Month: September 2018

Less is More: Why Having Fewer Football Matches Just Makes Sense – Part 1

One of the more derided slogans/hashtags in football as of late has been the EFL’s adoption of ‘Every Game Matters’, particularly in relation to the much-derided current guise of the Checkatrade Trophy. If you ever think the phrase might ring more true if there were actually fewer matches, then read on…

Since 1951, at least one of the divisions in the English professional game has seen each side contest 46 fixtures, but the way the sport is played, the culture that surrounds it, and how it is consumed, are all so far removed from the early post-war years. In the seventh decade since four clubs joined to make up ‘the 92’, the sport has transformed, and not necessarily for the better in every instance, with some of the elements that have built up alongside it completely alien to any supporters who are still following their side all this time later.

Many issues are present in 2018; some are unique to the domestic setup, but most are universal in nature. I will explore a handful of them below, with the potential impact of reducing the ‘football footprint’ discussed at length. The method will take up the rest of this post.

Ticket Prices

One of the most immediately apparent problems for many fans is simply the price of admission to a match itself, even before taking into consideration other associated costs, such as travel, food, a programme, merchandise and/or memorabilia.

Take as an example my local side, Bedford Town. After a series of relegations in the past decade, they now find themselves down in the Southern League Division East, the eighth rung on the pyramid, their all-too brief stint in the Conference South a distant memory. Even so, they still charge adults £10 for league matches, which even on Non-League Day, is probably sufficient to make supporters of other sides baulk. That’s not even meant as a criticism of The Eagles per se, but it does make you wonder how exactly that policy has come to be, and been retained in the face of demotions and a 2017/2018 average of just 229.

Regularly heralded (and regarded with no small sense of jealousy) as the league to look to for sensible pricing and the prominence of safe standing areas, a ticket for a Borussia Dortmund home game in the incredible atmosphere at the Westfalenstadion can cost as little as the equivalent of £15, which does come with a small surcharge for the derby against Schalke 04 and Der Klassiker. Although not without problems of their own, they are minute by comparison to the sky-high fees at their contemporaries in the Premier League, and still relatively pricey quite far down the divisions.

Suppose though that the number of home games suddenly fell for EFL clubs from 23 to 15. Would you immediately expect huge discounts? No, that doesn’t seem likely, but there are cases at the present moment where putting on matches actually costs the hosts more than they take in from gate receipts. This can happen for a number of reasons, including footing the bill for policing.

If done sensibly however, I believe that higher attendances are possible. In my proposal, there would be fewer midweek matches for a start, but they would not be eliminated completely; they retain a special place in many people’s hearts, and should be reserved for games contested between local teams. The EFL launched an ad campaign two and a half years ago to boost crowds, but failed to address two of the major sticking points within their sphere of influence: the fabled ‘fixture computer’, which has deemed Exeter City against Stevenage to be a sage choice for an early autumn Tuesday night encounter next week. The visitors have, as you’d expect, advertised the availability of streaming for the match, making more than a subtle nod to its incredulity.

As I said in my previous article, the logistics involved for fans to make long journeys come with their own barriers, even before the price of a ticket. In this vacuum, streaming will continue to become more prevalent and possibly start to erode overall figures. A greater proportion of the slimmed down calendar falling on Saturdays could reverse that growing trend, but it would need to be in line with other measures to have a real impact.

Squad Sizes & Injuries

In the era of seven substitutes being standard, it’s no surprise that overall squad sizes have vastly increased, even from when I started going to games in the mid-90s. Back then, there used to be just three, and the quandary for many managers was whether to risk omitting their second choice goalkeeper to maximise their other options, which tended to consist of at least one utility player, expected to cover almost every outfield position if called upon.

