season there is little competition between clubs – Looking at data for Southampton/Eastleigh Portsmouth/Havant & Waterlooville and Bradford City/Bradford Park Avenue over a number of years none display the pattern as you would expect – where the bigger clubs attendance grows the smaller clubs increase and vice versa. In fact most often as average attendance goes up at one club it does so at the other. The only time I’ve seen the other pattern is with Notts County and Notts Forest when the two clubs were playing at a similar level.
One reason for not seeing the evidence of competition which you would expect is that fixture clashes don’t happen very often – in three whole seasons Portsmouth and Havant & Waterlooville games only clashed nine times, which makes three a season. The positive association between attendances at smaller and bigger clubs also suggests that both are influenced by the same factors, so it could be things like the state of the local economy, or the general trend over time for football attendances to grow.
Strangely too the smaller club may even benefit from bigger crowds at the larger club as this increases the appetite for watching football in an area and with the bigger team out of town these people then turn to the nearby non-league side.
Brighton City’s best hope for pulling in the punters is therefore pretty much to be adopted as a second club by a significant enough minority of Brighton & Hove Albion’s supporter base.
If i live in Whitehawk, i’m even less likely to support a club called Brighton City, than one that actually represents my town. That does appear to be a minority opinion though, and i suppose the gamble is the new name will attract more BHA fans and sponsors who now know where the club plays.
Forest Green Rovers tried calling themselves Stroud for a few years before reverting to their original title – going back to their roots doesn’t seem to have done any harm. Woodley Sports have taken to calling thamselves Stockport Sports, with no discernable effect. I’m not convinced that Brighton City (a misnomer in itself, as has been pointed out) will be any more of a draw than Whitehawk FC.
As a supporter of a Ryman 1 South club I’m just glad that they are doing their financial doping at a higher level so the money runs out even more quickly, and draws even more attention to the folly of rebrands
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I am a huge supporter of non-league football. My main team is Lewes, but I also have been to see Eastbourne Borough, and I also supported Crawley Town when they where still down there. However, being from Brighton, the fact that Whitehawk are from…well, Whitehawk, is the main reason I wouldn’t want to go. It has a horrific reputation in Brighton as a really rough area, and that just puts me straight off. Maybe if they reach the football league, I would go. But not on my own. I support Brighton & Hove Albion as well, so that’s obviously far more attractive with the lovely amex. We’ll see. Hopefully the name change will make it more appealing to the locals.
Not forgetting that another club just along the A27, Langney Sports Club, renamed itself Eastbourne Borough in 2001 after rising from the Sussex County League.
This is daft.
Norwich United are currently languishing at step 5 of the non league pyramid and about 100 people turn up.
Doesn’t help that they play in Blofield.
I can’t see this name change benefiting anyone.
I think its great that we can have a team at a lower level than brighton… I think its exiting ill be supporting them 100 pecent and I support brighton and hove albion …I think its great they are hardly in competition maybe in a 100 years 😉 I think we can see a brighton from a different league its fun to be at different levels… its boring just to support 1 team only… I like watching and supporting clubs at different oplaces in the league I love crawly town as well as I lived there once..