The Non League Day (NLD) initiative is to encourage folks to get down and see there their local non–league team and support grassroots football on a day when there are no league football matches. That is pretty much the goal of NLD in a nutshell and has been widely supported across the country and has even taken off in other countries.
Being a non-league fan I often look at what clubs have to offer on the day. Some have ‘pay what you like’, half priced tickets or even a box of mushrooms with every entry. But what I did notice happening a lot with these clubs is that they were offering a discount to those that come to the game with a season ticket from another league club. Embarrassingly, Clapton are offering this to season tickets holders of Premiership or Championship clubs. The admission will be £5 (instead of £6!) and this even excludes Orient fans down the road. Usually the offer from other clubs for season tickets holders are a lot better thought out. Although I would argue that the whole idea of offering discounts exclusively to season tickets holders is flawed.
At the moment the logic is that the non-league club will be the second team for season tickets holders of bigger league clubs who might fancy a trip down when their team are away to a fixture that they don’t make for whatever reason. This seems sensible when you consider that these are people that already going to watch live football, they obviously have the finances and are free on Saturdays. For me, this is misguided.
The problem is that non-league clubs should be trying to sell the club on its own terms. Let me explain. When I first started coming to Clapton a group called Friends of Clapton put out the idea that we at the Old Spotted Dog change their kick off time to 12pm. This would proposed with the hope of attracting West Ham fans before going to the Boleyn Ground or for groundhoppers so they could tick off a couple of grounds in London on one day. The logic is solid, especially when our average attendance was 28. However I argued then, as I do now, that you need to embrace non-league culture and sell it for the alternative that it is. This applies to those non-league clubs pandering to the league football season ticket holders.
What I mean by non league culture is that its grassroots, affordable, accessible and part of the community. Before you dismiss me as some lefty trying to bring my politics in to football, I would ask you to look at what makes non-league special. All I would like to see is clubs build on that, and measure success not just on the pitch but also by their value to the community and supporters. During my years I have visited many grounds, some with attendances below 15. What I do see as a reoccurring theme is that it attracts people that are often marginalised by the wider society, namely many older people and those with some kind of disability (be it physical or learning). You see things that you never see at a league game like people with dogs, prams, their own sandwiches or a cheeky can of beer. Staff (who are almost always volunteers) are generally friendly and approachable. All that, and the cheap entrance fee makes it attractive for many low income football fans.
The trick is that clubs need to be selling themselves on those terms to those that would get the most from this. At Clapton the fans have tried to embed the club in the community by running football tournaments for wide ranging groups in the community, doing foodbanks collections and even rocked up at a local festival with a stall selling the club to the locals. It would be disingenuous for me not to acknowledge that the rapid rise in support (from average of 28 in 2011/12 season to an average of over 300 last season) is also largely due to the atmosphere we create at games and our outwardly left wing position. But the point is that we did it on our terms. Not looking at bigger clubs to feed us scraps, hoping that season tickets holders of other clubs, who are invested in another club to pop in randomly because they don’t have to do any shopping that Saturday.
What NLD does is offer the clubs the opportunity to showcase what they offer and what they are about. This can bring in the disenfranchised, the poor and the marginalised, like it has at Clapton. Some of these clubs already do fantastic work, like training session for those with learning difficulties or offering the club bus to collect older people that were finding it difficult to get to games. Non-league is quirky, interesting and personal. When clubs acknowledge and embrace this I believe they can really begin to attract support and volunteers that will put all the love and energy that we do at Clapton.
(Ed – Non League Day is taking place on Saturday 3rd of September this year)