THE END OF THE LOWER LEAGUES? PART 1: YOUR GROUND’S TOO BIG FOR YOU

The final act of the 2018/19 domestic season begins today with the first of the play-off finals as Newport County and Tranmere Rovers go head-to-head at Wembley for the final promotion place to League One. But an investigation by a leading newspaper cast doubt this week on the fates of clubs in Leagues One and Two altogether. Could it be that this game today won’t even exist in twenty years’ time? We think it will and we’ve put a three-part blog together for this play-off weekend to tell you why.

Thursday’s Special Investigation in The Independent (by Miguel Delaney) made for glum reading for most fans of English football. It questioned whether it could even survive in its current form and was maybe the beginning of the end for ‘the 72’ – or the majority of them anyway.

The start point was to compare Manchester City’s spending power, as they swept the domestic trophy board, with Bolton Wanderers staff having to rely on a food bank to eat after wages went unpaid. In this level, it’s hard to argue with the unfairness and pitfalls of the chasm between the haves and have nots of the football world.

Of course, as the author points out, these are extremes and Bolton’s issues are quite literally man-made but that’s the same with any organisation in any walk of life. Towns and cities are full of major brands and small independents co-existing side by side, jostling for position and aiming their sights at the same people. Some will be run well, others not so well and others very badly. The problem is when ‘very badly’ means that the corner shop is trying to keep pace with, or even become, the supermarket, while only getting a hundred customers per week through the door.

That strategy doesn’t work and never has. It’s OK if Sheik Mansour wants to invest, but otherwise you have to grow organically and over time because the too-much-too-soon tends to come at a heavy price. The Independent is rightly concerned that too many club owners are tempted by the get-rich-quick appeal of the Premier League.

The article also outlines that much of the interest in football generally is centered on the big-13 (essentially, the super-wealthy elite of European football – you know who you are) although we don’t need a newspaper to tell us that. Just take a look at where all the media attention is focused on any sports pages and websites. But the investigation also assumes that this interest is what drives the future of the industry and I’m not sure it necessarily reflects what is in the minds of the people who are key to all of this. The fans.

If non-Premier League attendances were in steep decline, then it would be hard to disagree, but they aren’t. We’ll explore that further down the line in these blogs. The piece – with some valid observations and well-made points – did feel very bleak too, a little like the Daily Mail story a few years ago that said a quarter of a million people would die from flu that winter. A source was quoted as saying that 75% of clubs in the bottom two EFL divisions had ‘zero long term future in their current form.’

That may or may not be correct but it’s irrelevant because it also supposes that they will remain in their current form and can’t – or won’t – change. Yet they already are changing and continue to do so. This season, more clubs outside of the top division have invested in changes to make them more family-friendly or to provide more entertainment in addition to what is happening on the pitch. Tottenham may have opened a stadium that encourages fans (USA-style) to spend 3-4 hours there but much smaller clubs than them have cottoned onto that idea too.

Attendances have increased over the last dozen years; junior and female attendance more than any other fan demographic, so it can’t be all bad. It’s also inaccurate to put the record 2018/19 attendances down as artificially inflated because Aston Villa are in The Championship as there have always been well-supported teams in there, such as Leeds, Newcastle, Wolves, Sunderland etc. and also, it’s not artificial – it’s the actual league they are in. That’s like arguing that Spain is only a great holiday destination because it has lots of sun! The Championship is actually the ninth most-attended sports league in the world.

The downbeat nature of the article points at stadiums and that 31 of the 48 League One and Two clubs have average attendances that are less than half of the ground capacity. But the glass-half-full alternative to that is to look at the potential for growth because they all have extra seats to fill if they go about it the right way. And you can hardly blame them for the size of their stadium – not many architects will say ‘you’re probably going to be crap at some stage so why not let us build it smaller?’

But to bring in more, new fans, change is not only inevitable but crucial. Doing what they’ve always done isn’t the answer. To be fair to them, many clubs are doing things differently, but they need to do far more of it. That a lot of clubs don’t know how is a point the article makes well, but then why should we expect them to know?

The speed and impact of innovations like social media puts us all in unchartered waters, that were expected to navigate and learn about at the same time, juggling alongside the day job so is it any wonder some clubs – especially those who are short on resources – fail to get it completely right?

Tomorrow: Part Two: You Don’t Know What You’re Doing