Non-League Football & The Cost of Living

by | Oct 21, 2020

There has been considerable talk over the last few months about bailouts for football clubs that are essentially unable to function as businesses because of crowd restrictions brought about by the current pandemic. At Step Three of the game – the top divisions of the Isthmian, Northern Premier and Southern Leagues – football is classified as ‘recreational.’ These clubs have been allowing supporters into their matches since the start of the season, albeit under severe restrictions. Attendances have been limited to 30% of the minimum ground grading capacity at their level (this is, at Step Three, this equates to attendance caps of 600) and with social distancing mandatory, no matter how much saying that it should be would appear to be a futile gesture.

Above Step Three, however, the rules change. During the summer, it was decided that there would be two tiers to the game, ‘elite’ and ‘recreational’, and the National League, which administers the top two tiers of the non-league game, wanted ‘elite’ status because it meant that their 2019/20 season would be completed, including play-offs, while the season below this level would be curtailed. The sting to all of this, though, came with the start of the new season. As things stand – and they’re likely to get worse rather than better in the foreseeable future – the top two levels of the non-league game had to start behind closed doors, while below this there was at least some level of attendance allowed, giving clubs access to a degree of the revenue that they would have had pre-lockdown.

With this National League clubs playing behind closed doors this season, it was clear that clubs would need some sort of financial assistance, and it was confirmed three days ago that a partnership with the National Lottery would see £10m to be paid to clubs across its three divisions. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden seemed delighted with all of this, stating that, “I know from a brilliant club in my area that National League football clubs are the beating heart of their communities and too precious to lose. This £10m fund will provide a bridge to help clubs survive this immediate crisis while we work together on the safe return of fans, and the FA were similarly cock-a-hoop, adding that clubs are the “heartbeat of their communities… it would be a travesty if they were not able to survive.”

Writing a very big cheque, however, is only part of the battle, insofar as ensuring the survival of football clubs at this level of the game is concerned. How this money is distributed between 66 clubs is important, as is the small matter of how clubs actually spend that money. Well, this morning news of how the distribution of this £10m is to be arranged was made public, and the results are… mixed, to say the least. The breakdown of how money is to be distributed runs like this:

  • 7 National League clubs will receive £95,000 per month.
  • The other 16 National League clubs (Macclesfield Town, of course, are no longer with us) will receive £84,000 per month.
  • 5 clubs from the National Leagues North & South will receive £36,000 per month.
  • The other 37 clubs across the National Leagues North & South will receive £30,000 per month.

The first payment will be made later this week, and it’s expected that this will run for three months. The spilts made within the divisions have been calculated upon two factors: which division a club is in, and average attendance. It is believed that the seven clubs that will benefit from being in the £95,000 per month tier will be Notts County, Stockport County, Wrexham, Chesterfield, Hartlepool United, Yeovil Town and Torquay United. Few would argue that the costs of running these clubs aren’t higher than the costs of running those further down the divisions. The problems start to come, however, when we look a little below this level.

All divisions of all leagues have clubs who have attendances higher or lower than some of those above and below them. The lowest average attendance in the National League for last season was Boreham Wood with 724, but this is a figure that is lower than that of fifteen clubs in the National League North and ten clubs in the National League South. To a point, it’s reasonable to argue that the costs of running a club in the National League are higher than a division lower. Travel expenses in a nationwide league are obviously going to be higher than in a regionalised league, for example. But all National League clubs will be receiving more than two and a half times what any club playing a division below this will be receiving, regardless of any other considerations.

If the blunt instrument of attendance figures was to be used to calculate the amount of money that clubs will receive, why wasn’t this applied between divisions as well? Does the National League believe that the fixed costs of running Boreham Wood or Wealdstone are more than double the running costs of York City or Chester? Something about the way in which this has been calculated doesn’t smell right, and some may feel that this allocation reflects the National League’s voting structure – in which the top division’s clubs get a vote each but those in the two divisions below only get six votes per division – more than anything else.

The results are somewhat stark. If the amount that clubs will get is divided by their average attendance, Boreham Wood will receive £116.02 per supporter per month (culture secretary Oliver Dowden is the MP for Hertsmere, the constituency which contains Borehamwood, but even if we’re generous and consider this a huge coincidence this is hardly a strong look for a government minister, though considering what this government has been doing with public money this last few months, it is at least on brand), which equates, if we divide that number by £20 for a ticket, to almost six matches’ worth of ticket money per month. Perhaps this is the Brexit dividend that some people have been claiming we’re all going to get for the last few years.

Meanwhile York City, who sit at the bottom of the list, will receive £13.31 per supporter per month, less than the admission price for one match. The biggest losers in this calculation are broadly clubs with higher average attendances below the National League. The ten clubs that will receive the least all per supporter had an average attendance of 1,386 last season (Havant Waterlooville), while only four of the ten clubs that will receive the most per supporter did. Furthermore, with travel costs varying considerably from club to club, why hasn’t any thought been put into this, and how it might impact upon a club’s wellbeing? It hasn’t been explicitly claimed that travel costs form part of the reason for the vast discrepancy in the amounts being given to clubs between the National League and its two regional divisions, but if this is a substantial consideration for a non-league football club, why was the geographical location of all clubs not taken into account in the calculation process? It might be argued that this bleeds into a broader narrative about a lack of transparency in the entire process, from top to bottom.

The numbers don’t add up from top to bottom. If the aim of this bailout is to cover money that would have been lost from gate receipts, it doesn’t add up. If its aim was to cover financial losses, it doesn’t add up. And it’s worth remembering that clubs below Step Two are receiving nothing whatsoever in terms of financial support, even if their attendances could challenge some clubs playing in divisions above them. Five Step Three clubs – South Shields, FC United of Manchester, Scarborough Athletic, Bromsgrove Sporting and Worthing – had attendances above those of Boreham Wood last season and they’re receiving no support whatsoever, at the moment. Even allowing supporters in with an attendance limit of 600 limit costs FC United of Manchester a thousand people, more than the average home crowd of over 30 National League teams.

So it’s a start, but the way in which this money is to be allocated seems flawed. It should have been possible to build a formula that was fair to everybody, factoring in travel costs, fixed costs, wages and other financial obligations. It was always likely that there would be winners and losers from the financial packages made available to clubs at this difficult time, but this could have been mitigated with a little forethought. That it doesn’t seem to have been doesn’t exactly paint the National League in the light that it would have expected, with such an announcement of financial support.