Does a Golden Age loom for Non-League Football in England?

Addendum: One year after writing the below, I took a look at the health of non-league attendances in England. The highest divisions – specially Vanarama Leagues North and South – have seen growth, while below that the picture is not good.

Here are the non-league attendance statistics for 2015-16. What’s gone wrong? Do these clubs need to market themselves better? Read on…

Attendances are up at many venues and new cultures are emerging. English football’s Non-League scene is changing. What are the reasons and how big is the opportunity? 

It’s a chilly Wednesday night in February. At the famous Dulwich Hamlet FC in South London, local fan group ‘The Rabble’ is gathered behind the goal, singing lively songs full of wit and drawn from a wide variety of inspirations from the Beach Boys to Kraftwerk. The atmosphere – with its drums, flags, slogans and endless songs – is very similar to Germany’s Bundesliga, and the open admiration for Germany’s most liberal club FC St. Pauli is clearly signposted. The Rabble has been getting a lot of press recently, held up as example of a mass defection away from the money and pantomime drama of the Premier League.

The match we’re watching is against Stonewall FC, England’s top-ranked gay football team and is a stand against homophobia in football. It cost us £3 to get into the ground and less than £4-a-pint for locally brewed craft beer.

While attendances are a mixed bag in the Non-League, according to these stats, Dulwich Hamlet is one team to see its attendances soar recently.

Dulwich Hamlet rabble

Dulwich Hamlet has seen attendances rise in recent seasons.

At a time when the sterility, elitism and cost of Premier League football is alienating fans (even though attendances remain strong), more and more are turning to Europe or to lower leagues.

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Even abroad the latest £5.1bn TV deal for Premier League rights is not welcomed: Bayern Munich fans recently unfurled a banner saying ‘No to the English model’, preferring to maintain the ‘50+1’ system in Germany that guarantees majority fan ownership of clubs.

As Uli Hoeness, Bayern Munich’s president, said: “We do not think the fans are like cows to be milked. Football has got to be for everybody. That’s the biggest difference between us and England.”

Is this widening gulf between fans and the club the chief cause of disillusionment and therefore an opportunity for non-league clubs to attract new fans?

Travels in the Non-League

Exeter City fan Gary Andrews is a regular contributor to When Saturday Comes, The Two Unfortunates and Two Hundred Per Cent and is well-placed to explain the appeal of non-league football.

“It’s hard to pin down one exact reason why people gravitate towards non-league, but it tends to be any one of a number of issues,” Andrews said. “The team behind The Real FA Cup got disillusioned with their respective teams (Arsenal and Ipswich Town) and wanted to support their local team. I have other friends who find it a refreshing alternative to their top-flight team, although they’re still regulars at their own club.

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“For me, I found I missed the friendly nature of non-league when Exeter won promotion from the Conference, although with the opportunities to visit new grounds. As the years have gone on, I’ve realised that I can pay up to £25 to watch bad football in League Two or pay £10 to watch bad football in non-league, have a drink during the game and be home in time for dinner, with none of the stress from watching your own side,” he added.

What must Non-League clubs do to attract more fans?

I recently went to Tunbridge Wells FC versus Deal Town in the South Countries East Football League – the ninth tier of English football. The attendances at the Culverden Stadium usually range between 200-300, the Deal match cost a fiver and there is always local beer on sale.

In 2013, Tunbridge Wells FC made it to the FA Vase final and took 12,000 fans (including me) to Wembley. That’s a fifth of the town’s population. The attention of the cup run did boost attendances but by a fraction of what it could be when the interest (albeit with the draw of a day out at Wembley) is clearly there. [Continues]

Tunbridge Wells FC

Tunbridge Wells FC v Deal Town in the 9th tier of English football. Attendance: 191

Small clubs have a massive opportunity to boost attendances as – to draw on marketing parlance more associated with the Premier League – they can offer a unique product: local interest, local beer, cheap prices, freedom of movement around the ground, the ability to stand and drink, and as a result the atmosphere is often better than at the multitudes of generic bucket seat league grounds.

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They should be cashing in on the disillusionment, which comes down largely to marketing and brand awareness. [Continues]

Stones scarf

Pre-match at Maidstone United, where attendances and the team’s fortunes are on the rise

“I’ve definitely noticed more refugees from league football though, whether that’s price, match day experience, or disillusionment with their team, it’s hard to tell,” Andrews said. “It’s also a lot easier to tap into the general community of non-league online – Twitter especially has made these smaller teams much more approachable, while YouTube has played a part in showcasing non-league. Without it, nobody would be talking about Sean Geddes’ rabona for Worcester and the Wealdstone Raider would never have bothered the charts.”

Some fans are seizing the power back: The formation (and rise and rise) of AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester is testament to the fact that there is only so much fans will stand for when their local club has been franchised off or sold.

Gary Andrews again: “One quote from the formation of AFC Wimbledon has always stuck with me. Addressing a meeting just after the original club had been relocated to Milton Keynes, the first chairman of the club Kris Stewart, said; ‘I just want to watch some football’ – That’s really how I feel – I don’t care what level. As long as I’m watching football and having fun, I don’t mind where it is.”

What do you think? Do you support your local non-league team?


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