Football: Lower orders fuel football's biggest boom for 40 years

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The Independent Online
Football attendances are on course to reach their highest levels for 18 years. As Paul Newman reports, the latest boom has been fuelled entirely by clubs outside the Premiership

The financial gap between the haves and have-nots may still be widening, but football's ever-rising profile at the highest level is having a beneficial effect throughout the game.

Contrary to a widespread view that public interest has been focusing on the FA Carling Premiership at the expense of other areas of the game, the rise in attendances this season is down entirely to the Nationwide League.

On the evidence of the season so far, the professional game in England and Wales is poised to enjoy its biggest percentage increase in league gates for 40 years.

With 20 per cent of the season's league matches played, attendance figures for the Premiership and Nationwide League show that gates are on course to reach a season's total of 24.5 million, an increase of 1.7m on last year and the highest figure for 18 years.

The figures, compiled exclusively for the Independent, show that the Nationwide League is set to welcome through its turnstiles its highest number of supporters for more than a quarter of a century.

Premiership gates are marginally down on last year, but the Nationwide League First Division is heading for a total attendance of 8.4m, which would be the highest since the 1959-60 season and an increase of more than 20 per cent on last year. Only 12 years ago, the total for the Second Division (now the First Division) was 3.6m, less than half this season's projected figure.

While the three clubs relegated from the Premiership - Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest - have provided a significant boost to First Division attendances, other clubs are showing significant increases, with 18 of the division's 24 clubs enjoying higher gates. In the Second Division 19 of the 24 clubs are showing an increase, as are 14 of the Third Division's 24 members.

The figures buck other major trends in the game, which have seen more and more emphasis placed on the Premiership. This year's annual report by Deloitte & Touche showed that the financial gap between the Premier League and Nationwide League has continued to widen with the Premier League now accounting for two thirds of the game's revenue. Combined with the "Bosman" ruling, which has cut the amount of transfer fees going into the lower divisions, this appeared to spell doom for smaller clubs, but the attendance figures will give encouragement.

Although outside factors may have had an influence - the feel-good factor since the election, extra cash in pockets thanks to building society flotations, and even the Indian summer - these are unlikely to account for the majority of the increase. The game's growing popularity stems largely from the Premiership's rising profile, helped by the recruitment of many of the world's best players thanks to television money.

Part of the reason for the increase in Nationwide League gates is undoubtedly the difficulty many fans find in buying tickets for Premiership matches: 10 of the Premiership's 20 clubs consistently fill their grounds. Clubs have also been making great efforts with community schemes, family spectator areas and offers of cheap tickets, while the decline of hooliganism has probably been the biggest factor of all. A post-war low total attendance figure of 16.5m was reached in the 1985-86 season, which followed one of the worst summers in the game's history with the Heysel Stadium disaster and the Bradford fire.

Although the switch to all-seat stadiums in the wake of the Taylor Report has restricted capacities, gates have steadily risen as hooliganism has declined and grounds have become safer and more comfortable.

l Research by Brian Sears