Non-League Day offers big opportunity for small clubs

 
Chris Lee
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Under the lights at non-league Tunbridge Wells FC (Source: OutsideWrite.co.uk)

As the top tiers take a break for international duty, football fans from the major leagues have an opportunity to experience the game at its grassroots level on ‘Non-League Day’ (Saturday, 7 October). But clubs need to market themselves locally to capitalise as many fans look for a more authentic experience.

Tunbridge Wells FC plays in the ninth tier of English football – the Southern Counties East Football League (Premier Division). Attendances at its home games are typically 200-300 people. It’s a friendly experience, you can stand or sit where you like, drink locally-brewed beer around the ground, and it’s £7 entry for adults, £4 for concessions and £1 for under-16s. Every so often a few home fans will pipe up wittily that Tunbridge Wells is “full of lawyers, doctors and architects, Oh, Tunbridge Wells is wonderful.”

In May 2013, Tunbridge Wells FC made it all the way to the FA Vase final at Wembley. Wells’ fans that day were around 12,000, or roughly one in every ten people in the borough. Unique occasion aside, this demonstrates the potential pull that even a non-league club can have if it galvanises local support.

Football fans at the top level are frustrated. Premier League tickets often cost upwards of £40 and the atmosphere isn’t anywhere near as exhilarating as other European leagues, especially Germany. Many are looking for a more authentic experience and the non-league offers that.

In 2010, the idea of ‘Non-League Day’ came to founder James Doe as a social media experiment aimed at getting fans to enjoy grassroots football while the big leagues break for international matches. It’s become something of a movement since.

I travel around non-league grounds a lot as I run a football culture blog, Outside Write. Here are just seven reasons why football fans should embrace Non-League Day:

  1. It’s cheap: You are unlikely to spend more than £15 on full-price entry
  2. The beer is often better: The beer at non-league football is usually supplied by a local brewer and is cheaper than drinking big brand generic lager at a league venue, plus you can often drink it in your seat or in the stands (except in the Vanarama National, and FA Cup/Vase matches)
  3. The atmosphere is friendly: With fewer axes to grind and a shared love of grassroots football, non-league fans mix quite happily, often swapping ends at half-time to be behind the one its team is kicking towards
  4. You’re close to home: Most towns have a football team in some league or other. I often jump on the train to my local Vanarama Conference (fifth tier) club, Maidstone United
  5. There’s a community spirit: Being local, teams often get involved in the community.
  6. New cultures are emerging: Non-league football is catching on, with interesting fan cultures surfacing, such as at Dulwich Hamlet and Clapton FC in London, and Whitehawk in Brighton. These small but vocal groups certainly add colour and noise to games
  7. The standard is good: Let’s myth-bust straight away that you’ll see bad football. Players like Les Ferdinand, Ian Wright, Charlie Austin and Chris Waddle played non-league football

To capitalise on the hundreds of thousands of football fans with nowhere to go on international weekend, non-league clubs really need to market themselves locally and encourage the next generation in. One team that’s great at this, particularly on social media, is Sussex club Lewes FC, which creates fantastic match promotion posters and offers hospitality in its pitch-side beach huts.

As a regular non-league watcher, I can tell you it’s absolutely brilliant fun. The guys behind Non-League Day have created a handy Non-League Day match finder tool to locate your nearest match. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy your experience enough to become a regular.

So, the where do you plan to spend Non-League Day?

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