Sorry, But Lower Leagues Need Charity to Survive

by | Sep 23, 2020

It rather feels as though scales are falling from the eyes, at the moment. For the last few months, football has been staggering along, doing its best to act as though this was a temporary blip and that getting back to normal would somehow align with the start of the new football season. Fans at all levels of the game had to get used to the reality of life as we knew it coming to a grinding halt in a more general sense than merely football.

There were reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the return of the football too, if taken in complete isolation from the rest of society. The return of the game saw relatively few reported infections, the non-league season was finally scheduled to start, there didn’t appear to have been any Covid-related fatalities within the game, whether we’re amongst those who make their livings from it or the clubs themselves, there were even a lot of goals flying in, for those who watch the Premier League.

The problem, of course, is that football doesn’t exist in complete isolation from the rest of society. The lockdown is tightening again, and the cost to the game this time around could be catastrophic. Professional football – below the Premier League – was atrociously run throughout a period when there was money slowing into it than ever before. That it got through the first lockdown relatively unscathed feels somewhat miraculous, and even that required wage deferrals and financial advances.

This time, however, the game is left completely exposed. Money cannot be advanced forever. Players cannot be expected to tear up their employment contracts. If the lower leagues are going to survive, they are going to need outside support. The hammer blow fell with the news that the government is pausing its plans for the partial return of fans to stadiums on the 1st of October because of the rapid spike in Covid-19 cases.

For the Premier League, this is likely to be little more than a blip. These clubs are cushioned by lavish television contracts and are unlikely to find themselves in severe financial difficulties without match day revenues. But the lower you travel down the football ladder from here on, the more dependent clubs are on match day revenue, and you don’t have to travel very far down before they’re almost entirely reliant on it.

The hit is a double-whammy for those clubs that fall between these two particular stools. The National League had timed the commencement of their new season with the planned relaxing on restrictions at games, but now all clubs above Step 3 find themselves having the cost of putting on matches without anyone attending. The cost of this in League Two has been estimated at around £20,000 per match. And on top of this, clubs that have been taking advantage of the government’s furlough scheme also face that coming to an end in a couple of weeks time, with no announcement of any extension or replacement having yet been announced.

To a point, the National League has to face up to a huge tactical mistake, here. The league pushed for its three divisions to be classified in order to get last season’s play-offs played behind closed doors. This decision, however, now seems to have returned to bite them on the backside. Step 3 and below – one division below the National Leagues North & South – are for now exempted from the new rules and are able to welcome up to 600 supporters through their turnstiles as they are considered to play at a “recreational” level. The National League, however, is now classified as “elite” level sport, and is therefore now marooned alongside the EFL.

Financially, it doesn’t seem likely that the FA is going to be able to do very much. They announced at the end of June that they were making 124 positions redundant, with potential losses as a result of the pandemic being predicted to go as high as £300m. Indeed, even that only now seems to have been the tip of that particular iceberg. According to leaked papers published this morning, the men’s futsal team is being axed, and a proposed women’s futsal team will not be going ahead and, ominously, grassroots football – which is already practically on its knees for a lack of facilities – faces cuts of £22m per year.

The Premier League and/or its member clubs could probably afford to make some form of solidarity payment, but billionaires don’t become billionaires by displaying basic human decency, so the idea of the sort of money required to keep things anywhere near solvent across the entirety of the game being handed out without the most Faustian strings imaginable attached feels far-fetched, especially when we consider attitudes of the likes of the Burnley manager Sean Dyche, who said of the idea that bigger clubs should do something for their smaller brethren:

If the Premier League can do their bit to enhance the chances of other teams surviving possibly they may step in but does that mean every hedge-fund manager who is incredibly successful does that — filter down to the hedge-fund managers who are not so successful? Does it filter down from the restaurants, so the ones who are surviving can look after the ones who are not surviving?

You can’t just measure football on its own — there are lots of businesses out there that are making huge sums of money who could therefore protect businesses in their line of work. If you are going to apply it to football, you have to apply it across the country to everyone and every business, then you have a balanced and fair look at it.

Sean Dyche is, presumably, against his club being any part of collective bargaining for television rights, since this is really a form of wealth distribution. We trust he’ll be ensuring that he’ll be campaigning for Premier League clubs to negotiate their own television rights packages when the current contract ends, even though this would almost certainly mean vast increases in television money for the six richest clubs whilst Burnley’s would almost certainly look more like what they’d get were they in the Championship.

Or… it might just be possible that he’s just another hypocrite who believes that ‘handouts’ (as any sort of support for anybody less well-off than themselves have become known, so repugnant has British culture become when it comes to discussing such matters) are A Good Thing when his club is the beneficiary of them, and A Bad Thing when it isn’t. All we can say for certain is that these words may even come back to haunt Dyche when either his time at Burnley or Burnley’s time in the Premier League comes to an end.

His attitude, however, is probably fairly widespread throughout the Premier League, so this leaves the government as the most likely source of financial assistance. It was reported yesterday afternoon that they are planning a ‘rescue package’ for up to eight sports, though the efficacy of this will come entirely down to what any final packages look like. They could be very good, or it could be a mere veneer of gloss on a package which rescues very few but allows the government to claim that it ‘tried.’

Considering the amount of money they’ve wasted on face masks that didn’t work and that they’re intending to spend £100bn (a number so vast that it’s almost involuntary to spell-check it every time you type it) on a mass testing programme described by critics as “waste/corruption on a cosmic scale”, you’d think that they’d be able to come up with something that could keep our football clubs alive, as well as other sports that are suffering at the moment.

The chairman of Dagenham & Redbridge has told the Press Association that £20m would probably shore up the three divisions of the National League, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that £100m would probably be enough to see everyone from League One or League Two down through this period as well. And yes, that does sound like a lot of money, but this is the point at which we’re duty bound to remember the craziness of football’s finances. £100m is definitely a lot of money, but such is the imbalance in football’s finances that it’s the equivalent to what Bournemouth made in Premier League prize & TV money for the 2019/20 season alone.

At the time of writing, though, it’s impossible to predict exactly what the future will bring. West Ham United players and the manager have been confirmed as having tested positive for the virus. Leyton Orient have had a number of players test positive for the virus. Orient couldn’t test because they couldn’t afford to and were only tested because they had a League Cup match a Spurs which was subsequently called off, costing them £125,000 in television appearance money.

Spurs supporters – because in all honesty supporters are the only people that we can trust to do the right thing at the moment – had, by this morning, spent £20,000 in the Orient online store to try and make up some of this financial loss. This seems likely to be the pattern for the next few months, of infection clusters popping up and leading to cancellations at short notice, but obviously no-one can say for certain how the rest of this will play out. It already feels as though it may yet prove impossible to end this season on time.

The FA issued a response to the government’s announcements this morning which proves little more than that somebody there has got a degree in the bleeding obvious, but it’s really difficult to say much else at the moment. All we can say with a reasonable degree of confidence is that lower division football down to the National Leagues North & South are going to need financial support from somewhere if they’re going to survive until next April without crowds being able to attend their matches.

If you’re a follower of a Premier League club or a member of the government and you’re happy for numerous football clubs to fold over the next six months, then carry on very much as you are. Otherwise, the money required to keep our football pyramid has to come from somewhere, so perhaps it’s time to stop telling smaller clubs and their supporters – who, by and large, have been more accepting of this financial distortion than any of the biggest clubs deserve – that they’re the problem and start doing something practical to help them instead.