The EFL, as it always seems to, then followed the Premier League’s lead, gradually increasing the number up to seven across all the domestic competitions. With the greater exposure to different tactics and formations that the game has seen in the past decade or so, spurred on by the proliferation of YouTube videos, analytics and social media, the era of the utility player has come again, but now instead of the role being isolated to a single individual, almost everyone is now expected to perform at least two different roles, sometimes in multiple positions. The increased flexibility demonstrated by most managers, coaches and players alike has not gone hand in hand with keeping the training pitch from swelling, however.

 

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Without a FIFA-imposed limit on player registrations, we now have a situation where an elite club like Chelsea can send 40 players out on loan. They, of course, are far from alone in this ‘stockpiling’ practise, but by far and away have the largest squad, and the loopholes afforded to them and other top-tier clubs regarding home-grown players (HGP) and the quota of 25 named individuals ensure a higher degree of flexibility than you’d derive at first glance of the current rules.

A reduction in the number of teams in each league, along with the proposed loan limit by FIFA, ought to avoid the hammer blow anticipated by some owners and managers further down the divisions if the Council approves the changes. Without a significant cutback in the schedule, clubs with tighter budgets, which are usually more reliant on the trickling down of talent from above on temporary deals, would invariably be carrying fewer players as a result. According to Transfermarkt, the average squad size in League Two at the time of writing stands at 27, rounded to the nearest whole number. It’s difficult to foresee that still being the case, should the overall match count be reduced by a third.

Additionally, with games spaced further out, it would allow injured personnel more opportunity to get back fit, as well as the recovery time for those who do feature to increase. Far too often, teams are expected to fulfil fixtures within 72 hours of each other. There have been many scientific studies into this, and even if you don’t buy that argument, I do think the quality on the pitch suffers. Although it might go against some people’s perceptions somewhat, I don’t think professional footballers have it easy in terms of their ‘work’. You also have to keep in mind that the levels of fitness and athleticism required only seem to be going in one direction.

Crucially, this measure could also have the effect of ensuring young players have more gametime. In line with a strict quota for each age category, it should ensure that the reduction in matches doesn’t actually impact minutes so much. Without these limits, it would be counterproductive.

Domestic Cups

Heavily dependent on which level of the game the side you follow is (and in Bury’s case, their beyond woeful record in my lifetime), domestic cup competitions can be the highlight of a campaign or utterly unwanted distractions from the league and European quests. As alluded to in the previous section, the packed schedules and lack of importance placed on the FA Cup and League Cup especially, are reflected in the stands. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, particularly when considering deep, unexpected runs – Rochdale and Lincoln City are prominent examples of this phenomenon; the Imps managed to reach the quarter finals of the FA Cup in 2016/2017 under the Cowley brothers, which did wonders to reinvigorate local interest in the club, and they are still reaping the rewards from this success now.

Imagine though if more of the elite clubs felt that they could put XIs out closer to their first choices. I don’t think giant-killings would suddenly become things of the past, as the mentality and tactical approach to one-off knockout matches can, and do, vary wildly from the league. The reduction in the ‘bread and butter’ fixtures would not, I envisage, be reflected be in the domestic cups. The main change apart from potential team selection would be the increased emphasis and focus on the games, and it could reinvigorate both competitions; with more gaps in the calendar, League Cup matches could be moved to weekends, and the EFL Trophy group stage games could serve as the final ‘warm-up’ ties for participating clubs in pre-season, each encounter played a bit closer together than the season proper to ensure match fitness is the main result yielded from them. Interest in the competition has always been relatively low, not helped in any shape or form by the organisers bending over backwards in permitting Category 1 academies to field U23 outfits.

Continental

In theory, UEFA competitions only affect several clubs in England each season. A reduction in the number of matches played in the Champions League and Europa League is next to impossible to envisage, and with a third competition being (re)introduced in 2021, that’s even less likely to change. The financial incentives increase with each passing year, as does the imbalance between the haves and have-nots, both in terms of the clubs plying their trade in the ‘Big Five’ leagues and on the continental stage to the nations further down the coefficient, to those who miss out on Europe altogether.

