Andy Charles discusses the current situation for the National League
Andy Charles – @capitalgull
Can you imagine another six months without setting foot inside Plainmoor? I’m struggling to even imagine that concept as I write from my sofa, 150 yards or so from the door to Boots & Laces.
But that’s what we were left to contemplate on Tuesday when our lord and master, the “Right” “Honourable” Boris Johnson issued his latest decree to the nation from the House of Commons.
Get yourself strapped in for the next six months of sport without a crowd, he barked without a thought for anything but a nice afternoon of Grouse Shooting he has coming up at the weekend. Like that, the world of sport grimaced as one.
Suddenly, those halcyon evenings remembering Bovey Tracey v Teignmouth became a likely reality for anyone who wants to go out and watch a game on a Saturday afternoon between now and, quite possibly, the end of the 2020/21 season.
Sadly, Torquay United are one of 67 clubs in a new, extra-special, limbo created by the National League and their desire to be classed as “elite sport”. Now, we all love our Gulls and Dorking surely love their Wanderers but, let’s face it, they aren’t elite sportsmen!
Because of that we fall below the EFL, where television revenues are significantly better although still not enough for clubs to survive, and above the feeder leagues where crowds of up to 600 (enough for the vast majority of clubs and above most average attendances) are possible.
A state of limbo. And no sign of being allowed out of it. Boris says six months, but we all know that could easily be the same next summer…and the summer after that if some “experts” are to be believed.
Now we have no idea if the season will even start on October 3. Many clubs appear to be against it, some ready to use the “opt out” clause already executed by Guernsey in the Isthmian League and Southern League side Merthyr Town.
What would happen if 16 National League sides want to play on but seven don’t? The lack of communication from headquarters is concerning, although I am hoping they want to do the best for their member clubs…even Woking. So far, in the hours since the lunchtime announcement, it has already become clear there are splits.
Dover owner Jim Parmenter says his club won’t play without crowds, Dulwich Hamlet’s Liam Hickey – in a Twitter exchange with yours truly – doesn’t think streaming will work as a sole source of income for his club and Dagenham’s managing director Steve Thompson wrote to his local MP asking for a fund of £20m to be set up so the National League can start it’s season without us on the terraces.
Is that realistic? Who honestly knows with this government. They have already invested more than £1.5bn to prop up arts, culture and heritage and, on a more sporting angle, pumped £16m into the Rugby Football League after fears were expressed that clubs as high as Super League could fold because of the pandemic.
Secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden is one of few in government I’ve not come to dislike during this spell and is he now the man we need to trust to save these 67 community hubs?
Maybe not entirely, but some combination of government aid and creativity from member clubs can at least keep the National League ship afloat – if there is some help from our broadcast partner at least.
Sky Sports’ deal with the EFL has already been praised, giving the 72 member clubs a chance to stream all of their games through the iFollow system – previously only open to exiled fans overseas but now opened to everyone who wants to stump up.
It also provides National League clubs with a template not to follow with smaller clubs complaining that their bigger rivals are gaining more from it – the rich getting richer of course being something our government has never blocked. (This is not a party political broadcast by the way).
Colchester United went public on his disappointment with the way things work in the EFL with a statement yesterday, showing off just why it’s so much easier for a well-supported rival like Bolton to make money while his club struggles to get anywhere near normal matchday revenue.
Home clubs keep revenue from sales to their own fans – fine, no issue there. But the problem is with away supporters who buy the stream. The home side only gets rewarded for the first 500 but the remainder goes to the away side.
From his example – Colchester sold 452 iFollow passes for their home game against Bolton. Bolton sold 2,252. Revenue from the first 500 went to Colchester, but Bolton got revenue for the other 1,752 – almost double that received by Colchester for a home fixture. They would normally receive 5% commission for away ticket sales – £600 rather than the £14000 or so they actually made.
Colchester sold 300 streams for the away game at Bradford, earning the sum total of £0. Cowling estimated Bolton making £345,000 for away games this season with Colchester, unless they had a ridiculous run to the top of the table and attracted more fans to buy away streams, getting £0.
Stark realisation that a system, set up with good intentions, is not positive for all. Surely a fairer system is for the home team to take all stream revenues. Maybe that’s too simplistic but it would work a lot better than the EFL’s system.
Clubs like Torquay would fare well with home fans hopefully buying streams – I would assume at a price above the average season ticket price per game – and there is a chance we would get more than the usual 12 Boreham Wood or 15 Maidenhead fans turning up on a cold Tuesday night.
Those clubs with smaller support bases would obviously get lower receipts, but that would be no different in normal conditions and they have the chance to cash in on the bigger clubs able to sell to their big away followings…and sell to exiled fans as well of course.
I know I am currently living in Plainmoor (the area, not the stadium) but I would usually spend no more than about £100 on Torquay United each season – four or five games, plus programme and a drink, and the odd bit of merchandise.
If this season were to be held behind closed doors, I’d buy 15+ streams from the club (at least £10 a pop surely) plus probably still buy some merchandise and perhaps even (spit) the odd digital programme if they were produced. And then it’s my choice if I want to bung Boreham Wood £10 (probably £30 knowing them) to buy an away stream.
The doom merchants who talk down the chance of streaming as potentially life-saving revenue need to have a good, hard look at themselves. I’d imagine a decent percentage of their support would be furious to know they are actively campaigning to have the season called off before it even starts. If I was a follower of one of those, or Clarke Osbourne horrifyingly decides Torquay should take another year off, he would never see another penny of mine.
I’d rather give my money to a club that cares deeply about supporters, does something creative to improve revenues rather than moans constantly about how hard life is and actively participates in trying to get National League football back on its tired feet rather than playing a part in killing these two levels of the game off completely.
Because that is what will happen if there is no National League football in 2020/21 – we’ll all be following part-time clubs with no route back into the EFL.
In. My. Humble. Opinion.