Football: Game's rise exceeds gate expectations: Guy Hodgson looks at the reasons behind the national sport's recent rise in popularity

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The Independent Online
THE product, if a company manufactured it, would have Lord Hanson scheming a takeover. It has not merely ridden out the recession but thrived during it. And this despite an upheaval which at times seemed hell bent on discouraging customers.

Football, the sport that was the hobnail-booted symbol of yobbish Britain, is getting more popular. The concept of the Premiership may be distrusted, the sell-off to satellite television disliked and all-seater stadiums an occasional irritant but crowds are up in England and will top 21 million this season for the first time in more than a decade.

The Premiership alone will contribute around half that figure, showing an increase of more than seven per cent on last year when, admittedly, several leading clubs had their capacity cut because of ground improvements.

These show the most extravagant rises. Manchester United (average home gate 44,109) are being watched by an additonal 10,000 supporters a game since the Stretford End has been rebuilt while Arsenal (29,842) show a 21 per cent increase and Leeds (37,356) 15 per cent.

'That has made the most obvious contribution,' Adrian Cook, the assistant secretary of the FA Premier League, said, 'but I think it's significant that 16 of the 22 clubs are showing increased gates this season. So far we do not seem to have been affected by England's failure to reach the World Cup finals but, obviously we will have to wait until next season to assess its full impact.'

The healthy rises are not restricted to the English elite. The Scottish Premier Division saw an increse of 11 per cent over the the first four months of the season while crowds are up in the Endsleigh Football League in two of its three divisions.

The First, even without the crowd-pulling properties of a resurgent Newcastle United, is showing a 14 per cent improvement while clubs in the Third are getting an extra eight per cent coming through their turnstiles. Only the Second Division shows a decline but that is due to the loss by promotion and relegation of spectator-drawing clubs like Stoke, Bolton, West Bromwich and Preston. The overall figure for the Football League shows an increase of five per cent.

'Football grounds are happier places these days from a family point of view,' Cook continued. 'Crowd violence has been virtually eradicated which is encouraging more women and children to watch the sport. This is the section of the population where the increases are coming from.'

The impact of television should not be discounted either. Its effect is never easy to gauge but the indication is that somehow football has stumbled upon, with more luck than judgement, a formula that is working.

The relative scarcity of satellite dishes has given live Premiership football a rarity which is enhanced by the advertisment it receives every Saturday by way of highlights on BBC's Match of the Day. If only teasing glimpses of Cantona, Giggs and Co are on the box then the public appears willing to travel to get the full picture.

Yet, perversely, the First Division seems to be blooming for the very reason its product is being shown live most weekends, with regional variations, on Independent Television. 'I think we are seeing a slight shift of people going back to support their local team,' Ian Cotton, of the Football League, said. 'They get only restricted opportunities to see the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Blackburn on television while our clubs are getting greater exposure.'

The nadir for football in England followed the Heysel Stadium disaster when crowds in 1985-86 slumped to 16.5m. Then comparisons were made to the 41m - 17.9m for the old First Division alone - who attended football matches in 1948-49 and the graph appeared to be heading in a depressing direction.

The death knell to the 'national game' was widely suspected to be the Taylor Report published in January 1990 which recommended all- seater stadiums on the grounds of safety. The motives were impeccable but the traditional supporter base seemed likely to be eroded by the end of the terrace and the increased admission prices required to finance the alterations. Rival attractions would exert a greater pull; Britain, it seemed, preferred its sport served second hand via TV rather than al fresco.

Since 1986, however, football attendances have risen for seven successive seasons, the first time this has happened since the Second World War. This season is poised to extend that record.

'The improvement in stadiums has had the effect of drawing spectators back to football,' Cotton said. 'A lot of people had a nostalgic regard for the right to stand on terraces but the all-seater recommendations have made football grounds more attractive places to go to. You only have to look at Wolves. Molineux is now a magnificent stadium that would grace any country in Europe.

'And I think we are offering people a more exciting product. The play-offs are not universally appreciated but they do mean that most clubs have something to play for until the end of the season. There are very few meaningless matches in the Football League these days.'

When nearly 25,000 people go out in appallingly wintry conditions like they did last week to see Wolves play Birmingham City something must be right. Watching football has become fashionable again.

-------------------------------------------------------- ENGLISH CROWD FIGURES -------------------------------------------------------- Gates Games Ave Change (%) Premier 7.33m 323 22,702 +7.4 First 4.37m 375 11,676 +14.6 Second 2.01m 371 5,401 -10.3 Third 1.10m 323 3,379 +8.6 --------------------------------------------------------

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