Non-league clubs will be buoyed by the findings of a survey which indicates more than three quarters of regular matchgoers intend on returning to the game straight away if it is able to kick-off this autumn, but there is still work to do ensuring fans feel safe within stadiums.
The majority of fans (77.2%) say they would return from the first game back in a hypothetical October start date. A further 18% expect to be back within three months, while one in 20 (4.8%) say it will take more than six months for them to return, or that they potentially won’t return at all.
The survey, conducted in partnership between the Non-League Paper and Football Supporters’ Association, is the biggest canvassing of fan opinion on the return to football at the non-league level. It surveyed almost 7,000 fans across various levels of non-league, and identified key safety measures fans thought were necessary for a return to stadiums.
The results have been shared with the FA and various leagues as part of a consultation process on the start of the 2020-21 season.
Who filled in the survey?
There were 6,952 respondents, the majority of whom were regular matchgoers – 79.9% said they attend at least 11 home games in a typical season, and just 9.3% attend between one and five matches. 90.2% of respondents attend at least one away fixture as well.
92% of respondents were male, 6.8% female, with 1.2% transgender/other/preferring not to say. One in five respondents (19.3%) were aged 65 and over. A similar proportion (20.6%) were aged 34 and under.
The fans represented leagues throughout the non-league pyramid:
- National League – 38.2%
- Isthmian League – 11.1%
- Northern Premier League – 19.7%
- Southern League – 11.1%
- Step 5/6 leagues – 16.6%
- Other leagues (including Welsh leagues) – 3.2%
- An overwhelming majority (88.1%) trust their club to ensure the safety of supporters
- Four out of five (81.7%) say non-league football should only return with fans in stadiums
- Fans described themselves as ‘excited’ (54.2%) and ‘optimistic’ (44.9%) about the return of football, although nearly a quarter (22.2%) described themselves as ‘apprehensive’.
- One in 20 fans (5.3%) won’t be returning to games because their financial situation has changed for the worse since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Andy Walsh, head of the national game for the FSA, said “It is hugely encouraging that supporters are excited at the prospect of returning to watch live football and that more than 75% of supporters are ready to come back straight away.
“We are also pleased to see that fans have endorsed the FA’s decision that non-league should start as one.
“Fans have expressed their overwhelming desire to only return to football when it is safe to do so.
“The results identify a number of key actions clubs need to take for their supporters to feel safe, and for our clubs to survive and thrive post-lockdown it is vital that clubs and leagues work with fans to ensure that our concerns are listened to and acted upon.
“Non-league has led the way in consulting fans with this survey and it is important to maintain and encourage this spirit of cooperation if the game is to recover from the effects of the public health emergency.”
Other findings on safety measures:
- Two thirds (66.4%) of those who are delaying their return by at least one month want to see things managed safely before they come back.
- Of the safety measures clubs could put in place, four-fifths (81.6%) of those fans not coming back immediately said they would feel more comfortable if queues were managed in a socially distanced fashion.
- The availability of hand sanitiser (80.2%), and the publishing of hygiene procedures (78.8%) and risk assessments (77.3%) by clubs also scored highly in terms of reassuring those supporters about their return to grounds.
- Nearly one in five (18.9%) fans delaying their return have health concerns, such as having been shielding from COVID-19, and almost one in ten (9.1%) because they regularly attend with someone who has health concerns. One in eight (12.3%) have concerns about using public transport in the short-term.
- Less than a third (30.2%) of those returning straight away would be reassured if fans were required to wear masks; four out of ten (40.6%) say that this would actually make them feel less comfortable.
Away day blues?
Where the results make a little more sober reading is regarding the future of away fan travel at the non-league level. While just over a third (37.7%) said that banning away fans from grounds was not a price worth paying for a restart to football, almost half (48.4%) agreed they would be willing to see such a measure introduced if necessary.
While there is no indication that away fans will need to be banned, the results indicate that fans may be less inclined to travel to away fixtures once games are underway again anyway.
Of those who intend on returning to games straight away one in nine (11.6%) expect to attend fewer away games against 8.6% who expect to attend more; of those who plan on returning to games within a year more than a third (34.6%) plan on attending fewer away games against just 2.6% who plan on attending more.
When asked which safety measures or potential changes could make them less likely to return, almost a quarter (23.8%) said having to pre-book match tickets rather than purchasing on the gate could be off-putting. Restrictions on where you could stand or sit, and the banning of away fans were unpopular with one in five fans (21.4% and 20.6% respectively), while the lack of availability of alcohol (18%) was similarly likely to dissuade fans from returning.
Only one in seven fans (15.7%) were opposed to the idea of modest ticket price increases to cover the increased safety costs; more than two thirds (69.1%), however, would be accepting of a small price increase.
Three quarters of fans (73.7%) would be in favour of clubs facing sanctions for breaching safety guidelines.
Not coming back
For those fans who indicated that they didn’t plan on returning at all, the reluctance to be in a crowded space again was a concern for almost half (48.5%), while four in ten wanted to see the wider incidence of COVID-19 in the general population drop (42.7%) and be reassured that things were being managed safely (41.2%). Three out of ten of non-returners (29.4%) have health concerns which will keep them away.