Life Below: Real football for real fans

The Football League is currently enjoying its greatest levels of popularity in the last fifty years, according to new statistics on aggregate attendance figures. During the 2009/10 season, crowds at matches across the Championship, League One and League Two topped the 17 million mark for the first time since the 1959/60 season. That figure is expected to be improved upon again this year as more and more people are taking an interest in life outside the Premier League.
The statistics, released by the Football League, revealed that 17.1 million punters went through the turnstiles of the 1,651 Football League matches last year – an impressive increase of 4.4% on the previous season. Since the Premier League broke away from the rest of the Football League in 1992 there has been unprecedented growth in the number of supporters attending games in the lower leagues.

In fact, the Championship is now officially the fourth most popular league in the world. During the 2009/10 season, 9.9 million fans turned up (an average of 17,949 per game) which puts the competition ahead of both the Serie A in Italy (9.1 million) and France’s Ligue 1 (7.6 million). The fact that England’s second-tier competition is behind just the Bundesliga (13.1 million), the Premier League (12.9 million) and La Liga (11 million) is hugely impressive.

And that is not to say that League One and Two have not been pulling their weight either. Both competitions continue to outstrip their comparable leagues elsewhere in Europe. A remarkable 75% more people attended League Once matches than the equivalent games played in Germany’s third-tier. Likewise, the 2009/10 season saw a staggering 21% increase in the number of supporters attending League Two games – a total five times higher than attendance in Italy’s corresponding competition.

These figures are stunning, especially given the current economic climate, and are testament to the calibre of supporters that the Football League attracts. They go some way to showing that there is not only life outside of the top-flight but that the impassioned cries of fans existing in the lower leagues are perhaps even more heartfelt than those muffled sounds coming from the mouths of the prawn sandwich brigade in the Premier League.
Just under 11 million supporters bought tickets for games in the 1992/93 season – some six million less than what the Football League now attracts – so how has this explosion in popularity come about?

The profile of the lower leagues has been raised substantially. There are 23 clubs currently languishing in the Football League which have competed in the Premier League at some point since 1992. There are 17 such teams in the Championship, five in League One and one in League Two. “Big clubs” like Newcastle United, Middlesbrough and Portsmouth have all played, or are currently competing, in the Championship, while Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton and Southampton find themselves in League One and Bradford City battle in League Two. Trips to historic stadia like Elland Road (Leeds United), the City Ground (Nottingham Forest) and Portman Road (Ipswich Town) are exciting prospects for fans relishing the chance to see their sides test themselves against these “fallen-giants”.

“Big-name” players have also stepped down to the Football League and this has been important in raising the profile of the lower leagues too. The likes of Craig Bellamy, David James, Alan Smith, Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton, Lee Carsley, Francis Jeffers and Giovani dos Santos have all competed in the Football League at some point in recent years. The prospect of seeing players of suck ilk is a great pull for lower league fans and is another reason why more and more people are taking their seat at Football League grounds across the country.

Supporters know too that the Football League is bursting with young talent and that they might well catch a glimpse of a potential star of the future. Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Tim Cahill have all been taken from the Championship in recent years, while Michael Dawson was actually signed from Nottingham Forest when they were playing in League One. There is sufficient quality in the Football League to encourage supporters to part with their hard-earned cash and that is exactly what they are doing. In fact, with Premier League teams increasingly composed mainly of overseas players, the Football League now more than ever is a great place to watch domestic talent.

There are also rich rewards for gaining promotion through the Football League and this has been a form of bait for many prospective fans. It is estimated that promotion to the Premier League is worth £90 million over four years due to the additional TV money, sponsorship and lucrative parachute payments that are attached. Supporters dream of their team being able to splash the cash on star players and, knowing that promotion is effectively like winning the lottery for Football League sides, there is much reason for holding an interest in clubs outside of the top-tier.

Football is essentially an entertainment industry now and the Football League is being incorporated into this. Sky has expanded its coverage to include televising live matches from the lower leagues while the BBC has added a highlights package, “The Football League Show”, to its Saturday night bill. Approximately 1.4 million viewers stick around after “Match of the Day” to watch “The Football League Show” every Saturday. Lucrative deals with sponsors come next as they seize the chance to have their logo emblazoned all over the big screen. Simply, more and more people are sitting up and taking notice of the Football League.

Reduced prices for tickets to matches have also helped to get fans out of their arm-chairs and into Football League stadia. Football fans disenchanted with the grossly extortionate outlays required to follow a Premier League side see that the Football League offers far better value for money. Adult tickets can be purchased for as little as £10 and many clubs also run “Kids for a Quid” policies. The cheapest season ticket in the Football League is just £230 at Accrington Stanley whereas Arsenal may charge £1,825 for a season ticket at the Emirates. Likewise, Chelsea demand £73 for a top-end seat at Stamford Bridge. The Football League is therefore exceptionally marketable to those contemplating attending a match for the first time.

“When Saturday comes”. Football remains the Saturday afternoon activity of millions of households up and down the country, yet not everyone is within easy reach of a club. This problem is most pronounced when dealing with the Premier League as teams in the top-flight tend to be concentrated in particular geographical regions. There are four teams in London, three in the West Midlands, eight in Lancashire and two in the North East. Clearly this will change slightly from year to year but, largely, the rest of the country tends to be deprived of Premier League clubs. The geographical spread of teams in the Championship, League One and League Two is much more even which makes the Football League particularly accessible for lovers of the beautiful game stuck without a top-flight club.

For you stranded fans of the Premier League, who watch on in disbelief as your beloved teams are tossed about like a child’s play-thing by mega-rich foreign sugar-daddies, your faith can be restored in the Football League. This kingdom we speak of is a sanctuary for quality football, famous names and easy-access. As the stats are now showing, more and more supporters are seeing the light and enjoying the delights that the lower leagues have to offer. At a time when the Premier League is losing sight of the common folk and the financial pressures we live under, the Football League remains the epitome of “The People’s Game”.


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