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Matt Maher: Floodlights or not, league clubs face a bleak outlook

Two stories this week shone a light on the contrasting outlooks for football’s haves and have-nots.

Floodlights at Deepdale Stadium the home of Preston North End.
Floodlights at Deepdale Stadium the home of Preston North End.

One revealed Premier League players will, on average, take home around £240,000 more a year courtesy of the government tax cuts which pushed the UK economy to the brink of collapse.

The other saw Shrewsbury Town chief executive Brian Caldwell warn of a potentially ‘catastrophic’ winter for clubs in Leagues One and Two due to soaring costs.

Caldwell is not alone in his concerns. The topic is being discussed in every boardroom outside the top flight and it was top of the agenda when EFL clubs met yesterday in Walsall.

‘Terrifying’ was how one executive described the situation earlier this week and perhaps the biggest fear is that, much as you can prepare for any approaching storm, you never quite know the damage it will cause until it arrives.

There are no straightforward solutions. One of the main topics discussed by the EFL yesterday was potentially moving kick-off times to earlier in the day in order to save on the use of floodlights.

Mansfield Town will be the first league club to trial it, with their home match against Walsall on October 15 being brought forward to 1pm, while further down the pyramid Didcot Town have urged the Southern League to accept any requests to move kick-offs.

Didcot estimate the use of floodlights account for around 70 per cent of their energy bills, which they expect to increase by around three-and-a-half times the current amount over the coming months.

At regionalised level, where travelling times are typically never greater than a couple of hours, moving kick-off times to earlier in the day may well prove a logical step. The Midland League, for example, has already told clubs it will not stand in the way of any fixture changes provided they are agreed by both clubs.

But the higher you climb up the leagues, the less effective a solution it becomes. Caldwell noted how regular 1pm kick-offs in Leagues One and Two would lead to more overnight stays. Mansfield, for example, is understood to have been pretty much on the cusp for Walsall when it comes to the logistics of travelling there and back in a day, with players required to meet several hours before for pre-match meals. Anything further afield and an early kick-off becomes a significant hindrance.

There is also concern moving kick-off times might disrupt supporter (or more precisely, consumer) habits.

Will fans be so keen for a pie and a pint at 11.30am? The risk is any savings on the floodlights are negated by reduced takings at the concessionary stands and elsewhere. Throw in the fact there can never be any guarantees, particularly in the UK, you won’t require the floodlights at lunchtime in winter and the idea looks even less attractive.

“Half (of the) matches over winter need lights whatever the time,” Accrington owner Andy Holt noted this week, while debating the subject online.

Holt’s concern is less the floodlights and more the turnstiles, with gate receipts the biggest source of income for clubs outside the top flight by some margin.

“Start messing around with KO times and gates will be affected,” he warned. It is fans, after all, who will be hit hardest by the cost-of-living crisis and as Caldwell pointed out, another unknown is the impact of a winter World Cup.

While the Premier League and Championship will halt during Qatar 2022, Leagues One and Two will continue and though there is hope supporters in the top two divisions will look down the pyramid for their live football fix, another scenario is they and casual supporters spend their money on more essential items at a time when for the vast majority sport will be deemed very much a luxury.

The looming crisis comes at a time when many clubs have not fully recovered from the impact of the pandemic, with many revenue streams still below the levels prior to March, 2020. Just as then, attentions are turned upward toward the Premier League, to see what support – if any – might be forthcoming from the richest division in the world?

The top flight typically makes a big deal of the funding it sends down to the EFL, non-league and grassroots.

For the last three seasons, it has totalled around £1.23billion, yet when you consider more than half of that is in the form of parachute payments to clubs relegated from the Premier League and the figure is considerably less impressive.

The EFL wants parachute payments scrapped and a fairer redistribution of the wealth, roughly around 25 per cent of the Premier League’s broadcast payments.

Implementing that out would be one of the first tasks of the independent regulator recommended in last year’s fan-led review, yet still to be introduced by government, with the Premier League having already made clear its opposition.

Granted, the Prime Minister may currently have bigger concerns but neither is this the time to leave the sport in the lurch.

The Premier League would argue it is not its job to keep bailing out the lower leagues. But while there is no doubt some clubs are run better than others, this is not a question of governance. Even those run responsibly – and in this region Shrewsbury and Walsall fall firmly into that category – will see profits wiped out by circumstance.

If the sport is to remain sustainable below the top level, something has to change.

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