The landscape of the world’s most popular game is about to change severely.
Colchester United, a club in the fourth division of England’s professional soccer pyramid, became the first organization to release players in response to the coronavirus shutdown. The four players in question are signed through June, but will not be re-signed and will be free to sign anywhere else. The question is: What options might be open to them? Because by the time it’s all over, Colchester will hardly be the last club in England’s lower divisions to make such cuts.
Much like minor league baseball here in the states, lower-league football in England and elsewhere cannot depend on a return to action behind closed doors or with no fans in the seats. They don’t have TV contracts like the top divisions do, and depend almost entirely on live attendance for their income — and survival.
It now seems obvious that even if this season were to finish for them in the summer, it would do so without fans. And when fans can finally return next season, whenever that happens, it might be too late is also another question no one has an answer to. Every missed home crowd is more than just a flesh wound for these clubs.
Unlike minor league baseball here, though, lower-league football clubs aren’t affiliated with top division teams. They operate independently. While Minor League Baseball may very well may be contracted after all this, those teams that will be kept will have backing from their affiliated MLB teams. And that arrangement will likely hold up in the future, because MLB teams will always need a place for burgeoning talent to develop.
Lower league football has none of this, though some clubs hold developing players on loan from Premier League teams. But those top-level clubs have their own reserves and academy teams, where most of the development of young players takes place. Lower league clubs are on their own.
The ongoing shutdown can — and will — expand the gap between the rich and the proletariat. The massive reach of Premier League clubs through television and the internet had already been eroding support for smaller local clubs.
Even in the UK, with the country’s different set of broadcast blackout rules, almost all matches played by Liverpool or Chelsea or Manchester City are televised. You can follow them even more closely from home than you can keep up with, say, Scunthorpe, because you’d have to travel to every game to keep as up-to-date with the mighty Iron (I had a glorious run with Scunthorpe once upon a time in Football Manager. You’ll have to excuse my use of the club’s nickname). An away trip to Wigan on a Tuesday in November, weighed against staying dry and warm to watch a Champions League game at home — or two, or three — is becoming less and less of a debate for more and more fans.
Of course, minor league baseball has something of the same problem here, though maybe not as grandiose given their affiliations. It’s pretty easy to be a Yankees fan in Lincoln, Neb., if that’s what you want, with Extra Innings or MLB.TV (though MLB’s draconian and incomprehensible blackout restrictions harm this more than a little bit).
Might not be as tempted to head out and see the local nine, no matter how affordable, if you can just stay home and watch most any MLB game you’d like. Sure, minor league baseball is a fun night out for the family or friends, but there are plenty of other options for that.
On the other hand, lower league clubs in soccer tend to develop a more passionate following. After all, these clubs are competing for championships and promotions and avoiding relegations, instead of merely being a holding station for players en route to the Majors. But lower league clubs have struggled to incubate that passion in the hearts of younger fans, who have grown up watching Arsenal or United on TV instead of heading down to the closest ground and club every weekend.
Lower division teams in the U.K. have also suffered from something college football stadiums have seen: A lack of the digital experience fans can get at home. You can watch multiple games, chat with your friends, and even play some FIFA at the same time at home, whereas at a packed stadium, you’re chancing cell reception. That matters to the younger generation of fans, and it stands out as one reason the lower league clubs have been unable to bridge that gap.
Enhancing this problem is that a handful of lower league clubs are already in serious trouble, or are already having gone into bankruptcy, well before the crisis even hit. Bury and Bolton did so last summer. Coventry City couldn’t afford to play games in their own stadium. Others have faced record losses. Having no games with attendance in the near future will not help any of this.
Much like on these shores, the top division has swooped in to a point. The Premier League has committed an equivalent of $153 million to help lower league clubs through cash-flow problems. But is that enough money to keep 72 teams afloat for months? That’s dicey.
The big concern is that a number of clubs go under, or declare bankruptcy, while others have to release more and more players. Once that music stops, there simply won’t be enough chairs left for every player to sit back down.
It seems players and teams, in different sports and with an ocean separating one another, are facing the same questions.
And getting the same lack of answers.