For years, non-league football clubs have spoken about the need to engage with youngsters and the desire to nurture young players. The future of a football club is the youth of today, we are told. But the message doesn’t get through that often. Just look at the average non-league crowd and at some clubs, there is an alarming lack of fresh-faced supporters. Want a litmus test? Go for a pee at half-time and see how crowded the mens’ toilet is. The fact is, the average age of most non-league crowds is over 50. The average age of a Football League crowd is arguably 10-15 years younger.
Are we kidding ourselves? Yes, we all want to nurture youth, want to reach out to all segments of the community, but for a lot of established clubs, the crowd comprises white middle-aged men with a penchant for steam trains and real ale. Some club chairman and their “community officers” probably stress about the fact that their audience is getting older and the difficulty of capturing young supporters. But they could be fighting a losing battle.
Perhaps it is time to concede that whatever a club does, it will not retain a young crowd base. Let’s face it, a non-league club has plenty of competition, mostly in the shape of televised football and the local Football League clubs. For youngsters, the glamour of Manchester United or Arsenal is never going to be matched by Stilton Athletic or West Wickering Wanderers.
Is the best we can hope for a limited period where Johnny gets taken along to Stilton’s aged ground when he’s very small by his Grandad or Dad and then after he goes away for 25 years, decides he’s had enough of schlepping up to London to see Chelsea, and its associated mortgage requirement, and merely wants to settle back into local football at local prices?
To counter that, maybe non-league clubs should start to really target their over-50s audience and make the ground and facilities wrinkly-friendly. That could start with a concerted marketing effort that welcomes the over-50s to their ground. They could install more toilets (!), bring in soft toilet paper, offer cocoa at half-time, place handrails strategically around the stadium, disabled shelters on all four sides, disabled parking zones, clearer tannoys, non-slip surfaces and large-print programmes. Maybe non-league football could call on The Oldie magazine for pyramid-wide sponsorship.
OK, we’re being a bit flippant here, but is it really such an impossible task? If non-league clubs really do the analysis, they will see that their crowd might just need different things to what’s being offered. Some clubs have got it right, but the majority are heavily populated with flat caps and car coats.
Some clubs may just have to accept that they are never going to be all things to all people and that no matter how hard they try, they may have to acknowledge that the product is really the territory of the over-50s and therefore, to maximise that exclusive audience, changes are needed. On the other hand, life can just carry on, as mortality and freezing midweek evenings chip away at that attendance…