It’s easy, of course, to look at the statistics and be concerned. If we look across the average attendances of clubs across the myriad of leagues that make up senior non-league football, attendances at many were down last season and this is a concern that is considerably greater in the non-league game than it would be in the Football League. After all, other commercial revenues begin to dry up at levels of the game that are not of interest to major sponsors and there is effectively no television money below the Conference National, so match day income from gate receipts, food and beverage sales, and bar takings can prove to be the difference between the existence of a club and a financial disaster that proves to be terminal.
And across all divisions at the end of last season, a look at the figures showed plenty for clubs to be worried about. In the Conference National last season, fourteen out of twenty-four clubs experienced a drop in attendances compared with the year before, whilst two divisions below this in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League fifteen out of twenty-two clubs saw their attendances fall, whilst the situation was worse in the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League, with eighteen out of twenty-two clubs suffering the same fate. Players and the suppliers of services still have to be paid, and travel expenses have for away matches have to met.
Regular readers will already be aware of the constant stream of non-league football clubs teetering on the brink of closure, and we only have the resources to scratch the surface of this problem on this site. The reasons for these falls in attendances can only really be speculated upon, though. It’s easy – and convenient – to blame these ills on the extent to which the biggest clubs in country are the focus of the media or on, for the want of a better phrase, the globalisation of football, but this is seems unlikely to change very much and sponsors will usually gravitate towards the biggest product. The recession may also be to blame. If there has been any such thing as a trickle-down effect in football in this country, this has been most vividly spotted in terms of wage inflation, with clubs finding themselves with little alternative but to stretch themselves to breaking point in terms of what they pay out in order to stand any chance of being competitive. This has forced ticket prices up, and may have deterred some from attending as regularly as they might otherwise have wanted.
To suggest that this situation is hopeless, however, would be wide of the mark, and the familiar trope of the non-league football club as a social club for old men with no interest in moving with the times and even less interest in “outsiders” is also far from the truth. The days of clubs at this level sitting back for six days a week, expecting crowds to flock in on a Saturday afternoon and then being mildly surprised when they don’t has started, in recent years, to feel like a thing of the past. In recent seasons, non-league clubs have come round to the idea that there is a finite number of people who will wish to go out on a Saturday afternoon and pay to watch live football, and there are now initiatives the length and breadth of the country to try and get turnstiles moving again at ten to three every other Saturday.
Some clubs now offer cut price admission to season ticket holders of the biggest clubs in their areas, whilst others play what could be described as “loss leaders”, at which they reduce entrance fees to allow people to sample what they have to offer in the hope that they might be tempted to make it a regular occurrence. One example of this came at Harrogate Town of the Conference North, who thanked their supporters for a run which saw their team come within a whisker of a place in the Third Round of the FA Cup by allowing free admission for a league match. A crowd of more than 1,400 – four times their average for the rest of the season – took advantage of the offer, and the team responded by beating Hinckley United by five goals to nil. Another was at Wingate & Finchley of the Isthmian League Premier Division, where a ‘pay what you want’ offer against Concord Rangers saw Kingstonian saw the club pick up two of their highest home attendances of the season. Furthermore, with a majority of those attending choosing to pay more than £5 to get in rather than pennies, the club didn’t lose out financially by doing this.
Such offers also now often extend to season tickets as well. FC United of Manchester have been running their radical ‘pay what you can’ season ticket promotions for several seasons now. The club has a minimum price for season tickets of £90, but above that supporters can pay what they are able. With the club set to begin work on a new stadium, rent to pay on their ground-share at Gigg Lane, most supporters of the club pay substantially more than this, but the ethos of affordable football has become part of the fabric of the club. In the Conference National, Luton Town have offered free season tickets to under-seventeens with an adult season ticket, and have seen six hundred people take up the offer. From such promotions, the club will hope that it might find the next generation of Luton fans. Most notably of all, however, Non-League Day, which held once a season on a weekend when international matches mean that there are no matches in the Premier League or Football League Championship, has now become an annual event, with many clubs offering incentives of the type shown above to try and tempt floating supporters in. This year’s – and there will be more on this nearer the time, of course – is to be held on the seventh of September.
