The media team at Billericay Town in action on a lockdown matchday
An Athenian League clash between Barnet and Wealdstone in 1946 was the first football match to be broadcast live on television – and 75 years later the cameras are still rolling.
The BBC’s tentative debut, which showed 20 minutes of the first half and 35 minutes of the second half before it became too dark, paved the way for the global phenomenon that football on TV is now.
It is how millions of fans consume the game at the top levels around the world, but coverage has largely remained sparse below the Football League. Sky, Setanta, Premier Sports and now BT Sport have all had their turn in acquiring the rights to show the top flight of Non-League with varying degrees of success.
Coverage at these levels has evolved massively in the last decade with clubs embracing technology and the rise of social media to reach a wider audience.
Most Non-League clubs film their matches and upload highlights to YouTube, but Steps 1 and 2 were presented with a new challenge this season when it was confirmed matches would go ahead behind closed doors.
Live streaming of fixtures was permitted – usually a no-go due to the Saturday 3pm blackout rule and conflicts with the BT Sport deal – and clubs turned to their media teams to step up. So, by the time Wealdstone arrived at The Hive for their first clash at Barnet’s new ground since 2002, watching matches via the internet had become the new way for supporters to watch their team, but not before a mountain of unseen work behind the scenes from club volunteers.
“I think a lot of people had no idea how to go about live streaming,” Ben Robinson, head of media at Billericay Town, told The NLP.
“But we’ve pulled together to figure it all out.” Some clubs called upon professional broadcasting and video production companies to help produce their output.
“It’s important for us to try and replicate the matchday experience as much as possible,” said Matt Hall, stadium announcer, club secretary and the face of Bromley’s superb coverage.
“We knew this was going to be something vitally important to us, it’s one of the ing out how we would do it and how to overcome technical problems.
“BBC Surrey generously allow us to use their commentary but they’re on the other side of the ground opposite the gantry which was a bit of headache but we got round that.
“Clubs had little time to get to grips with streaming before the season commenced which did lead to problems for many in the opening month and refunds only revenue streams we’ve got. The chairman was really supportive and wanted us to give the best possible product to our supporters so he got in touch with Advision TV.”
Bromley’s stream is widely regarded as one of the best available, offering multi-camera coverage, commentary, replays, graphics, a pre-match show and live post-match interviews.
It’s attracted figures of up to 1,400 for matches against Stockport County and Wrexham, not far off their average crowds of 2,000 last season, but still a long way from their usual gate revenue.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the support it has received,” said Hall. “We try to be as neutral as possible, we’re not only catering for our fans but also the away fans too. We also offered support to our older supporters to access the stream and tried to make things as simple as possible.
“The income from it isn’t anywhere near what we would get on a matchday but you have to make the best of a bad situation and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Other clubs have relied solely on the knowledge of their volunteers and their own equipment to broadcast matches.
Nick Shaw, head of media at Woking, oversees an excellent multi-camera production without the use of an outside company.
“The club were very supportive and got whatever equipment we needed they got for us, although we didn’t have much to get because a lot of the camera equipment and laptops we already had,” he said. “There were some long phone calls between myself and Michael Phillips working out how we would do it and how to overcome technical problems.
“BBC Surrey generously allow us to use their commentary but they’re on the other side of the ground opposite the gantry which was a bit of headache but we got round that.” Clubs had little time to get to grips with streaming before the season commenced which did lead to problems for many in the opening month and refunds were offered at times.
One big problem was finding the right streaming partner, which hosts the broadcast online. “We used one for the first few games but it turned out quite quickly they wouldn’t be reliable,” said Shaw. “When we’re all streaming at 3pm on a Saturday and other teams have the same problem at the same time you realise it’s the streaming provider with the fault, not us.
“The first few games were quite stressful, everyone in the team is a perfectionist, we want it to be spot on, we don’t settle for a bodge job.” Lee Carpenter, co-owner of FCVideo with Julian Fox, a company which films Non-League matches for Boreham Wood, Maidenhead, Wealdstone, Slough Town, Hungerford Town, Farnborough and Hayes & Yeading, ran into the same problems.
“We covered the CONIFA World Cup in London a couple of years ago and streamed matches for them,” he said. “The logic is that it should be fairly simple but we hit a number of issues in working out who to use.
“We are branching out now and being a bit more ambitious with replays and things like that because we’re confident with the streaming providers. We’re getting there. I remember we had particularly bad problems early on, Julian and I met in a car park at Tesco and almost threw it in.
“We persevered and worked through the problems and explained it to people hoping they accept it. “Earlier in the season we were going in with trepidation, now we’re confident we can enjoy it and therefore produce a better product.”
There have also been other issues out of the stream teams’ control, like the internet speed of fans watching.
“Once in our game against Dulwich the power went out for 20 minutes or so!” added Hungerford Town media man Ciaran Morrison. “We’ve had a few problems with it. When it does work I think the fans are pretty happy with what they’re seeing. We’re trying to make a little bit of money out of it. We charge £5.50 which is a bit less than some others.”
The expertise of volunteers has become particularly useful at Billericay. “We’ve got a really good IT guy, Richard Ingham,” said Ricay’s Robinson. “He built our own website to facilitate the streaming so the only thing we pay at the moment is a PayPal transaction fee.
“Then we have Chris Munford and Leigh Bailey on commentary and they do everything completely voluntarily with their own equipment. It’s a great team.” For at least the immediate future, streaming will be the only way for fans to watch their team, but it has already sparked a debate as to whether it should continue once crowds are allowed back. “I think there is a place for it, obviously the main hurdle is the 3pm blackout window,” said Shaw.
“For our game against Hartlepool, when fans were allowed in, it was one of our highest numbers because a lot of their fans watched it. “The games that are long distance for the away team, it’s probably quite helpful to have it streamed if they can watch their team all of the country from the comfort of their living room rather than spending five hours on a coach.”
Carpenter added: “There are people who are overseas who support clubs and I know before this came up some clubs had tried talking to the National League about can we do stuff for offshore people.
“You’re also going to get people for some time who aren’t comfortable coming back to watch football. I think there is a smaller market trying to provide a service to those fans.”