Regionalisation: the future for lower-league football?

In January, a unique problem within lower-league football in England and Scotland was exposed. Plymouth Argyle travelled 389 miles to play Carlisle United in the English fourth tier, whilst Elgin City travelled 260 miles to play Annan Athletic in the Scottish fourth tier. Perhaps counterintuitively, both away sides ran out comfortable winners, Plymouth triumphing 3-0 and Elgin 4-0. But the staggering distances both clubs had to travel, (Plymouth could have travelled to take on Christophe Galtier’s Lille OSC in fewer miles) speak of the pressing need to drastically shift from the structures of nation-wide lower-league football to regionalised leagues, north and south, to safeguard the football pyramid in both England and Scotland.  

In England, little effort has been made to start the process of restructuring leagues. It has been mooted that League One and Two clubs are keen on regionalisation but so far only Fleetwood Town chairman Andy Pilley has publicly stated he would back the idea. 

The ever-growing crisis in lower-league football, particularly in England, has only been exacerbated by the global pandemic, meaning it is unlikely we will see fans in stadiums until early 2021. That said, developments in France dictate that from 11th July up to 5,000 socially-distanced people will be allowed into sporting arenas, and so this leaves open the possibility that fans could even return in August or September at domestic lower-league grounds. This is crucial given the reliance of lower-league football clubs on gate receipts.  

In Scotland, however, moves were publicly touted to introduce a restructured 14-14-14 system away from the current 12-10-10-10 system but were swiftly put down. These plans had no regionalisation element to them, but it is not inconceivable that they could be introduced to create a second-tier North division and second-tier South division, one with the fourteen most northerly non-Premiership sides and one with the fourteen most southerly non-Premiership sides. 

Both leagues suffer from a similar problem. They are both largely barren in the North and South, and packed around the midlands. This was a problem noted by Elgin City Die Hard member Alex Ross, a fan of over forty years. Ross posited that “for the likes of Elgin City, Ann (Annan Athletic) and Stranraer it (regionalisation) would not make a lot of difference” given the distances that any regionalised league would still require the furthest north, and south, teams to travel. He also said that for the fans of these teams the experience of travelling long distances can be “actually very enjoyable” despite a “19 hour trip on public transport” for the longest trip to Annan Athletic – a journey he undertook for the 3-0 win in January.

Elgin City’s 260-mile journey, although an extreme example, is indicative of normality: their nearest game this season has still been 75 miles away at Cove Rangers, just south of Aberdeen. A regionalised league could still see a 70-mile journey to Peterhead, 38-mile journey to Inverness or a 51-mile journey to Ross County. The natural geography would ultimately mean that the likes of Stirling Albion, Arbroath and Dunfermline, all of which are still in excess of 100 miles from Elgin, would likely be included in any ‘northern division’. 

Alex Ross estimated that he currently spends “between £80-£120 per away game”. To many less hardened fans this figure would simply mean the allure of following the team nationwide would be slashed by the financial reality. While a regionalised league would still mean a maximum journey of around 160-miles to Stirling Albion for Elgin, with Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County having to travel similar distances when they would be outside the Scottish Premiership, the average cost of getting to games could drastically reduce, which could see an increase in attendances. 

Given that gate receipts are so crucial for lower league sides this would largely been seen as a positive. One undeniable advantage of regionalisation, too, would be the number of ‘local’ derbies that could take place and stimulate further local interest. Elgin-Inverness, Peterhead-Cove and Carlisle-Sunderland (almost a derby) could all become regular fixtures that generate hype, and obviously gate receipts, too.

In England, too, the problem of distancing remains. Kyle Sproat, a Carlisle United supporter of over twenty years, noted the difficulty of travelling to far-off away games, with distant midweek fixtures almost impossible “without a day off work” and previous midweek games away at Plymouth seeing “a massive drop in numbers (of away fans)”.“Plymouth is one (away game) I have never done…the only real way for our fans to get there is drive or supporters’ coach”, Plymouth can be “upwards of eight hours” to drive with often poor – and expensive – rail links. 

Despite his broad support for regionalising, Sproat makes a fantastic point that can often be forgotten: lower-league clubs do not just exist in a localised bubble. They have fans all over the country. “Carlisle United London Branch take a big following to a lot of our southern games”, according to Sproat, and regionalisation could negatively impact their ability to attend matches. 

However, at some point the financial safeguarding of lower-league clubs may have to supersede fan experience. Safeguarding has been of heightened importance since the liquidation of Bury; as Bolton Wanderers, too, have come close to liquidation and Macclesfield Town face court action in the coming months, that will be crucial to their survival as institutions. 

Many lower-league Scottish clubs, Elgin City included, have expressed huge concerns with the precarious nature of football financing below the top tier. Referencing the ongoing pandemic and its economic implications, Elgin City chairman Graham Tatters states, “some clubs won’t survive this”, a belief undoubtedly shared by many of his counterparts.

If it were possible to reduce the travelling costs and work to increase gate receipts, the primary source of income, then this could start to relieve some of the financial troubles gripping lower-league football. Regionalisation would not solve all problems, nor does it set out to, but it would provide a framework in which we can start to address the problems of lower-league financing.

Other models could be implemented to increase revenues, including post-season playoffs in which the regionalised leagues can reconvene to have a 16-team straight knockout tournament. This could alleviate a problem brought up by Kyle Stroat – “how many times can you go to Morecambe, Oldham [or generally the same sides every year]…before you want something else?” It’s a very valid question. Could a tournament with no seeding, at larger Premier League or Scottish Premiership grounds, alleviate this? 

Or how about having the top two from each league automatically promoted with regular play-offs still determining the third team promoted from each league, and having six teams relegated from the Championship in England, creating more jeopardy and preventing the end-of-season lull for mid-table Championship sides? A similar model could be introduced in Scotland with fewer teams. 

These of course are just ideas but creating a more attractive post-season televisual product, for when the Premier League juggernaut is resting, must be at the start of any lower-league rejuvenation. Regionalisation could be at the heart of revitalising the way we consume football outside the moneyed heights of the top division. Fierce derbies with rocking grounds and enhanced entertainment for fans could create a better match-day experience as well as televisual product. 

Another element of the match-day experience that could be enriched is the promoting of local businesses. Advertising boardings or sponsorship of match-day activities to people who live with the vicinity makes for much more effective marketing. The promotion of Newcastle International Airport to Plymouth Argyle supporters at Carlisle’s Brunton Park seems slightly odd. 

By improving the match-day experience and increasing the visibility of lower-league football we can avoid viewing these institutions as exclusively businesses and remember they are, firstly, community institutions with local people at their heart. Rory Smith’s New York Times article on Bury and their employees continuing to work, without pay, at Gigg Lane to maintain the fallen institution shows the strength of these clubs as the nexus of their community. We cannot be complicit in the demise of more communities. Radical change is needed, and regionalisation can be the start of that. 


Image rights: John Lord via Flickr