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FA capacity move ‘an important step towards sustainability’

The FA has announced that approval has been reached with the government and the Sports Ground Safety Authority (SGSA) for non-league clubs to admit spectators on the same principles as elite clubs, in a move which could prove a vital lifeline to struggling sides. 

The announcement means that clubs throughout non-league can now admit upto 4,000 spectators (in Tier 1 areas) or 2,000 (in Tier 2 areas), or 50% of their capacity, whichever is lower. In Tier 3 areas clubs are now able to admit 15% of their capacity.

The announcement comes on the back of weeks of lobbying work by clubs and the FA with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Until now the rules had treated clubs differently at different levels of the game. Clubs in the Professional Game, which includes all leagues down to the National League North and South, who had invested heavily in safety measures that meet SGSA guidelines had been able to admit more spectators than clubs further down non-league who had made the same arrangements.

Adrian Seddon, chair of the board at fan-owned FC United of Manchester told us “We have made the point since the summer that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t fair and that clubs should be assessed on their individual stadiums and capabilities to provide a COVID-safe environment for spectators.

“We welcome the move to allow us to work with our local authority, Safety Advisory Group and the SGSA to raise our capacity to a level appropriate to our circumstances.

“This is an important step for us towards sustainability at a time when we are operating at 18% of our average crowd from last season and with no ability to raise revenue through food and beverage sales and without the financial support offered to clubs in the leagues above.

“Grassroots clubs at steps 3 to 6 of the non-league system matter to their supporters and to the communities in which they are so active and we hope that this positive announcement will lead to further dialogue around other areas of concern which would allow all clubs to get through this pandemic.”

Supporters have consistently shown their approval for the measures that have been taken, and 80% of fans in an FSA survey said that they trusted their clubs to take the correct precautions to protect supporter safety. While the move will allow clubs at Step 3 of non-league and below to admit more spectators, there are still hurdles to overcome to ensure the sustainability of clubs at all levels.

Leagues are having to balance the pressure for football to continue against the financial challenges that clubs face with limited crowds and the inability to sell food and drink as a result of the restrictions on hospitality under the new government guidelines.

It’s understandable that clubs in areas with lower infection rates will want to get back playing, but if others in their league are in locations with a higher infection rate, or indeed in a different Tier, the tighter restrictions will mean there is a danger of unfair competition.

The FSA’s head of the national game Andy Walsh said “The risks of COVID have not gone away, and the debate about whether spectators should be allowed in stadiums at all will continue, but the FA announcement that non-league clubs are to be treated the same is welcome.

“Completing the season is important, but public safety and the survival of clubs has to take precedence.

“While we are a long way from a return to normal, the whole of football needs to ensure that each club is able to survive one of the most challenging periods in its history. A partial return to matches with limited capacities and without the second spend threatens the very survival of clubs.”

Trevor Bull, chairman of Scarborough Athletic AFC added: ““This is another great example of the support we get from the FSA. They have lobbied on our behalf and achieved a great result for us. We now have the opportunity to improve the financial health of our club through higher attendances. Thank you to everyone involved””

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