Again though, the easing of the tight domestic schedule would allow more time to recover for the players, and potentially make it easier/more affordable for supporters to travel overseas. These changes would work best if reflected across all of the countries affiliated to UEFA, as well as where possible, the synchronisation of calendars. It makes more sense for the leagues in Germany, Spain, England and so on to start and finish at the same time, especially when considering the international scene…

International

Currently, there seems to be a fudge regarding the scheduling of nations’ games and the domestic schedule. In England, some clubs actively seek to rearrange their games so that they don’t coincide, even if the gap is mere minutes, as the broadcasting invariably affects attendances. Ideally, it would be much more prudent to simply avoid a clash altogether via one of two methods: allowing the national sides a free run during the year, or, much more preferably, for FIFA (and UEFA in turn) to realign the calendars around the world – not for the benefit of one continent in particular, but for better, more streamlined governance of the sport on a global scale.

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Fans are more likely to see improved performances from their national sides if the players involved have lighter playing schedules and more chance to bond with one another, rather than the ‘interruption’ of the domestic league, as it’s often portrayed

These matches would then be played in tranches after the respective domestic seasons have finished. Take as an example qualification for the United 2026 World Cup, as even in this hypothetical scenario, it would doubtlessly take years of negotiations and staggered changes for it to be fully realised. Most European would probably play between eight and 10 matches in order to qualify for the tournament, and more time and focus being devoted, relatively speaking, to this could only benefit everyone involved – for example, managers and coaches working with the players for longer periods on all aspects of the game. The players themselves would also reap the rewards, as they’d be able to build more of a sustained team spirit, with more knowledge of what makes each of their compatriots tick both on and off the field. These instances shouldn’t be reserved for all-too brief encounters during the season, nor for just the major tournaments themselves.

Counterproductive Ubiquity

This is probably not a concept that everyone will agree with me on, but one of the beauties of anything in life for me is that everything you enjoy doing is finite. There’s a beginning and an end to it. Perhaps without that, it would cease to have quite as much meaning.

Even in my 32 years, there has been a marked change in just how prominent football is from a cultural point of view, and no, it’s by no means all negative… but it’s quite hard to escape, even if you have no interest in it whatsoever. Front pages of newspapers are almost as often given over as the back to elite pros, complete with naked agendas. Social media is awash with ‘hot takes’, instant judgements on players and, as I’ve frequently been witness to, a ridiculous overemphasis of how important football is, with many people unable to make the distinction between the personal and the professional.

As much as I like writing about it, watching it, and even sometimes attempting to play it (badly), it does feel as though it’s now at saturation point – omnipresent, almost.

Reducing the number of matches played is not a silver bullet to assuaging that reality, but it would allow for more time to absorb and reflect on the events just played out, and for more critical, long-form analysis of the mores and idiosyncrasies of football to receive their due attention. As the beautiful game basks in this reflective glow, I maintain my view that it’s actually going to end up hurting it in the long run. The relentless scheduling and pace lowers quality and attention spans, the sport in turn becoming more of a product to be consumed without always being appreciated for what it is. It might just reinforce many people’s love of the game, if it’s allowed to breathe that little bit more freely. But how do we get there? Find out in Part 2…

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iFollow You, iFollow Me: Is the Broadcast Blackout Dying?

Saturday, the 8th of September 2018 marked a watershed moment in the long and storied history of English football. During the international break last weekend, the EFL streamed 15:00 kick-offs on their iFollow platform to domestic customers for the very first time during the ‘broadcast blackout’, prompting a vociferous reaction in some quarters. Is the new development all bad (or indeed, all good)?  This blogpost takes a closer look…

Mission Creep

The EFL announced iFollow in May of last year, primarily targetting two key groups of people: ‘exiled’ fans overseas and UK-based scouts and ‘anoraks’ (like the author of this piece), allowing the latter of these groups to play back the same footage supporters in other countries could enjoy live a day after first being broadcast. One of the inadvertent disadvantages of this move was that as a customer, you now became tied to your particular club, unable to listen to the commentary of the opposition your side were facing, which I often found more insightful than Bury’s, as well as being restricted to watching bare-bones highlights on YouTube or Channel 5 (as it was at the time) of any match not involving the outfit you held dear.

