FROM the evidence of the first month or so of the non-league season, fans are clamouring for live football, regardless of the quality of the product on offer.
Non-league football is seeing an increase in demand, even though clubs are operating with restricted ground capacities. This has meant some clubs have missed out on the uptick in interest.
At Step 3, the highest level of the non-league game that currently permits crowds, the Southern League Premier Central has experienced a 10% increase in crowds, with 15 of the 22 clubs enjoying higher crowds. Five clubs – Redditch (+139%), Kings Lynn (+68%), Coalville (+67%), Rushall Olympic (+55%) and Hitchin (+52%) – have seen crowds jump by more than 50%. At the same time, those clubs that are restricted to 600 people and had higher crowds have suffered a little. Bromsgrove, for example, are down by 40% while Tamworth have fallen by 32%.
There’s no doubt people are discovering their neighbourhood non-league club for the first time, while others who have been regulars at Football League and Premier League clubs have sought refuge with their Step 3 or 4 outfit. Some that have never ventured through the rusty turnstiles of their local club have been pleasantly surprised and indeed, delighted, by the warmth of the welcome.
This really could be non-league’s big opportunity to grab a slice of the market and to present itself as the real alternative to a vulnerable matchday experience. Consider what will happen when football at the higher levels is given the go-ahead to open the grounds once more. Will people be so willing to live and breathe alongside 25,000 other people in a relatively confined space? How about a 500 crowd, plenty of space and a short ride home? In the age of covid-19, the convenience and cost of the non-league game suddenly seems a very compelling proposition.
Can this spark a boom in the non-league game? Let’s hope so, because clubs at this level have had a rough time, but equally, it would be prudent to use the pandemic to closely examine if non-league clubs have the right business model, one that can be sustainable, value-driven and inclusive. The financial structure of so many clubs leaves them very exposed when something goes wrong. Furthermore, football has never needed its audience as badly as it has during the past 12 months, so it really is time to make the fans part of the decision-making processes at non-league clubs. A clear line has to be drawn between football at the higher levels and the game outside the Football League, one that differentiates between full-time and part-time and develops financial restrictions that can protect the future of a club, along with its integrity.
The way the pandemic has been managed suggests we may be heading for more restrictions in Britain and football at all levels may be closed once more. More many people, it is a case of take advantage of watching live football while you can. Wear your mask, keep your distance, respect people’s space and enjoy.
Non-league football’s governing bodies, historically so fragmented, should be working together to capitalise on the opportunities the pandemic can deliver to them – the chance to secure football-hungry local audiences too often distracted by the Premier League club nearby. With so much negativity surrounding the Premier and Football League, with huge chasms developing between the rich and poor, and money driving behaviours of the top clubs, non-league really can become the game of the people in a new golden age for the small time. If it wants to.