Fan Engagement & why the National League’s future depends on it

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It’s been a a particularly intriguing time over recent months, and particularly so for Football League (EFL) clubs and, most concerning of all, the National League (NL). This is particularly true following EFL Chief Executive Shaun Harvey proposing the biggest change to football since the early 1990s, and mid-2000s, with his 100 club ‘professional’ structure, which would basically render the NL memberless.

Here’s my take on what might be happening across the board, and particularly what the impact on the NL might be, and how it should respond as part of its Grow the Game strategy.

The EFL – how to win friends (and influence people)
Since Shaun Harvey effectively took control of the reins this summer, finalised with the departure of Greg Clarke (now the incoming Chairman of The Football Association – worthy of a post in itself), he’s been very busy. One of his major moves has seen the EFL become a far more ‘constructive partner’ of The Premier League. He’s talked a lot about ‘whole game solutions’, working closely with Martin Glenn at The FA, and Richard Scudamore at The Premier League (PL). We’ve already the results in reducing FA Cup replays and other potential changes to the competition, what are little different to B-Teams in the revamped EFL Trophy (receiving a million pounds from the PL to accompany it and compensate for the loss of principal sponsor, JPT). Most important of all, the restructuring of the ‘professional game’ to being a five-division, 100 team pyramid, taking in a whole chunk of the NL’s member clubs by invitation. He’s given himself until next year’s AGM to get the 90% of clubs to agree. Given it means a loss of income to clubs to be replaced by the PL’s largesse, it might be one step too far even for clubs traditionally less concerned with the bigger picture – especially as it ties in the League even more to the PL’s three-yearly broadcasting contract rounds.

Setting aside how unpopular the new format for the EFL Trophy (formerly JPT) is, Harvey’s overall strategy makes a lot of sense as it finally acknowledges the reality that are the PL preeminent competition in the game. It puts to bed former Chairman Lord Mawhinney’s very obvious strategy of being bold and, at times, quite strident – much like Mawhinney himself, but certainly confident and more self-reliant. There is also further space for The EFL, given that The FA has withdrawn from much of their day-to-day interest in the professional game and its regulation. The Premier League and their EFL cousins can now focus on running their competitions, unhindered, and sculpt them fairly well as they wish. The approach Harvey’s pursuing shows he’s collegiate, whilst demonstrating leadership, and a willingness to do the difficult thinking (this interview with Chairman Ian Lenegan positions he and The EFL in exactly that way). It’s canny, particularly when you think about the fractured, partisan nature of football politics. But it has some risks attached to it, largely connected with giving up too much to a Premier League that will always be happy to take control of anything that suits its interests and is quite simply, very, very powerful.

The Premier League – sitting pretty
The Premier League has never looked more unassailable. It’s managed to box off and manage the issues of reform, financing, player development, supporter relations, and most of the problems that faced it when the it was taken to task for the second time in two years in the 2013 Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report on football governance. The man in charge of politics for Scudamore, the PL’s Bill Bush, has run an efficient, very clever, and at times ruthless long-term strategy that has ensured almost total control in funding and political terms over all the areas of football it needs control of.

This has been done by ensuring that all the important areas of funding in effect report to it: follow the money, as they say. This also includes those such as fan ownership and fan engagement experts, Supporters Direct, the Football Supporters Federation, and Kick it Out, whose funding sits with the ‘Fans Fund’ (referred to in some circles as the ‘orphaned causes fund’). It also shows how much territory The FA has conceded. It should be of particular interest to supporters’ trusts and their advocates, given that there is still the small question of an unfulfilled recommendation from the Culture, Media and Sport Select (CMS) Committee on Supporters Direct’s long-term funding being put on surer footing via The FA itself, rather than the obviously conflicted PL (read the report from 2013 and the recommendation on page 36)

The FA – the long road back
In terms of what The FA are actually doing these days, their approach is dictated partly by financial necessity. In getting The FA ‘fit for purpose’ as an organisation, doing one thing well – the playing side – makes perfect sense. That it leaves a vacuum is not desirable for reasons I’ve hinted at already, but if The FA is ever to be much more than just a lurking presence, rebuilding its dilapidated reputation piece-by-piece has got to be a necessity. The fact that this means it’s leaving a great deal to the PL and others is a big downside, but like the EFL, it’s really just accepting things as they are, rather than pretending they can change much at this point. Governance of course is still a big issue, and means that the big ticket item of the CMS review still hasn’t been addressed (though government is threatening withdrawal of £30m of Sport England funding if it doesn’t get this sorted: watch this space), however the fact that Glenn is allowing the PL and EFL space to operate must, one supposes, reduce the pressure somewhat and allow him to do what’s necessary.

The National League – making ‘Fan Engagement’ more than a strapline
Where does this leave the National League then? It’s a good question. In terms of its importance as a competition, it doesn’t need a huge amount of actual fixing as such – aside from the obvious and very, very long-term issue of the third promotion place (part of the their response to the EFL proposals published in late June). This long desired – and utterly necessary change – would almost certainly improve competition further, and probably have a knock-on effect of relieving some of the financial pressure on relegated EFL clubs, and those further down the pyramid being funded with external money.

In terms of how they pursue their response to the EFL’s gauntlet, their ‘Growing our Game’ strategy, the most promising potential has to lie in the ‘For the Fans’ territory that the EFL has basically exited, one established by former Chair Lord Mawhinney. The EFL having opted instead for a sort of ‘Premier League Lite’ ‘brand first’ approach, leaves space for a high-profile, community rooted, genuinely fan-friendly league that sees itself as being ‘authentic’, and tries to act at all times as such. It has one problem: money. Clubs want money for their playing budgets to compete in a division with four relegation spots, and only two going up. That’s a tough proposition when you’re seeking to grow your income through limited sources, and need money to market yourself (the League doesn’t run itself on a huge budget).

Having to operate outside the main group of three, PL, EFL, FA, is very difficult. Although in discussions on the pyramid one presumes their interests are covered by the presence of The FA – who continue to take a substantial interest in the game outside of the PL and EFL – their importance to the game, never really properly appreciated in The FA’s politics, needs to be felt more keenly. Being treated as an outsider when you are and should be treated as an insider makes it even tougher. But the NL could play this to their advantage.

In the non-league game as a whole I’d say there tends to be something of a unique passion and high-regard from fans for their clubs and competitions. Non-league football, and by extension the NL, may have a smaller number of supporters, but they are nonetheless a very enthusiastic base, which sustains its own radio show, newspaper and even a dedicated Non League Day. It commands interest that is arguably disproportionate to its size, and could utilise and harness this to show the rest of the football world that it’s an important and popular competition. The NL has a good name and profile, and should try to utilise what it’s got that neither the EFL nor the PL have: a genuine passion, belonging, togetherness. Authenticity in an age where to be authentic is to have a retro shirt on sale in the club shop. It certainly doesn’t need rebranding as ‘fan friendly’and becoming a bit more ‘customer focused’. Make phrases like ‘fan involvement’, ‘fan engagement’ and ‘supporter liaison’ can – and should be – more than just a tick-box exercise: place supporters as integral to a campaign that celebrates the competition and looks to its strengths.

The current state of play is setting out the way that the game will be essentially run for the next ten-to-fifteen years or more. The NL itself is clearly under some existential threat, but the future is up for grabs…

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