Figures released last week showed a drop in Football League attendances this season, yet support for the fourth-most successful competition in Europe is still impressive. More than 16 million spectators watched Football League matches in 2010-11, which will be bettered only by the Premier League, the Bundesliga and La Liga. A six per cent drop on last season's 50-year high is put down to the difficult economic climate.
Championship matches were watched by more than 9,500,000 fans at an average of 17,389. Leeds topped the list, with average gates of 27,299, while Scunthorpe were the only Championship club to average fewer than 10,000. Southampton, League One's best supported team, averaged 22,160, which was more than 18 Championship clubs, while Sheffield Wednesday (17,817), Charlton (15,582) and Huddersfield (13,728) all broke the 10,000 mark.
The most remarkable attendances of all, however, were Bradford City's in League Two. The Yorkshire club finished 18th – their worst end-of-season position for nearly half a century – yet enjoyed average crowds of 11,127, nearly 4,000 more than the second-best supported club, Oxford United. The Bantams' lowest gate of 10,392 was higher than the best crowd at any other League Two match.
Bradford's example shows what can be achieved with a sensible pricing policy. When they were relegated four years ago for the third time in seven seasons – their first return to the League's bottom division for 25 years – their gates averaged 8,694. The club reduced season-ticket prices to £138 and the response to what was named as the Football League's marketing campaign of the year was hugely positive, with 12,200 fans buying season tickets to boost the average to 13,756.
The average attendance dropped by 1,000 in the second season and by about the same figure in each of the subsequent campaigns as the players' performances failed to match those of the fans: in their four seasons in League Two Bradford have finished 10th, ninth, 14th and 18th.
Since the new pricing policy was introduced, the current season has been the only year in which season ticket sales fell below 10,000 (to 9,600).
Some 6,000 tickets for 2011-12 were sold (at an advance price of £150 each) in December last year, putting the club on course to match the 2010-11 figure. David Baldwin, the club's director of operations, said: "We started the Christmas campaign simply because I had a request from a grandparent asking: 'Why can't I buy a season ticket now for my grandson for next year as a Christmas present?' The first year we ran it 2,000 people took up the option, the second year 4,000 and the third year 6,000."
The final phase of sales for next season will start soon. Prices have not been announced yet, but the club have always kept the cost below £200. "Pricing is important," Baldwin said. "You have to realise that in the current economic climate."
Bradford offer season tickets at half-price to under-16s, while under-11s are admitted free if accompanied by an adult. "We know that around 18 per cent of a crowd of 10,000 are under-11s," Baldwin said.
"There's no greater way of promoting future fans than creating a situation where a dad can bring his son or daughter to a game for free. We hope that they become Bradford City fans for life."
The club's support is all the more remarkable when you consider what they have been through since losing their Premier League place 10 years ago. One of the last clubs to be relegated before the introduction of parachute payments, Bradford went into administration three years later, which resulted in their stadium and offices being sold off. They now have to pay £1.3m a year just to use the premises, including £750,000 in rent for the 25,500-capacity stadium.
"I think the vast majority of fans realise that we're operating in a difficult set of circumstances," Baldwin said. "We're carrying the costs of a Championship stadium and operating on a League Two budget."
He added: "We've had fantastic support when you consider the decade we've had as a club. We have very long-suffering fans and we're desperate to give them something to smile about in the future."