I know that the ability to watch games live was extremely well-received by fellow Shakers fans. Kieran Lomax stays up into the small hours of Sunday morning to get his fix in Australia, there now exists a fan club based in Poland and most prominently of all, the Norway branch increased their social media following considerably, especially when posting goal clips to Twitter mere minutes after they had been scored. I have not seen any viewing figures for Bury, but even if they turn out to be in just double figures, it has definitely helped them all feel ‘closer’ to the club they support, and this is bound to be replicated with other teams, too. Although Sunderland are one of several clubs that have chosen not to be part of the iFollow platform, their own streaming equivalent regularly attracts a number in the low thousands from outside the UK, according to new owner Stewart Donald. Either way, it helps to generate revenue on top of the current Sky Sports broadcast deal and that wouldn’t have been present beforehand, which will increase considerably from 2019/2020, whichever distribution model clubs agree to adopt.

However, as the link above alludes to, the streaming of matches within the UK was introduced earlier this season, with the EFL heavily advertising this fact both before the campaign commenced and in the days leading up to its advent. For full disclosure purposes, I took advantage of sadly not being able to revisit Sincil Bank for the first time in well over a decade due to work commitments by watching Lincoln City host Bury. I was under the distinct impression at the time that such instances were solely going to be the preserve of Tuesday night league matches (and Checkatrade Trophy games from the second round onwards) due to the ‘blackout’, until seeing the official Grimsby Town Twitter account promoting the availability of last Saturday’s thrashing to a domestic audience. I was actually quite shocked, which doesn’t happen often.

 

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It should be noted that the above worded response on the EFL’s own iFollow FAQs page gives no indication whatsoever to anyone reading it that 15:00 Saturday matches could be available in the UK during international breaks…

 

Slowly but surely, the relentless reposting from almost all of the League One and Two clubs of match streaming being available in the UK got the attention of one of the more vocal owners of an EFL club: Andy Holt of Accrington Stanley. Holt, along with the likes of Darragh MacAnthony and Alan Hardy, is one of the few leading figures at an EFL club to have a considerable social media presence, which he sustains through the good and bad. Through that channel, he has been extremely open with the public regarding Accrington’s finances, as well as his hitherto unwavering support for the EFL’s extremely controversial changes to the format (and entrants) of the Checkatrade Trophy. He, too, was caught out by the news (although his club are not part of iFollow), and throughout last Friday, did some investigating of his own whilst fielding questions from other users.

What he managed to uncover was that the EFL had taken advantage of a loophole in UEFA’s rulings governing the definition of the blackout to their members, which don’t cover periods when domestic football continues during international breaks. Holt was particularly aggrieved, as it was not brought up either implicitly or explicitly during the EFL’s Summer Conference in Portugal, later stating it had been part of the not-at-all daft sounding ‘Project Genie’, and now clubs have been presented with a fait accompli that could be hard to row back from, even if the collective will is there.

The Response

Reaction from fans in general has not been as universal in its condemnation as I would’ve anticipated. In a poll I conducted on this topic on Twitter, these were the results:

 

 

Firstly, I accept that a poll on Twitter with a sample size of 784 is hardly a) scientific and b) wholly representative of views. However, I conducted it in a completely neutral fashion, refraining from responding to any of the worded responses to my post to ensure it was as ‘ecologically valid’ as it could be in the circumstances.

