22 October 2009 ~ When online betting firm Blue Square signed up to sponsor the Football Conference in April 2007, ebullient Conference chief Bill King declared we were witnessing “non-League history in the making”. Two years later it seems that this chapter of history could be about to close. A report in Monday’s Daily Mail suggested that Blue Square – which puts its name to the Conference National as well as the north and south feeder leagues – was planning to end its association with non-League football when their initial three-year contract expires next summer.
Quick as a flash the Conference’s well-oiled PR machine whirred into action, denying that this was the case: “Blue Square indicate, only as recently as last Wednesday, that they are keen to renew their sponsorship for another three-year period,” read a joint statement from the league and its sponsor. Indeed, the betting firm’s PR manager, Alan Alger, has since revealed that an initial offer to renew the contract has been made.
However, fans of clubs in the Conference could be forgiven for taking this seemingly positive news with a pinch of salt. For the last two years the competition had been covered in great detail by the now defunct Setanta Sports. But a new television deal has yet to materialise after talks between ESPN and the Conference board broke down in September. Mooted back-up offers from firms interested in streaming matches online, a route which would seem a more realistic and cost-effective option for fifth-tier football, haven’t come to fruition either.
Given this lack of television exposure, and the generally depressed sponsorship market in which football is currently operating, it would be reasonable to assume that if Blue Square does renew its contract it will be at a reduced rate. Indeed they may struggle to find a new deal at all given how other more prestigious competitions such as the FA Cup are also struggling for backers. And whatever happens, it is unlikely to be good news for the Conference’s 68 member clubs, many of whom are already struggling to balance the books.
The demise of Setanta saw central funding provided to Conference National sides drop from £80,000 last season to £18,000 this term. While clubs such as Oxford, Luton and Wrexham can rely on their large followings to tide them over, the same cannot be said for some of the more traditional non-League outfits, many of whom attract sub-1000 gates on a regular basis. A further loss of income is likely to accentuate the gap between the top and the bottom of the division. It would also make promotion to the Football League even more appealing. Last year's Conference play-off winners Torquay United picked up £400,000 from the Football League pool this campaign, a sum which most non-League teams can only dream of. Matthew Gooding