The announcement that limited numbers of fans will return to grounds in Tier 1 and Tier 2 areas after the current Lockdown ends was good news for everyone in football and could spell the death-knell for live-streamed matches at Non-League clubs right? Wrong.
The National League decreed when the season started with no spectators in their club’s stadia that all members would be allowed to live-stream matches for as long as capacity restrictions apply this season. Step 1 and 2 clubs were caught between a rock and a hard place however – deemed by Government to be ‘elite sport’ and therefore starting the season without supporters, but without the same expansive broadcast deals that Premier League and the EFL have.
So the answer for National League clubs, many of whom are part-time and without a huge off-pitch operation of their own, was in many cases, for volunteer in-house commentators and cameramen to step forward and for a financial outlay to provide a streaming platform in the hope of making some sort of matchday profit.
Even with a reduced number of supporters back it seems likely that these home-made streams will continue, given restrictions in place on travel between areas in Tier 3 and Tier 1 and 2. For example, Maidenhead United’s most successful stream in terms of passes sold was unsurprisingly the fixture against the side with the biggest fan base to visit York Road so far this season – Tier 3 Hartlepool, whose North East based supporters won’t be travelling anywhere for a bit.
There are challenges with providing this service to supporters. Some clubs have had dreadful issues with the stability of their stream; indeed after the recent Aldershot Town vs Maidenhead United match the home club were forced to put out an apology due to the quality of the product provided.
Many clubs just do not have the budget or technology in place to provide multi-camera angles or replays which has been the source of frustration to many supporters whose stream has buffered at the wrong time, causing them to miss a key moment of the match. And in my case – as a matchday volunteer at Maidenhead United – my workload has increased having put my hand up to act as in-house commentator. So research of the opposition team now occupies my Friday night or Saturday morning.
Down the A4 over the other side of the county, Ciaran Morrison of Hungerford Town leads their live streaming operation. Luckily for Crusaders fans, they have someone with some experience in commentating, as Ciaran explains: “I had commentated live twice before for Hungerford Town at the back end of last year. I spent a Premier League match, also last season, shadowing Jim Proudfoot so I’d learned from one of the best commentators in the business. At the moment I don’t have a co-commentator but believe having one would enhance the viewer experience.”
As is the reality for smaller Non-League clubs, the largesse of local sponsors is hugely important and that is the case for the Bulpit Lane streaming operation, as Ciaran goes on: “A stand sponsor and local company Stream Networks have come on-board to provide the service after a failed streaming service for our opening game of the season with another company. The stream did cost £7.50 but after receiving funding from the National League and listening to comments from our supporters we’ve decided to lower that price to £5.50, 0.50p of which is a PayPal transaction. Season ticket holders access the service free of charge.
As a budding journalist and broadcaster, Ciaran diligently takes the pre-match preparation in his stride: “I do prepare notes before all games. I prepare a bio on each player in both team’s squads and the managers. Having something to talk about during the game without a co-commentator I believe is essential to providing a good commentary.” Whilst the bigger National League grounds are suited to provide excellent commentary positions, Ciaran has to be more flexible at Hungerford: “I’ve had two commentary positions so far this season. The Lavaazza sponsored stand at Bulpit Lane has no pillars so I get a better view than in the Press Box stand which is obstructed by a row of pillars. Having a good view is also essential for a good commentary just to get the basic essentials right like which player is on the ball.”
The Hungerford streams have not been without their problems this season, but at least the Crusaders are lucky to have a competent and committed volunteer like Ciaran Morrison: “The first commentary had a host of teething problems for most viewers including paying for a ticket more than once and the commentary being ahead of the game. I believe from our last stream using Stream Networks our service was much better without any major problems.
“The streams have been popular thus far, with season ticket holders gaining free access it’s mostly away fans that buy tickets. For matches we’ve streamed this season we’ve managed around 100 viewers.
“Obviously if time and money wasn’t an issue I would personally love to build-up to the match, have a chat at half time and some post-match analysis in a ‘studio’ like seen on the TV. I’d also deploy cameras around the ground for different views of the match throughout on the stream. Unfortunately, money is tight at Hungerford and we have to make do with what we got.”
The County’s three National League clubs – which includes Slough Town – all welcome the return of socially distanced fans but it would also seem that the provision of a live stream – for all the challenges and pitfalls that can bring – will remain part of the ‘new normal’ for some time.
Details of the remaining matches to be live-streamed during lockdown 2 including Altrincham vs Maidenhead United and Hungerford Town vs Dartford are here.