The online and offline future of football programmes

Matchday football programmes mean a lot to many people. I’m sure we all have fond memories of them, particularly from our early, formative days watching football. I once got a free one in an issue of Match Magazine for a Plymouth Argyle v Millwall game. It was quickly placed into my school bag and taken into class to be viewed in awe by my school friends. I hadn’t been to the game and didn’t have much interest in either team but it was a football artifact, a real life part of something we all loved. 

These days I only really get one if I’m going to a new ground or one-off game where I feel I should return with some kind of keepsake. This seems to be a fairly common theme when gauging the mood of fans on programmes as their appeal seems to be moving much more towards souvenir status rather than a tool for providing content that you can’t get anywhere else. 

Reduced desire for football programmes seems especially discernable at the higher end of the game. When I scan my season ticket at West Ham I don’t stop at one of the programme kiosks on my way to the turnstile. The content often has too much of a club spin. I can get much better and more independent content online instantly that I can read whenever I want. There are also far too many adverts. A hot cup of tea is marginally cheaper and generally more satisfying. 

At non-league level, however, things are a little different. Clubs often don’t have a big online presence and a fanbase of willing commentators or bloggers. The programme is often the only and always the best way to find out about the club and its players. It’s sad then, although predictable, that it’s at this grassroots level where the new-found freedom over programme production has yielded the highest level of conversion to online. 

Yes, the information is still there in the online format. But squinting at your phone screen, waiting for a huge PDF to download and then trying to pinch it’s inaccessible content to a useful size while following the on-field action is not the same as flicking through the pages of a lovingly produced bit of print work.

FA Cup semi final
The programme for the FA Cup semi final

Where are football programmes at right now?

I’ve recently started volunteering at one of my local clubs as a programme editor. This combined with my day-to-day life as an online content designer and my occasional groundhopping means I can see the discussion around programmes, particularly in non-league football, from a variety of different angles. So, I’ve decided to take a look at the current state of programmes and how I see them. 

Firstly, what’s the problem here? Well, at the higher levels of the game people aren’t reading them as much as they did. This could just be down to the cultural shift towards instant, mobile content or that as I’ve already mentioned football programmes in the upper divisions are overpriced and don’t offer anything that a fan can’t get elsewhere, for free. It’s likely a little of column A and a little of column B. The EFL cited the reduced readership numbers last year when they announced they would no longer require clubs to produce one. 

Lower down the pyramid, though it’s a cost issue. The savings from printing a couple of hundred programmes every other week could pay for something else, like a player or some ground maintenance. It’s a tough choice for non-league clubs to go online, but ultimately not one that many would begrudge them making when we’re all acutely aware of the lack of money at this level.

So what now? Well, I spend a little bit of time every week looking at online programmes. Not because I have to but I quite enjoying having all these programmes at my fingertips. Mostly they are in PDF form. Not much has changed. The final part of the production process, which was once sending to the printers, is now uploading to the club website. That’s all that’s changed in most cases. PDFs, however, aren’t suitable for an online audience. They deliver poor user experience, especially if you’re not sat behind a computer at a desk. They are clunky to use, often take time and lots of data to download and are hard to navigate on mobile.

Manchester City match programmes
One of the Manchester City programme stalls

The future of football programmes

Lewes FC, no strangers to a bit of innovative thinking are the first example I’ve seen so far of a non-league club trying to navigate a way around this problem. They produce their programme on a web page rather than a PDF. It’s a great idea. And it means they can add audio and video to improve the user experience which adds a dimension not previously seen in matchday programmes. The only issue here is scrolling, a lot of it required. It may not be a huge issue, people are more inclined, and used, to scrolling than they were a few years ago. 

In many cases the channel for football programmes has already shifted, but the Lewes example could just be the start of a format change for the traditional version of the matchday programme. They could be made up exclusively of video and audio with a few links to longer written pieces hosted on a club’s website. The information no longer has to specifically relate to that game. After all, digital programmes are available to everyone, whenever they want them, not just for those who go to the game. Clubs could publish news as it happens over the week and collate the links in the digital programme on the day of the game.

This, however, does not solve problem two. The lack of a souvenir or keepsake from a game you visit. Some may argue this is territory solely occupied by groundhoppers or so-called ‘plastic fans’ at the higher end of the game. It’s an issue though that comes up regularly in every discussion. Just search football programmes on Facebook and you’ll see plenty of comments about the sole of the game and matchday experiences.

One example I’ve seen to try and respond to this demand comes from the US. The Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team do all of their ticketing online, but many fans were upset that they no longer had a paper ticket from games (a big reason I believe why UK sport is so far behind the US in online ticketing – but that’s a subject for another day). They then included a souvenir paper ticket inside the matchday magazine, so fans had a memento from the game they visited. 

The NFL, however, is a long way away from non-league football in Britain, and this does nothing to resolve the key driver at that level which is the cost associated with printing. It offers an example though that perhaps there is another way that clubs could offer an alternative to visiting fans who aren’t able to pick up an actual IRL (in real life) programme. Printed team sheets are one option clubs have looked at.

The future of programmes, at all levels, remains uncertain. It will continue to be an emotive subject for fans, especially at non-league level, who are often angry at the increasing creep of disconnection between clubs and fans at the top end of the game. Programmes are a traditional symbol of the sport for many, just like 3pm Saturday kick-offs, scarves and pin badges. Their disappearance or change is seen as just another way the game they love is being taken from them. A failure in the UK to fully embrace online and the benefits it can have for sports fans means that this channel is closely associated with this disconnection and the brand of ‘modern football’.

I personally believe that this doesn’t have to be the case. There is plenty that online can offer to add to and complement the current matchday experience. Simply publishing PDFs that used to be printed on to a club website though is for me the worst of both worlds. But as with everything in non-league football, it is hard to criticise clubs, and their volunteers, when they have so little resources. 

Hopefully, in my new role as a programme editor, I can help make the combination of these two different types of medium something that will be useful to supporters and occasional visitors to my local club. Come the end of the season my views on the future of programmes might have changed completely. Let’s see. Until then though there is plenty of debate to be had and lots of room for the adventurous to experiment. I look forward to seeing what happens.