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Non-league: no fans means no season

Without paying spectators attending games, a significant number of non-league football clubs in the men’s game will cease to exist. The demise of teams in non-league will have a negative knock-on effect not only on players and club staff, but on fans’ health and well being, women’s and junior football in the local area, and the local economy. The FSA’s head of national game, Andy Walsh, explores further…

English and Welsh non-league clubs may not receive the same level of exposure as clubs in the professional leagues, but their existence provides a framework and infrastructure that extends far beyond football to local residents and community groups.

The sheer number of clubs – the national league system consists of nearly 1,600 clubs competing in more than 100 leagues – means the demise of non-league will be very keenly felt by millions of people.

According to an FA survey published in July 2019 Grassroots football is worth in excess of £10bn per year to the UK economy, creating more than £400m in contributions to the Exchequer.

The interest in football in the lower leagues is a mark of strength of the game of football in England and Wales that is unmatched anywhere in the world. It is a notable success of these clubs and leagues, run mainly by volunteers, that they can attract paying spectators in their thousands.

The success of the sport requires safety and crowd management systems and infrastructure which comes at a cost, which is not met by TV contracts and the huge commercial sponsorship deals of the professional game, but by the revenues generated from spectators on a matchday, from ticket sales to the income from food and beverage sales.

What’s happened so far?

Fans recognise that the health and safety of everyone, from players to club staff and volunteers must come first, but the reality is that clubs with centuries of tradition will go to the wall if they can’t get fans in through winter.

Following discussions with the government, the FA agreed to an easing of restrictions allowing fans to attend matches in the National League System at Step 3 and below. This lifting of restrictions is welcomed but for many of our most senior non-league clubs they do not go far enough – around two dozen clubs are in a situation where the permitted capacities don’t come close to their average attendances in previous seasons.

Clubs have worked incredibly hard to comply with Government, SGSA and FA guidance to make their grounds safe for the return of spectators. There’s a genuine acknowledgement that these concessions were hard won, but there is a concern that the measures announced so far do not go far enough for all clubs.

The safety protocols in place in football are some of the most stringent of any industry. Indeed, an FSA survey of supporters showed that the work the FA and clubs have undertaken has given fans confidence with over 88% of fans saying that they trusted their clubs with safety, and reports from pilot events at higher levels have shown fans feel safe upon their return in crowds of up to 1,000.

What next?

With the right safety measures in place, a further easing of restrictions is now vital if clubs are to survive and thrive, rather than living with the uncertain future that clubs face as the government pauses its pilot programme for the return of fans at the elite level (which covers leagues down to and including the National League North and South). Clubs are already having to suspend their participation for the upcoming season as a result of the uncertainty.

National League clubs are now facing a decision whether to conduct their season at all, given their reliance on matchday revenues. No fans means no season.

We believe that some additional and carefully controlled measures in line with the guidance developed for elite sport, monitored by league officers, could address the remaining issues for the more senior non-league clubs for whom the current capacity restrictions don’t meet demand.

The additional restrictions announced for non-league and grassroots football in the North East of England adds further confusion and lacks consistency. Fans need to play their part and abide by social distancing guidelines. When leagues span different areas a consistent approach for the whole league is needed to avoid adding confusion. If guidelines are broken at matches then action can be taken at individual clubs. We have seen how a similar approach has been applied in the hospitality sector. A transgression at one pub or restaurant has not resulted in action taken against every pub or restaurant so is football being treated any differently?

Clubs are already demonstrating that they can manage crowds of up to 300 to 600, as appropriate at their level of non-league. Where desired, and aided by proper operations plans, stewarding arrangements, the oversight of a dedicated safety officer and moving games to all-ticket, we don’t see why clubs who have proved safe management of the risks shouldn’t be able to move towards admitting up to 30% of their actual ground capacity.

The effort being made by clubs and volunteers across the country is inspiring and gives confidence that football in non-league can safely move to the vital next stage of easing restrictions. If this is not permissible then lower league and non-league football is going to need targeted financial support.

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