Attendances at Checkatrade Trophy games are sometimes so poor that the EFL has to pay clubs to cover losses they make from hosting games. Yet it won’t admit this – nor explain why it continues to back a format where gate receipts alone don’t always cover costs.
Tuesday 6th November 2018: West Brom have the same number of goals as fans
“The role of the EFL is one of a competition organiser.” That was the EFL’s now notorious response to critics of its inaction over the mismanagement at Leyton Orient. Even as the venerable East London club slid out of the league, the EFL was still insisting that it wasn’t its job to police owners and boards. We just put the games on, they said.
But if indeed that is all we can expect from the EFL, then why does it seem to do it so badly? So much so, in fact, that one of the competitions it organises can lose teams money?
We are now in the third season of the reformatted Checkatrade Trophy, with more games, more teams and, crucially, B Teams from clubs with Category A academies (these are generally Premier League clubs or the larger Championship ones).
Despite promises from the EFL that the changes would ‘revitalise’ the competition, the first year (16/17) saw average attendances fall to less than half of what they had been in the previous year under the old format. In the second year, (17/18) attendances ticked up marginally in some early rounds, but actually fell overall after two smaller teams made the final, producing a low turnout at Wembley. This year (18/19), they’re no better – with a number of clubs seeing all-time low attendances for notionally competitive fixtures and Round 1 attendances down 4% on 17/18 (more if you exclude Sunderland’s bumper crowds).
This year has seen a number of clubs experience record low crowds
In public the EFL remains bullish about the competition, recently hosting an event for fans at which it extoled the competition’s value as a youth development tool. The evening was only slightly marred when Chelsea development squad manager Joe Edwards inadvertently implied that the Checkatrade was useful for helping his players get a better knowledge of some of English football’s small fry. “I think,” he said, “maybe three years ago, if you asked most of our lads if they could have named seven League One clubs, they’d have struggled.”
The evening also produced news that, despite Checktrade ending its three-year association with the competition, the EFL has an agreement in principle with its clubs to continue the format for another three years.
In private, however, the EFL’s behaviour suggests less confidence about the competition. Before the 17/18 season, it changed the competition rules to give itself the power to cover any losses a club might make from hosting Checkatrade games. This was unprecedented; clubs had never previously had this facility in any EFL competition.
Left: The original Checkatrade regulations and, right, the amended regulations introduced after the first year of the new format
Crucially, this change came before clubs were due to vote on renewing the competition. Ahead of the vote, the EFL went further than the wording of the new regulations and all but guaranteed that it would cover any club losses, provided they made an effort to promote the competition and not to disparage it in public.
In public, the EFL merely reserved the right to reimburse losses. In private, it assured owners it would ‘underwrite’ losses provided they ‘positively promoted the competition.’
How important turning the competition into a one-way bet for clubs was in getting the format renewed isn’t known, but it seems reasonable to assume that at least some clubs must have been concerned about the financial cost of participation for the EFL to have changed the regulations.
After a disappointing first year, the second year of the Checkatrade saw the EFL promoting it heavily and a number of clubs offering reduced ticket prices, incentives and extra pre-match entertainment. Attendances remained stubbornly low, however, and ahead of the current season, the EFL changed the rules again.
Significantly, while the 17/18 competition had an open-ended offer of covering losses, the new regulations narrowed the range of circumstances to only the first round group games (which constitute 96 of the competition’s 126 fixtures) and capped the payments to the total of the ‘competition pool’. This is a fund comprised of the gate receipts that B Team entrants to the competition would be entitled to. (As part of playing in the competition, B Teams agreed not to take a share of gate receipts.) If claims for compensation were over and above the value of the competition pool, the new regulations said, they would be prorated.
Checkatrade reimbursement regulation changes between 17/18 and 18/19. Note: Carabao Cup regulations, which include much weaker and less specific wording on the subject of losses, remained unchanged from 17/18 to 18/19.
In other words, having taken the unprecedented step of offering to cover the losses of EFL members who took part last year, the EFL has, at the first opportunity, changed its regulations to reduce the liability it has.
If the Checkatrade is the success the EFL claims, you have to wonder why it should need to do this. Could it be that not only were clubs making losses, but that they were doing so at such a rate that the EFL feared that it would be left having to dig into its own pockets?
The EFL won’t say. Despite numerous conversations over many months, the EFL declined to provide a written response to my questions. It wouldn’t explain why the regulations were introduced, why they were changed or how much has been paid out under them. Citing commercial confidentially, it won’t even officially confirm or deny if any payments have been made under the regulations, let alone what the total value of those payment was.
Separately, however, a number of clubs have privately confirmed to me that they have availed themselves of the scheme on several occasions.
The question, then, is how frequently does it happen? If only a handful of clubs have needed the scheme, perhaps it’s just a sensible piece of loss-sharing for EFL teams. But what if it’s broader than that? This year, 46% of Round 1 games attracted fewer than 1,000 fans. Nine percent had fewer than 500. Given that, is it possible that huge swathes of the Checkatrade Trophy are essentially uneconomic as paying events and continue only because of financial support from the Premier League in the form of prize money and foregone gate receipts?
It seems odd that a league that, when under fire, retreats to the position that it is just a competition organiser should continue to promote as a success a competition that loses its clubs money sufficiently regularly that it has to cover these losses. It raises questions, too – as so often in football – of where the fans’ voices are in how the game is run. The Checkatrade changes have slashed attendances and, perhaps permanently, harmed the competition’s prestige.
At a game in November, one solitary West Brom fan travelled to Accrington to see his team play. That’s right, a game of professional football in England which attracted just one away fan.
If this is what success looks like, then football really has changed beyond all recognition.
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