The worded responses were generally centred upon the themes listed below:

A good thing

Considering 30% of respondents voted for this, I could only find one genuinely upbeat reply without caveats: in a nutshell, they stated that for fans with genuine reasons as to why they can’t attend match(es), it can only be construed as a positive. To expound, it could be the case that a person simply can’t afford to attend any longer, even if they live within spitting distance of the ground. The BBC’s Price of Football survey conducted last year showed that the average price of a matchday ticket even in the fourth tier was north of £20, and that’s without purchasing optional extras, such as a programme or food and drink.

Additionally, I know of several people who have mental and/or physical health conditions that make travelling to games extremely difficult to say the least, but who nevertheless are as much a fan as those who are able to attend in person. Alternatively, someone could have working patterns that preclude their presence at games, but who could still make use of streaming. I have seen conflicting breakdowns of just who receives what when someone buys a match pass, but I think it’s unlikely that the club they support would receive none of the proceeds, even in the worst case scenario.

A bad thing

As you’d probably expect, there were a plethora of these. Chief amongst them was the desire to keep the blackout sacrosanct; many are fearful of the impact a move they perceive as ‘the thin end of the wedge’ would have on both attendances and, as a consequence, the very future of clubs that are mostly reliant on gate receipts as their main source of income.

Others are reluctant even with the convenience that streaming every match would provide to partake, either because of the financial hit to the club, the experience watching away from the ground cannot hope to come close to emulating the authenticity of the sights, sounds, and even smells of being there in situ with like-minded people

Unsure

Of course, the issue is not black or white in many people’s minds. A proposed ‘workaround’ I’ve seen (and have seriously entertained) is to lift the blackout… but only when tickets for matches are sold out. There was once a similar scheme in the NFL, but that has since fallen by the wayside, and in truth, it’s difficult to compare two sports with vastly different infrastructures.

Along a similar vein, a club could charge the equivalent of a match pass to fans to enter their ‘home’ stadium, with footage beamed back from where their team are playing. This has occurred occasionally in the past, but has usually been confined to special events, such as major international tournaments and EFL play-off games. Widening this scheme to include long-distance away matches could be a way to counter at least some of the criticisms and concerns levelled at this stage.

The elephant in the room is arguably the Premier League. Long gone are the days when even eight or nine of the 10 ‘gameweek’ fixtures kicked off simultaneously, save for the final matchday – Sky Sports allow this to maximise the unfolding drama. Is there an appetite at the top table of the game in England to lobby for the blackout to be a thing of the past?

Supporters’ Direct

As you’d expect, the umbrella organisation issued a scathing response to the EFL’s move, making some good points before tripping themselves up with the following paragraph:

"You could say it is purely coincidence that Northampton Town, Exeter City,
Morecambe, Accrington Stanley, Portsmouth and Sunderland all suffered their
lowest league attendances of the season so far on Saturday.  I say there is
no such thing as coincidence."

I would’ve expected a deeper analysis (i.e. any) than a cursory glance of the attendance figures, which even now, not all clubs report in the same way, and the “That many are here? really?” sentiments I can echo from the recent match at Milton Keynes Dons.

Below is a table that details the figures:

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They’re all, with the exception of Sunderland, within 1,000 of the average; in the first four teams’ cases on the list, within several hundred. None of the away followings that I could find data for exactly swelled the grounds they visited, with Burton Albion and Fleetwood Town posting some of the poorest away support in any of the four tiers (in terms of numbers). Notts County are unexpectedly propping up League Two, Morecambe is quite a long distance trip from Wiltshire, and Cheltenham Town are also struggling.

Five of the six hosts’ crowds are actually up from 2017/2018 on average. Sunderland’s long-suffering support have doubtlessly been buoyed by the feelgood factor Stewart Donald has brought with him to the club as the new owner, despite plying their trade on the third rung for the first time in 30 years. Accrington Stanley are in the same division as the Black Cats after a well-documented absence of over half a century. The massive caveat is that all of these sides have played just three or four times in the league at home during 2018/2019 to date, so the sample size is simply too small to draw any meaningful conclusions either way, and especially to draw a relationship between correlation and causation in terms of iFollow streaming.

