WHAT A ridiculous situation this season’s FA Cup is. The second qualifying round brought us many ties involving step two teams from the non-league world. But in this confusing world of the pandemic, step two clubs cannot admit supporters to their grounds. Somebody needs to tell the authorities that most non-league clubs play in front of a few hundred people.
St. Albans City versus Hitchin Town is a local derby that has a fair bit of rivalry, but rarely in modern times has the game attracted a huge attendance. In fact, the Saints’ average in 2019-20, before lockdown, was 625, which represented 12.5% of the capacity of quaint old Clarence Park.
But the game was not open to the fans, so it was a case of taking a step ladder to perch outside the stadium or watch twitter all afternoon. Fair play to St. Albans, they arranged for the game to be screened so followers of both teams could see the action. Or so they thought. The exercise didn’t really work and was frustrating for anyone who couldn’t access the game. It’s anyone’s guess how many people paid their £ 6.99 and were disappointed. Better luck next time, although the Saints may have to pay out some of their FA Cup earnings (they won 5-0) to unhappy customers.
Digital technology has saved football, indeed society, in many ways during the pandemic. The Premier and Football League have been playing in front of empty grounds for months and people have started to become accustomed to it. At that level, broadcasters have to be satisfied, but lower down, no spectators makes for a hollow game and actually makes professional/semi-professional football completely redundant. In the case of St. Albans versus Hitchin, there was £ 4,500 in prize money (£ 3,375 for the winners) at stake. In the current climate, and the absence of gate money, you wonder whether clubs may decide to split the prize?
At the very top, matchday income represents only a fraction of the total revenues of major clubs. In 1992-93, Premier League gate money accounted for 43% of the total income of the clubs, in 2018-19, it was just 13%. League One and Two are hugely reliant on matchday income, as are non-league clubs. In other major European leagues, Spain’s LaLiga and Germany’s Bundesliga derive 16% of their total income on matchdays. Italy and France both generate 11% from this revenue stream.
Conspiracy theories abound that the elite are unconcerned about the lack of spectators, but this is ridiculous. Look at what happens when a goal is scored – players, by instinct, move to the area where fans would normally be celebrating. Nobody wants to move towards a game that has no atmosphere, no human emotions – including the global business people who back so many of our clubs.
But for the time being, the use of digital technology to get the football-loving world through the pandemic has to be its salvation. Outside the elite, there has to be a move towards getting spectators back into the stadiums, even if capacities are restricted and more safety measures have to be introduced.
For League One, Two and steps one and two of the non-league world, this is a matter of urgency. Professional football was founded on the basis that it was entertainment and that the game would be financed primarily from gate money (as well as businessmen).
Without that, it is not just turnstile money that is at stake, it is also the value proposition sold to sponsors. Without the captive audience that is the football crowd, advertising and other modes of sponsorship are devalued considerably.
Step three onwards can have spectators, but the Football Association has to find a way round allowing National League clubs to open their gates. These clubs may be just below the Football League, but most are a world away from that level. St. Albans, for example, are not an EFL club and are probably never likely to be.
As for Hitchin, their 5-0 defeat meant that in the space of a few days, they had leaked no less than 12 goals. Just as well most people didn’t get to see it. But as they are a step three club, the fans will be able to see them next week. The signal from Clarence Park may have been sub-optimal, but the game sent a few signals about the prospects of their young team.