Premier League makes move to combat slump in crowds

While the Premiership will lose as many as 500,000 fans this season if crowds continue to stay at current levels, England's élite remains in rude health compared to much of Europe, apart from Germany, where aggregate crowds are higher.

In the Premiership, nine clubs are still filling 95 per cent of capacity at least. In Italy's Serie A, where most clubs have a majority of games screened on TV via individually negotiated deals, not a single club is operating at more than 85 per cent capacity and 13 of 20 teams are playing in half-full stadiums at best.

Juventus, desperate to attract new fans, have been selling season tickets to women and children for £13, while other clubs have slashed prices as they struggle to attract match-day interest.

Expert opinion is divided over the severity of the Premiership's ills, although John Williams, the director of the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research at Leicester University, believes the Premiership's boom years could be nearing an end.

"I'm a little torn about drawing firm conclusions on this so early, mainly because I'm sure there is still some considerable and residual fan brand loyalty to the Premiership," he said. "But it also does seem there are signs that the lethal combination of saturation TV coverage, more non-traditional kick-off times and very high ticket prices means more people must weigh up the real value of committing to live attendance these days."

On comparisons with the Continent, he added: "Football prices are much lower on the Continent usually because stadiums are so much bigger and because of problems filling grounds, or because too much TV coverage has already threatened to damage live attendances.

"Here, the promise was that the new, potentially destabilising, relationship with Sky would be offset by keeping ticket prices low. Instead ,we have gone for local and foreign recruits at huge wages to be funded by rising crowds paying escalating prices. But maybe we are nearing the erosion of this supposed virtuous circle."