For most Non-League clubs, whilst it is only April, thoughts will have already turned to next season and the hope/anticipation of the return of fans to grounds up and down the country. Clubs will now have at least three months to get everything in place and ready for when the turnstiles can turn again in pre-season, assuming that the Government roadmap is followed.
Pre-season can be a period that can make or break a Non-League club financially. A game against a bigger, local rival or a professional club can generate significant revenue, in some cases as much in gate receipts as they will see for months during the regular season. However, in recent seasons these games have become rarer and rarer, not only due to Covid-19 but because of the change in focus of the professional clubs.
Gone are the days when a top flight team will pay a visit to their local Non-League side as a matter of course. Prior to the end of the 2019./20 season (“pre-pandemic”), most Premier League and some Championship clubs would head overseas, often to the other side of the globe, for their pre-season preparation, taking part in tournaments that few people actually understand the rules of (International Champions Cup anyone?).
But the world has changed and perhaps now is the time where those professional clubs can return to looking locally for their pre-season preparation, delivering community benefit in the form of goodwill and genuinely helping out their local Non-League clubs.
Most Non-League clubs will emerge from a nine month period of hibernation in the summer, having had no opportunities to earn any revenue since competitive football stopped prior to Christmas. The 2020/21 season is in many ways the most important that the Non-League game has faced. Coming off the back of two interrupted seasons, all of the signs point to a return to some normality and the hope that the new campaign will be seen through to a full conclusion. But, there is always a danger that there will be an interruption, one that will result in further losses of revenue or increases in operating costs.
Most Non-League clubs will start their pre-seasons with limited revenues – many will have had to roll over season ticket revenue from the last campaign, whilst those with social facilities such as club houses will have been able to start to open them up in June (assuming the roadmap out of lockdown continues). Being able to generate significant revenues in pre-season from friendlies could be key to them all.
This works two ways. Whilst in an ideal world, the professional club would play all of their local clubs, it is impossible for them to do so. But it is possible for some of the bigger Non-League clubs to play lower level teams in their area. For instance, a Premier League club could easily play 2 or 3 Step 3/4 teams and in turn they could play Step 5/6 teams. The professional club will want to test themselves against teams at a similar level but this year that may not be possible.
In previous years that has involved pre-season training camps, tournaments and random games that are primarily for revenue generation. Whilst the professional clubs are also in need of balancing their books, TV deals and ongoing commercial revenues have provided a comfort blanket for most. For one season, a return to traditional pre-season plans may have a wider, community benefit that outweighs any financial benefit they will receive from travelling abroad.
Whilst international travel is likely to slowly return for us mere mortals, clubs who are deemed “elite” can and will be able to travel abroad. But in doing so they will incur additional costs, both in terms of security, insurance and travel logistics as well as ignoring the plight of the Non-League teams on their doorstep who are in desperate need not only for a revenue boost but also a feel-good start to the new season for clubs and their fans.
More and more Premier League and Championship club fans now also have a Non-League club of choice. In the last year where they have been locked out of stadiums, some fans were able to get to see their local Non-League sides play, albeit for a few games before the season came to a shuddering halt in early November.
The last time that our neighbours, Brighton & Hove Albion, visited the Dripping Pan for a pre-season game was six years ago. Over 2,000 fans saw the two sides play out a goal less draw on a beautiful, sunny day. The revenue generated from that game was the equivalent of five or six league fixtures. It also brought a number of new fans to the ground, who had an opportunity to watch one or both sides for the first time, and hopefully them seeing enough that they would return. Since then, Brighton & Hove Albion, like virtually every Premier League club, has looked further afield for their pre-season preparation.
It wouldn’t take much for the situation to change for this summer. Many professional clubs will need to reassess their plans based on the Covid-19 restrictions, not just here in the UK but also further afield. Non-League clubs would welcome their professional neighbours with open arms once the pre-season can start and fans can return to stadiums – all it takes is the will to be more community minded and the way to make it happen.