On Saturday October 10th we celebrate Non League Day: an opportunity for to promote the huge community contribution made by small, often volunteer-run local community clubs and a chance for supporters of ‘higher league’ professional clubs to re-engage with football in its purest form.
Non League Day, founded by James Doe in 2010, is now responsible for often doubling and tripling attendances, once a year, at grounds whose names you’ve never heard of. The Dripping Pan, The Moat Ground, The Nanpantan Sports Ground or the Plain Ham Ground (answers on a postcard …): all ringing with associations, characters and memories only known to the privileged few.
The Non League Day website helpfully provides a list of ideas, all capable of being easily put into action, aimed at attracting a big crowd and helping our smaller clubs to prosper, but how would it be if those ‘first timers’ came back. After all, the whole initiative wouldn’t be in place if it weren’t for the reasons to return: the freedom to walk around the pitch, to change ends at half time, to drink within view of the pitch, to see football played purely for the love of the game, to pop into the bar for the half time scores or, as once happened to us at North Greenford United, to notice all bar the two of us going into the social club half way through the second half to watch the Grand National. And there is much, much more.
But looking back, what I’m hearing is that while the desired boost in attendances is always achieved, to a greater or lesser extent at every club that day, it seldom endures beyond ‘spike’ status. So how do clubs use this extra injection of support to grow crowds more steadily and over a longer period?
Our work has highlighted that, unlike many larger professional ones, our smaller clubs, by and large, have fewer challenges once the new fan passes through the turnstiles.
It’s true; the smaller crowds often mean you can more clearly hear a rich array of cursing, along that entertaining spectrum from unimaginative to fantastically creative (for example, how does a South Derbyshire fan abuse a North Staffordshire rival player? Simply this ‘Sit down and eat your oatcakes, you twat!’
Joking apart, this can restrict a club’s ability to encourage parents to bring their kids along, but the bigger issue is getting people to the turnstiles in the first place. Thus, the challenges are less to do with ‘half time entertainment’ and more to do with strengthening the local profile of the club and promoting its differences, since after all, if all you want is 90 minutes of football, you might prefer the type they play at the Hawthorns to the level you get at Tividale FC.
For me, there are several key strategic areas that clubs need to focus on to be able to drive up awareness, develop identity and, ultimately, grow attendances and generate extra revenue streams.
Firstly, grow the volunteer base. I was at Gresley FC last night watching them battle Leek Town. Everyone I spoke to at this lovely, welcoming club recognised that this was their biggest challenge. It’s one recognised by anyone involved in grass roots football.
One committed, relentless, stubborn volunteer can the difference between an era-defining uplift in facilities and a club’s demise. So what are clubs doing? Which are creating links with local colleges and universities, where young students with a love of sport are looking for experiences that will help develop their business, marketing, media, communications and technology skills? Ashton United has forged some fantastically successful links with UCFB at Burnley.
How do you develop an identity? To be fair, most of the small clubs I have visited could all claim to have the same USP: friendliness, so that’s a great starting point. How many promote this through their websites? If this is the factor that makes people come back, surely it’s as important, if not more so, when it comes to airtime, than the football.
Develop an identity, articulate it as a series of principles, beliefs or even values and then think about how to promote your games. Lewes FC is still at the vanguard of this nascent movement thanks to their endlessly creative (and collectible) match promotion posters. Check them out here:
But with hundreds of leagues and thousands of clubs up and down the land, why are there so few examples of these different approaches? In the case of Lewes it’s definitely down to their ownership structure, as like FC United of Manchester, they are supporter-owned. But even if your local club isn’t owned by its fans, entering into dialogue with those fans and giving them a stake in helping to grow the club will surely pay dividends in new thinking and different ideas. We’ve certainly seen, in our research, an emerging correlation between supporter engagement at grass roots levels and more effective solutions.
As anyone in grass roots football will tell you, everything has to be fought for: every penny, every young emerging player, every grant, every tiny piece of facilities funding and every devoted supporter. And yet on 10th October, very little effort will be needed: new fans will be flooding in through your turnstiles and you’ll get the biggest crowd in at least a year. So why not use this as a catalyst for recognising that for sustainable growth – a different outcome altogether – we have to start to think differently. Good luck!