THE World Cup ends and a fortnight later, we’re on the brink of a new campaign, although some clubs have been playing pre-season games since the start of July. I doubt too many people have thought about it, but in four years’ time, we have a World Cup starting in November and ending a week before Christmas. I’m talking of Qatar, of course, when we are faced with a schedule-busting World Cup in the desert.
While the top level of the game will be forced into hibernation for more than a month, how will non-league football cope with 2022? Will it continue, or will it also have a break? The effect of playing during a World Cup could be disastrous for non-league, with crowds impacted very negatively – my local club had a normally lucrative annual fixture coincide with a World Cup game and saw the normal attendance drop by more than 50%.
On the other hand, managed properly, it could also be a winner for fans eager to watch a game. It is difficult to judge and forecast how it will affect crowds at local football grounds, but having two or three home games decimated by the World Cup can have a significant influence on matchday revenues.
But how about a shift to summer football for the 2022 season, if not before? As I write this article, I’m in my office, sweltering in 30-plus degrees of heat. The mere thought of summer football seems complete and utter madness, but I’ve long thought that non-league could benefit from detaching itself from big-time football in terms of its scheduling to maximise its audience and income potential.
Why? Midweek is just one aspect, with the obvious distraction of the seemingly never-ending Champions League football. But when the weather pays havoc with fixture lists and the blood circulation and hip joints of the crowd (which invariably averages well over 50 years of age), it is worth considering some “seasonal” adjustments. So, I’m tabling a switch to a season that results in some summer football. A campaign that begins in late March and ends in November. This gives non-league football the chance to have the football arena to itself for at least two months of the year. It also takes out the very cold months of December, January and February.
Some people are bound to ask about the FA Cup and how clubs will accommodate it. Well for non-league clubs, that’s usually over by November, with the odd exception. Furthermore, if the non-league game is recalibrated, the qualifying competition can be structured around the season’s start. The FA Trophy and FA Vase can also be adjusted to fit the new format. Summer football may also give the professional game the chance to loan-out players to non-league for experience and, in the case of injured players on their way back, a place for rehabilitation.
Late spring and summer football would attract bigger crowds, of that I am certain. The bone-numbing midweek game would be a thing of the past and balmy afternoons and evenings watching non-league football could become the new norm. Another benefit, with the warmer weather, is that the clubhouse will also do good business.
The school holidays would fall in the middle of the season, so there would be great opportunities to offer special deals to engage kids, including periphery activities like coaching courses. The new schedule may eventually change the demographics of the non-league game and get more young people involved, something which is vital for the future of the game at this level.
Summer football does exist across Europe – in fact, in the Republic of Ireland, they switched their domestic programme some years ago. And in Scandinavia, some leagues play on through the warmer months.
Of course, the climate has to be considered and the past few weeks have reminded us of the big issue of global warming and a deteriorating eco-system. Certainly, football at 30 degrees is not to be recommended, but one must hope that this current heatwave is a one-off. It’s a reminder that football in a Qatari summer would have been unbearable, hence the winter World Cup. But as an experiment, summer football at non-league level might just be worth a try.
This article first appeared in the Non-League Paper.