Other Points for Consideration

The ‘Matchday Experience’ vs other comparable forms of entertainment

In some ways, it’s remarkable that attendances are either stable or on the increase in the pyramid. Very few outfits in the top four tiers are sharply decreasing through factors other than a demotion (Blackpool being an obvious exception to that). There are constant myriad complaints about the cost of matchday tickets throughout the divisions, with many supporters being priced out through a whole host of factors too numerous to mention at length in this post. The bottom line is that in the current era, there are many other forms of entertainment that people can partake in that are cheaper or comparable in terms of length and cost to a football match: going to the cinema, a concert, downloading a video game, film or TV boxset (or streaming them), watching other sports (such as rugby and cricket)… the list is endless, and many of these are more prevalent and accessible to more people than ever before.

Take this as an example. Even if you’re a family of fans and your number one pastime is football but the cost of seeing your beloved side from the comfort of your own home is a fraction of the time and effort it would take to get there, you’d be hard-pressed not to at least give streaming serious consideration, especially if your disposable income isn’t very high. If football clubs want to continue to attract young families with children through their doors, they must pay more heed to ensuring that the whole day is a positive one, and firmly focused on keeping them ‘happy’, regardless of the result on the pitch. This could take the form of having fun things to do in or around the ground which are free or as close as possible to being free to participate in. The competition for people’s hearts and wallets is only going to get fiercer in the years ahead.

Local Economy Suffering

One aspect I didn’t see anyone mention in their responses was that of the local economy of wherever the team they follow are playing at that weeknight/weekend. Supposing that attendances did noticeably drop across the board because of the expansion of domestic streaming, there would almost certainly be a profound knock-on effect to businesses and services situated in the town and/or adjacent to the stadium. Pubs and betting shops, not exactly everyone’s forté in the current climate anyway, would be under pressure. The same is likely of restaurants and takeaways, particularly those that are independently run, as they are perhaps less able to absorb any shortfalls. Of course, not every matchgoer frequents any of these establishments at a home or away encounter, but it is equally the case that there is a degree of dependency on football supporters visiting in good numbers.

 

 

Conclusions

A meeting has been convened by the EFL, set to take place next week, to discuss this very issue. I predict a similar outcome to the one that concerned the changes to the format of the Checkatrade Trophy. The ‘genie’ has escaped the lamp, and the ‘competition organisers’ will be extremely loath to put it back inside, especially if it deems the experiment last weekend to have been a success in terms of revenue. The EFL will use the broadcast deal set to commence next season as a carrot, and will also point to the increased guaranteed income that the runt of the proverbial domestic cup litter that has come about since the inclusion of U23 sides from Premier League and Championship Category One academies. If they can find a way to convince enough boards that their incomes will be protected by their latest project, expect the majority to fall in line.

From an outsider’s point of view, it has become increasingly unclear to me where the lines between FA, PL and EFL begin. The current burning issue is not going to go away anytime soon, and whilst the FA are still considering the incredibly short-sighted sale of Wembley Stadium, the domestic game at all levels runs the risk of being undercut by a slapdash embrace of streaming, without due care and consideration to the substantial knock-on effects that could well occur.

Personally,  I am in favour of what I’d considered to be the arrangement before last weekend. Keep it to long-distance away matches whilst a more coherent strategy is thought up, which needs to involve all the stakeholders, including non-league clubs, many of which often use the international break as a way of enticing those without a fixture to watch to attend. Technology will only continue to advance and intertwine more with football, and whilst in many ways I embrace that reality, I place zero trust whatsoever in the corridors of any of those three organisations to safeguard the grassroots and the clubs a proliferation of streaming will affect the most. If the EFL truly believe that ‘Every Game Matters’, perhaps they should look at adopting the mantra of ‘less is more’ so that football is more affordable for everyone… which will be the focus of my next post.