“Success for us right now is not about winning trophies or three points on a Saturday, it has to be that we survive. We’ve got to have a real understanding of the hierarchy of importance right now, and making sure that this football club is still here for many more fans and generations to enjoy has to be top of the agenda. Everything else is a distant second to that.”
Strong words from Lincoln City’s Chief Executive, Liam Scully, but this is the harsh reality of the world that football Clubs up and down the country are currently living in.
The power of football and its Clubs has been undeniable for some time, its importance and influence extending well beyond the 90 minutes on the pitch. With fans still unable to attend live games across the EFL, Clubs that have long provided invaluable support to those around them are now in need of support themselves, making it a crucial time for English football and the game as a whole.
Lincoln City’s Chief Executive, Liam Scully, discusses the huge economic and social impact of football being played behind closed doors.
“First and foremost, for lower-league football Clubs, especially League One and League Two Clubs, you know how important matchday revenue is to the running of the club,” Scully says, speaking to the EFL.
“It’s not just gate receipts, but everything that comes with that in terms of retail, hospitality and of course the wider impact that our matchdays have on the community as a whole.
“From fans being allowed back into stadiums, to not being allowed back in, the recent setback that we’ve had in that area has made it very difficult to steer the ship through this time.”
In recent years, Lincoln City has gone from being a National League club to now competing at the top end of League One, it even has aspirations of playing Championship football in the years to come. And success on the pitch has proved invaluable to the city and local economy, not least because their average matchday attendance has increased by almost 300%.
Success on the pitch has bought success to city. Trade has risen, tourism has increased and local businesses are booming. At least, they were.
Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the Government insisting that football continues to be played behind closed doors, Lincoln City - which has stood proudly in the heart of the city for 136 years - is currently facing a devastating threat to its future unless something is done, and quickly.
“Sincil Bank has been our home for over 120 years,” Scully continues. “We have a town-centre location and we’re right in the heart of the community - our stadium doors are 200 yards from the high street.
“Our average attendance has risen in recent years from a couple of thousand to an average of more than 9,000. Last year, we also had an average of 900 away fans for every game. That has all come from playing League One football.
“Across the city, we’ve increased the average attendance by 300%. From our matchday research, we discovered that 28% of our home fans actually travel from over an hour and a half away, so effectively every time they come to Sincil Bank, their behaviour is that of a ‘day trip’ mentality. Combine that with away fans, and you’re looking at over 2,000 extra people in the city.
“Yes, the matchday might be the primary reason they’re coming to Lincoln, but that matchday impacts on so many different areas. For example, the local chip shop sees a 300% rise in trade on matchdays, while other chains see a 100% increase.
"That’s where you really start to understand the financial ecosystem of what a matchday looks like to a fan and how that impacts local businesses.
“Getting our attendances up to an average of 9,000 is really important to the future of the football club, but it’s also really important to the future of the city."
It’s clear to see that Lincoln City - and no doubt many other football Clubs up and down the country - play a crucial role in benefitting their local economy and, in such difficult times for struggling local businesses, would be critical in helping them get back on their feet. But what about the people of Lincoln?
The EFL’s 2019 Community Impact Study highlighted just how important these football Clubs are beyond their local communities, as well as the immense importance of these Clubs to local people.
A staggering 36.6million people now live within a 10-mile radius of an EFL club, a radius which encompasses four in 10 residents who fall into the most-deprived population groups.
It’s undeniable that the reach of EFL Clubs and the the difference they can make is potentially life-changing for many. They are far more than just football Clubs. It's a statement backed up by the 880,000 people that participated in community programmes delivered by EFL Clubs in 2018/19.
“One thing we are very proud of - and should be very proud of - is the Community Trusts attached to all 72 EFL Clubs,” Scully went on to say.
“The work they do week in, week out to benefit the community and the people of those communities is phenomenal. But the thing that’s able to break down the barriers is that relationship with the professional football club. The Lincoln City badge in Lincoln, the Doncaster Rovers badge in Doncaster, the Sheffield United or Wednesday badge in Sheffield, that's what helps us reach difficult areas.
“Men's health and mental health is a good example that’s a really difficult area. But we’ve seen from previous projects that there was a 500% increase in people engaging with mental health specialists when they first engage through their football club. We’ve also seen a number of FIT FANS schemes delivered where fans have collectively lost thousands of stone in weight. They’re such important areas.
“Without this work, without this engagement and without the reach that we have, our communities would be a far, far poorer place. You might not see it on national news, it might not make the headlines but there is a great deal of critical work going on and we have to protect that. We cannot lose it."
EFL Clubs continue to break down barriers, tackling issues across the country, whether it be in education, health and wellbeing or physical activity - the work is endless - and it wouldn’t be possible without the Clubs themselves existing.
Football is integral in the community and to local economies, but it’s also an integral and traditional part of family life and for some, it quite literally is their life.
“We liken football to a region, but it’s just such an important part of a week for so many people,” Scully says.
Digital platforms and live streaming of matches are making the best of a difficult situation for Clubs and fans at the moment, but can you compensate for that loss of social interaction which, for some, is their only outing each week?
“Football is a social space for so many people, a safe space; for some it may be their only interaction with others all week. Conversations in fan zones, the community feeling you get on an away day, the informal relationships you build. As human beings we rely on these things.
"Football fans are truly special people. What they do for their communities and how they work with each other is amazing. I’m proud to be a part of a football club and associated with fans that do some special things, but right now that’s completely lost and will continue to be while we play behind closed doors.”
Put frankly, the thought of losing these Clubs and the impact that would have on respective communities is unimaginable. So just how does 136-year-old Lincoln City survive this crisis? And what does success look like in such a time?
“Success for us right now is not about winning trophies or three points on a Saturday,” Scully admitted.
“It has to be to survive and ultimately get to the other side to be able to continue to play such an important part in our community. Making sure that this football club is still here for many fans and generations to enjoy has to be top of the agenda and everything else is a distant second to that.
“We need help to get out of this hole, we all do. We need to protect our Clubs that are embedded in our communities. Lincoln City needs to live to be 236 years old, not 136 years old and that’s our focus right now."
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You can watch the full interview with Liam Scully here: