This season, for the first time ever, the EFL has introduced the option for fans based in England to stream their team's mid-week games live, through their Ifollow platform, for a one-off fee of £10.
The move has proved divisive among the fans of the three divisions, with those who champion it claiming that it gives fans the chance to watch games they wouldn't otherwise be able to attend, while its detractors claim that it runs the risk of severely damaging live attendances. As you can see from the title of this piece, I fall into the latter camp, but for more than just one reason.
The Ifollow service was originally launched at the start of the 2017/18 season and was designed as a way to provide fans who lived abroad with the chance to watch their team from anywhere in the world. The service was originally exclusive to overseas fans, and while it didn't come with commentary and was often filmed with a static camera, it was fairly well received by fans who would otherwise not be able to watch their beloved teams.
That all changed this season, however, when the EFL made the decision to allow fans in England to watch their team's mid-week games using the service. On the face of it, this seems like a good idea, after all, who wants to spend their Tuesday travelling all the way to Plymouth to watch their team get spanked 3-0, when they can spend a tenner and do the same thing from the comfort of their own home with a cup of tea and a pack of chocolate digestiv?
But ultimately, looking at it like that kind of misses the point. Of course, live attendances to games will take a hit and ultimately cost clubs a lot of money in the long run, but also, lower league clubs rely on not only their fans, but also on families and tradition.
As a fan of a lower league club myself (perennial League One strugglers, Shrewsbury Town, in case you were wondering) I know full well how important it was that I was taken to games as a child and taught to love my local team. Football support is often forged in the fires of disappointment and hardship; a love for a team is built on the agony and the ecstasy of the Football League, and that is something that can only truly be captured by attending games in person.
For some clubs, especially those at the bottom end of the Football League, the decision to switch to streaming could effectively kill their club. Teams like Rochdale and Bury, who have to compete with the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City for fans, could easily find themselves losing fans to their bigger rivals, because after all, why would you want to watch Nicky Maynard and Chris Dagnall on television when you can just as easily watch the likes of Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku?
Lower league clubs rely on fans falling in love with the matchday experience, and the moment you remove that, then you risk the future of the whole league.
It may seem like a bit of an exaggeration right now, given that it is only mid-week games that are possible to stream, but that does potentially create a slippery slope.
While the UK's infamous 3 pm blackout is still in effect for games on television, it would appear that this does not apply to streaming services. On September 8th this year, during the international break, Football League games were eligible for streaming on Ifollow, and while it is unclear whether or not that had an effect on attendances that day, it feels inevitable that it will in the future.
With a lot of lower league clubs struggling to create a new generation of fans in the face of Social Media stars and virtual experiences at bigger clubs both at home and abroad, it's essential that they continue to get younger fans through their doors, and falling in love with their local teams.
Above all else, this article is a call to arms. Don't be lazy and watch your team online, instead, pull a sicky at work, jump on that bus to Carlisle, stand in the rain and watch your team slump to yet another away defeat this season, after all, the future of the Football League might just depend on it.