An increasing number of clubs are now using the talents at their disposal amongst their fan base to try and boost their profiles or, in some cases (as seen above at FC United of Manchester), to be more of a safe haven for those that have become disillusioned with the greed and avarice of the top divisions. Back in the Isthmian League Premier Division, for example, Lewes FC attracted considerable interest in the national press last season with their brilliantly innovative match-day posters. Of course, quantifying whether these have an effect on the number of people who turn up to watch them is not easy, and in the interests of balance it should be briefly mentioned their attendances did fall last season. This, however, is probably unsurprising considering the dismal form that the team showed on the pitch for much of the season, and that an average of 546 people still turned out to watch a team that finished fourth from bottom in a league seven levels below the Premier League last season is still notable, especially when we consider that the population of the town itself numbers just 16,000 people.
On the whole, though, the reality of life for non-league clubs is that winning trumps everything else when it comes to boosting crowds, although this isn’t quite a universal trend. Conference National play-off winners Newport County saw their attendances rise by 75% on the year before, while Isthmian League Premier Division champions Whitehawk saw theirs rise by seventy per cent and Maidstone United of Division One South of the same league, saw their crowds jump from an average of 377 to 1,698 with a return to their home town after a quarter of a century playing away from home. They ended the season promoted as play-off winners in that division, whilst its champions, Dulwich Hamlet, saw their home crowds jump to an average of almost 500 people. Those few who were amongst crowds of that often barely reached three figures at the club’s crumbling old relic of a ground at the end of the 1980s might not recognise it today. And this, most would agree, is no bad thing. Other than winning the league, a run in the FA Cup can be lucrative, but is usually limited to at best a handful of clubs each season, and budgets for a season cannot – or at least certainly should not – be based on something that is so far from guaranteed for any club.
Not everybody, however, can win every week, so this trend for innovation must continue. There will be those, of course, those who sneer at such things, but in the twenty-first century such snobbery and faux-cynicism is fashionable and, it often seems, near universal. At ground level, though, where the choice for clubs is to adapt or die, the tittering of others has to be put to one side in favour of more prosaic considerations of survival. It can, of course, go too far at times. Conference National club Macclesfield Town, who have been in financial distress for a little while and have been reported as needing to raise £100,000 by the end of August if the club’s future is to be secured, recently offered anybody the chance to play ten minutes for them if they paid £20,000, but after considerable attention in the national media with justifiable concerns, the club has already dropped this scheme. Desperate times, it could be argued, have called for desperate measures at Moss Rose, but this was a step too far, regardless of the club’s circumstances.
So, is non-league football in anything approaching “crisis” as clubs start to prepare for the 2013/14 season? The answer is probably not. Falling crowds are a concern, obviously, but this has be set against the fact that they have, on the whole, risen over the last three decades. For most non-league clubs, the introduction of televised football in the early 1960s was the point at which crowds started to fall precipitously, but the days of the only way that anyone can see a football match is by going to a match have gone forever, and aren’t going to be returning. If anything, non-league football as an entity has proved to be more resilient than many ever give it credit for being. There are cases of financial basket-casery, but these are still only at a minority of clubs and the majority simply plod along, finding a way to make ends meet somehow or other, occasionally flirting with insolvency but usually, by hook or by crook, pulling through.
In an era during which there often seems to be little to celebrate about football in England, this strength in depth is frequently taken for granted and should probably be more celebrated than it is. From the former Football League clubs battling to regain a status lost to the tiny clubs that might not mean much in the wider scheme of things but act as a crucial part of the communities within which they exist, non-league football is a broad church which encompasses just about anything and everything apart from the slick marketing sheen of the Premier League and the Champions League. It isn’t necessarily “better” and, as anybody that has read these pages regularly over the last seven years will already be more than aware, it certainly isn’t “purer”, but it has a charm and culture entirely of its own, and at a time during which top level professional football has priced out a significant proportion of society and disillusioned a fair few more, its role in the well-being of our national game might be even more important than it has been since the only way to watch a football match at all was to turn up at a ground on a Saturday afternoon. And this certainly won’t change with the start of the 2013/14 football season.
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