This week saw the Football League release details of a discussion paper which proposes the re-organisation of their league into five divisions of 20 teams from the 2019/20 season – what they’re calling a ‘whole-game solution’. This would mean the addition of a League Three at the bottom of the Football League, with the addition of eight clubs from Conference National to make up the 100 teams who would comprise what is still officially known as the ‘professional game.’
Predictably, this news has produced howls of outrage from some quarters – from those whose attitude tends to be a knee-jerk of either "all change is bad" or "all suggestions from the football authorities are bad." I prefer to take a slightly more measured view, so here’s my view on what we do – and don’t know – about these proposals, and initial thoughts on what we know so far.
What I make of this
First of all, it’s important to realise that this is just a proposal – and not even one that the Board of The Football League is actually recommending to the clubs. Instead, it’s asking them to give this proposal ‘their full consideration’ – so if this ever is to come to pass there’s a lot of discussion to go and a lot of clubs, particularly from the lower levels of the Football League, that will need to be persuaded.
The stated objectives of the proposal are given by the League as:
- To maximise the number of weekend/Bank Holiday league fixtures;
- To remove where practical fixture congestion and scheduling conflicts;
- To protect/improve financial distributions/income generation for Football League clubs;
- To maintain the Football League Play-Off Finals as the last event of the domestic season.
Of these, I think it’s clear that the first two are the most significant practical considerations – for years it’s been harder and harder to fit all the required matches into a season, especially you factor in cup competitions and also constraints like police restrictions over competing local events (such as Reading Festival for the Royals and many other weird and wonderful events which restrict fixture available, such as the Shrewsbury Flower Show which dictates dates for matches at the New Meadow in Shropshire!)
This problem of fixture scheduling is more acute in the Premier League, since more of their clubs reach the later rounds of the cup competitions and play in Europe, but it’s still a cause of major problems in the Football League. In a season starting in the second week of August and ending in the first week of May, there are only 38 Saturdays available to start with – and that’s before you take some away for FA Cup rounds and international breaks. Add in League Cup and League Trophy games and (again!) international breaks, as well as reserved weeks for FA Cup replays and spare weeks for matches postponed by bad weather, and it genuinely is harder and harder each season to make all the game fit. Through the FSF, I’ve met people directly involved in the process of fixture compilation, and having listened to the constraints they have to operate under I’m genuinely amazed that they do come out with a working fixture list each July.
Coupled with this, for many years clubs have been aware that a midweek game invariably attracts a smaller crowd than if it was played on a weekend or bank holiday. There’s a ton of data to demonstrate this fact – which is down to factors such as work, school, and travel time, etc. - which also shows that it’s not just away support that dips midweek– home crowds do as well, especially in terms of families and occasional attendees who buy individual match tickets.
For many years, midweek travel factors weren’t allowed to be taken into account when the fixtures were put together, much to the consternation of clubs which wanted their best-attended matches (i.e. the local ones) reserved for weekends or bank holidays. But a couple of years this change to the fixture compilation process to maximise potential attendances was made, which is why for the past couple of years days many of the longest trips away have tended to be or midweek games. The thought process has been: ‘the games where the distance is longest will attract the fewest fans, so we might as well hold them on midweek when attendances will be lowest anyway.’
These proposals seem to be the next step in this thought process – ‘because we have to hold games midweek, we’re getting lower attendances than we would it we could hold them at the weekend; but we have to have midweek games because there aren’t enough Saturdays for all the matches; how do we get around that? Bingo – fewer teams in a league means fewer of those less-well attended midweek games!’
Taken on those terms you can see the reasoning, but who is this good for and who is it bad for?
Firstly, it’s another step in gentrifying football for economic reasons. Whilst football club accountants may hate midweek matches, there’s a hard-core – maybe one that ought to be described as zealots – who love them. A school-age family might not like a midweek game, and would probably never dream of travelling to one, but for many fans thee matches are real highlights. Looking back on my fondest memories from what is now forty years as a Reading supporter, the vast majority are away games – there have been some epic away trips, and these, to me, are a crucial part of what being a supporter is all about. Shared experiences and camaraderie with your mates as you make sacrifices to travel to games at the other end of the country are a wonderful experience – although too often over recent seasons a great trip out has been spoilt by the 90 minutes of unpleasantness in the middle, thanks to the Reading team. There’s also a real magic about evening games under the floodlights, home or away, and fewer of these will again be a real pity.
But this is another example of where football economics and traditional supporter values are at loggerheads – and certainly away midweek long-distance supporters are a minority, not worth considering from an economic point of view. For such zealots, though, this will be a loss of the kind of experiences that go on around football, but don’t directly contribute to football. So economically, it’s hard to argue against the proposals if the fewer matches are all better attended, and the more expensive, less-profitable, long-distance evening games are dropped.
For lower league cubs, though, it’s harder to make the economic case – partly because a greater proportion of their crowds, which are smaller anyway, are the hard-core. For these clubs, fewer matches will likely mean less income, without a corresponding increase in attendances on Saturdays. In this case, the potential savings are less clear – those behind the proposals would suggest that for such clubs the reduction of travel costs would make up the shortfall, and that fewer matches, and more of an interval behind matches will mean fewer injuries and a requirement for smaller squads.
Whether these numbers actually add up is anyone’s guess, though – it’s a bit like the claims made by Brexiters/Remainers – only time will tell, and there are too many unknown variables to make a firm prediction. Perhaps this is also a reaction to increased ticket prices – it’s been shown again and again that casual supporters (i.e. non-season ticket holders) are being more and more selective about the matches they attend, and the most likely explanation for this is ticket prices. Perhaps those behind these proposals recognise that prices are so high that casual supporters are coming to fewer games anyway, so reducing the number available won’t impact ticket sales?
So, I’m opening minded about the proposals. Of course, they’ll erode many of the things I love about the game, but that’s been happening for years, as the effects of economics and marketing have made the game morph from the one that I fell in love with into a family-orientated "sports entertainment business." Who am I to say that’s good or bad? Football will survive – it will just be in a different form to the one that longer-term supporters like me enjoy.
Having said that I’m open-minded, there are two potential ways in which these proposals could easily be turned from "wait and see" into "over my dead body" in an instant.
The first of these danger would be if season ticket prices don’t reduce to reflect the lower number of games. You’d think it’s straightforward common sense that they would, but this is football, don’t forget! I’d not put it past some club owners, knowing what supporters are used to paying for a season ticket, keeping prices the same and arguing that each match would be of a higher quality because the players would be playing fewer of them and so fresher with fewer injuries. Seeing how fans are treated at many clubs, can you be sure this wouldn’t be a realistic possibility? (A few weeks ago, I would have said ‘at many other clubs’ – but sadly I now no longer feel that Reading are different to any other club.)
The other potential danger is that somehow this reorganisation will be seen as an opportunity to shoehorn Celtic and Rangers into the English league structure. That’s a whole other conversation, and it’s doubtful whether UEFA would allow this to happen, but that’s something that would distort the whole pyramid in both countries, and I can’t see any way it would benefit English clubs, other Scottish club, or indeed anyone - other than Celtic and Rangers.
So while I’m doubtful whether these proposals will ever come to anything, but I see them as just the latest in a long series of changes that have made the game less appealing to me – and they do have the potential to make things a whole lot worse if they’re used as a Trojan horse to allow Celtic and Rangers into the English leagues.