It’s FA Cup time again on Saturday as Argyle travel north to face Bolton Wanderers in the first round. A couple of months ago, when the financially stricken Wanderers were being routinely hammered by five or six goals (they conceded 20 in four consecutive games in August), this would have looked like a relatively easy fixture for the Greens.

However, Keith Hill’s arrival in the hot seat at the end of August has been a catalyst for a mini-revival, and Bolton are on a three game winning streak. They notched up two consecutive victories in the League against Bristol Rovers and Fleetwood Town either side of a win in the EFL Trophy against a team from the Manchester City crèche. So while the club is probably more concerned with moving their League One points total from a negative to a positive number, an FA Cup run would provide a nice little morale boost after a traumatic few months.

With Bolton struggling for League survival and Argyle focused on properly kick-starting their season, is the FA Cup just a distraction from the main event?

While it remains the country’s premier knockout competition, a common refrain is that the FA Cup doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Then again, since the peak crowd at an FA Cup final was way back in 1923 (126,047 officially, more than 200,000 unofficially, for Bolton v West Ham) some might say the competition has been on the slide for the last 96 years.

Seriously though – there’s no doubt that, since the 1980s, the FA Cup has come to occupy a less prominent place in the national football psyche. There are a couple of reasons for that.

Live football has reached saturation point

For one thing, back then there was so much less football on TV, and live games were particularly rare. The first live Football League match was shown in 1960, but there was a long gap until 1983 before that experiment was repeated. Other than that, only World Cup games and some European matches were shown as they happened.

So the fact that the FA Cup Final was shown live (for the first time as early as 1938) was a big deal for football supporters. Those of a certain age will recall being glued to their screens from early morning on Cup Final Saturday, as two of the nation’s three TV stations provided blanket coverage of the day’s events from about 9am. That sense that it was a truly national occasion was undoubtedly an extra incentive for teams to reach the final.

All that started to change in 1992, when Sky bought the rights to show live games in the newly formed Premier League. In 1995, they hoovered up the rights to the EFL and League Cup, then completed the set in 1999 with the Champions League. This has ultimately led to the situation we have today, with wall-to-wall live football available 24/7. It’s a long time since the FA Cup final had the cachet of being one of the very few live games broadcast on TV, and that has inevitably diminished its place in the nation’s affections.

Few clubs have a realistic chance of winning

Another factor in the Cup’s waning prominence is the widening gap between the top-flight clubs and the rest since the creation of the Premier League 27 years ago. In fact, it could be said that the narrowing of the pool of potential winners started a few years before that. While the FA Cup has been won by a team outside the top flight just eight times in its 147 year history, we have had a particularly long run of dominance by top tier clubs. Indeed, the last winner from the second division was West Ham, way back in 1980. In the 39 years since then, only 11 clubs have lifted the trophy.

The one-sided nature of the competition reached another level last season, pushing it down another notch in terms of its breadth of appeal. Not only did Manchester City’s 6-0 demolition of Watford make the final a colossal non-event, but also in the six games they played en route to winning the trophy, City scored 26 goals and conceded just three. Of course, the fact that at each stage, the draws threw up relatively easy competition for the country’s best-funded club helped a lot. But it did feel like a watershed event for football’s oldest competition.

So, if only 20 of the 736 teams that enter the competition have a realistic shot at winning it, why do fans of the other 97% of clubs care about it at all? The answer is the ultimate football cliché: ‘the magic of the cup’. The chance of a non-league or lower league club making it to the third or fourth round and drawing a Premier League giant.

It’s no surprise that those are the fixtures that make it onto TV. Who doesn’t want to watch Liverpool or Manchester City’s multi-millionaires lining up on a dodgy pitch against part-timers whose football ‘careers’ fit around day jobs as bricklayers or PE teachers?

A few years ago I handled the media relations for a non-league club that was drawn against League One opposition in the first round. And it’s true; the number one question I was asked by national newspapers and TV channels was “do any of your players have wacky jobs?”

Increasingly then, public interest in the competition peaks around the third and occasionally fourth rounds with the David v Goliath giant-killing stories, after which it’s pretty much a procession to decide which one of the five usual suspects will take their turn to lift the trophy.

All the same, most Argyle fans would admit that they want to see the team progress in the competition. Unfortunately, the recent FA Cup record has been mediocre at best. The Greens have only progressed to the third round of the FA Cup three times in the last 10 years, going out at that stage in each case. The recent highlight, of course, was the January 2017 third round clash with Liverpool, when Argyle held the Premier League club to a 0-0 draw at Anfield, earning a replay at Home Park that was decided in the Scousers’ favour by a single goal.

But the FA Cup can be lucrative

This brings us to the one way in which the FA Cup clearly still does matter to clubs at our level: money. There’s no question that an FA Cup run can be financially lucrative. Argyle’s 2016-17 FA Cup exploits brought in around £882,000, made up of £515,000 from ticket sales (thanks mainly to a total crowd of more than 72,000 for the two Liverpool games), £332,000 in TV income (the second round replay against Newport and both Liverpool games were shown live) and £35,000 in prize money for the first and second round wins.

While the financial boost was certainly welcome, it was essentially a one-off; there was no lasting uplift in home attendances at league games as a result of the Liverpool fixtures. True, the first home game after the FA Cup tie did see a crowd of 14,600 but that was the Devon Derby, which always attracts large numbers (including 1,500 Exeter fans). And better crowds towards the end of the season can almost certainly be put down to the fact that Argyle were closing in on promotion rather than to any lingering effect of the FA Cup run.

As for this season, the good news is that, should Argyle progress as far as the third round, that game would be played on 4th January, three days after the full opening of the new Mayflower stand. So, if we were to draw a Premier League club at Home Park, up to 18,200 tickets could be available.

Every silver lining has a cloud though, and unfortunately, unlike league games where all the ticket receipts are retained by the home club, in the FA Cup each team receives an equal 45% share. So a capacity attendance of 18,200 would only yield the same income as an 8,200 crowd for a home league game. The best financial outcome is therefore to be drawn away to a top tier team or – even better – to earn a replay and benefit from a capacity home crowd as well.

This all depends, quite literally, on the luck of the draw. And, of course, these points are all moot if Argyle can’t get past Bolton Wanderers on Saturday.

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