Just over a month ago I went to the Green Elephants Stadium (Leylands Park to the purists) to watch Burgess Hill Town lose to an Andre McCollin inspired Kingstonian, and was surprised by the number of supporters who were far more fixated by their mobile phones than by anything happening on the pitch. This wasn’t a new phenomenon, but it seemed to be more pronounced than I’d ever experienced previously. As I wandered around the ground I was kept entirely up to date with the goings on in the Premier League, to the extent that had I wanted to try and ignore the results and watch Match of the Day with a sense of unknowing excitement I’d have been badly thwarted.
Last week, Bridlington Town Chair Peter Smurthwaite created- rather ironically- a social media storm when he wrote an article for the club’s website claiming that social media was adversely affecting attendances; allowing supporters to get a ‘visual commentary’ of a match without leaving their armchair. He went on to suggest that the Northern Counties East Football League should put a ban on their twitter feed during matches. His words got me thinking about my trip to Burgess Hill.
I watch Non League football. This season I’ve attended matches from Step 1 to Step 6, and been part of crowds that range from 1900 down to 37. I’ve spoken to supporters, managers, staff and club owners across the range of the Non League game. I’ve heard many arguments about the importance of social media; the ‘window on the world’ that it provides, the consequences for Non League clubs of not having a powerful social media presence. I’ve never yet heard anyone call for it to be banned- and there’s probably a good reason for that.
What I experienced at Burgess Hill was perhaps a little extreme, but has become fairly typical. The next time you go to a match, take a look around you during a break in play. How many people can you see who are staring at their mobile phones? They may be reading tweets, keeping up with scores via any one of a number of Apps or texting friends, but they certainly aren’t entirely focused on the game. Now take that scenario out of football, to the High Street, on to a train, a bus, even- particularly annoyingly- to the cinema, and what do you see? The fixation with mobile technology and social media isn’t a football issue, it’s a society issue. If Peter Smurthwaite was to get his way and stop the NCEFL tweeting about matches on a Saturday afternoon, what would he gain? If any of the 100 people at the match had a mobile phone- and apparently 93% of the population own one- then the information he’s trying to hide will be out there anyway. This genie escaped from the bottle many years ago, and isn’t going to be put back in. Non League clubs need to live with that and embrace social media, whether they approve or not, as society has come to rely on it.
A less reported part of Smurthwaite’s statement focused on the effect of Sky, BT Sport, and those pubs with illegal live feeds which show matches at 3PM on a Saturday afternoon. On this subject he may have a point. A match kicking off at 12.45 on a Saturday afternoon isn’t going to be finished until perhaps twenty to three. How is anyone watching a live match from the comfort of their own armchair going to get to their local Non League ground for a 3 PM kick off? The obvious answer, you’d think, would be for the Non League clubs to show the televised matches in their own clubhouses, but with a subscription which Sky ridiculously base on the rateable value of the ground- which in Bridlington’s case would apparently be £600 a month- how many can afford to do that? Often Non League sides have little use for their facilities apart from on a matchday. Three home matches a month, £200 to Sky for every day the clubhouse is used; even if the availability of TV football adds to the gate, that’s hardly viable, particularly when you factor in the close season. So they either rely on an illegal subscription- witness the horror of Gary Neville being confronted with this fact in the BBC’s ‘Class of ’92′ recently- or they do without.
Football is our national game. But football doesn’t start with Leicester City and end with Aston Villa. It doesn’t even end with Dagenham and Redbridge. The Premier League are taking more than 5 billion pounds from Sky and BT Sport over the next three years. They give a very small percentage of that to the grassroots game. Whilst we argue about the price of match tickets and the inconvenience caused to supporters when fixtures are moved to suit the TV schedulers, why don’t we put pressure on the Premier League clubs- and by extension the FA- to ask Sky for a better deal for our grassroots clubs? All they need to do is agree a deal to reduce monthly subscriptions to an affordable level, and the likes of Bridlington could have full bars and larger attendances. It isn’t that Sky and the FA aren’t aware of the problem; Stuart Fuller, Chairman of community owned and community focused Lewes FC, advised me (rather ironically via social media) that he had been quoted £1000 a month to install Sky at the Dripping Pan and had written to Sky and to the Ryman League asking for a sensible set fee for Non League clubs, without any positive response thus far. Six years ago, during my period as Chair of the Supporters Trust at Crawley Town, I recall having a similar discussion with then Chief Executive Alan Williams, as even Crawley- in seventh place in the Conference although as yet without the investment that was later to bankroll promotions and cup runs- couldn’t afford the subscriptions. If National League clubs struggle with this, what chance have those lower down the pyramid?
Despite Smurthwaite’s protests, it’s unlikely that many potential visitors to Bridlington Town decide not to go because they can find out the score on Twitter. It’s far more likely, however, that they don’t attend because they don’t have the time-or possibly the inclination to leave a comfortable armchair- to get to the ground after watching a televised game. Perhaps it’s time for the FA to take ownership of the problem, speak to its television partners, and demonstrate that it actually cares about its ‘junior’ members rather than just the national team and the twenty top clubs?
The original version of this article was published by Non League Daily
Published on in National.