The Premiership is on course to lose half a million fans this season, a record year-on-year decline that suggests the bubble has burst for England's top division. After 55 matches, up to and including Sunday, average crowds are down more than four per cent. That equates to an average drop of more than 1,300 fans attending each game.
Total Premiership attendances for 2005-06 are projected at 12.36 million against 12.9 million last season, 13.3 million in 2003-04 and 13.47 million in 2002-03. Last season's average gates were 3.19 per cent down on 2003-04, so a further four per cent drop this year would represent continued decline at an increasing rate.
A combination of factors have been blamed for falling interest, especially the amount and timing of televised games but also high ticket prices, boring games, the "Ashes factor" and a belief that the title will be a one-horse race.
"We've said for years that a combination of price rises way above that of inflation, decreasing competitiveness and messing about with kick-off times would eventually result in the bubble bursting," Malcolm Clarke, the chairman of the Football Supporters' Federation, said yesterday.
"We are now seeing the first signs of that happening. Supporters have had enough of being ripped off. The Premiership is boring. It is no longer competitive. It is all a bit of a turn-off."
Even the Premier League is concerned that 138 live games on TV each season - up from 106 two seasons ago - is hurting live attendances, and will argue as much in its battle with the European Commission over its next TV deal.
Though League crowds at the Premiership's biggest clubs are holding steady, albeit with the help of unprecedented advertising campaigns by the likes of Chelsea, the drop-off in interest is causing concern across the division.
Some 65 per cent of this season's matches have attracted fewer fans than the same fixtures last season. Crowds have dropped in 27 of 42 of these "like for like" games so far, and in many cases massively so.
Blackburn attracted 8,546 fewer fans for the visit of Newcastle on Sunday compared with the corresponding fixture last season. The game last season was played on Boxing Day, but this explains only part of the fall on Sunday. Blackburn have sold 1,000 fewer season tickets this year. Only 3,000 Newcastle fans travelled, instead of the usual 6,000-7,000, with Blackburn believing that many watched live on television instead. "Economics" and "poor home form over several seasons" were also cited as reasons that Blackburn are selling only 64 per cent of their available seats this year.
Another huge drop in a "like for like" game was Middlesbrough's crowd of 28,075 for the visit of Arsenal on 10 September, which was down 5,799 fans from the same fixture in April. Last week's was a live television game, screened at 5.15pm on a Saturday.
"TV is certainly a factor," a Middlesbrough spokesman said. Eight of Boro's first nine home games in the League are live on television. Their first home game at 3pm on a Saturday will not be until New Year's Eve. Boro's season-ticket sales are down 2,000 this year, which may be related to the fact that Sky released its schedule of matches a week before they went on sale.
Charlton are among other clubs with a fall in season-ticket sales, down 1,500 this year. After consultation with fans, their chairman, Richard Murray, has cited scheduling and the "Chelsea factor" as contributory reasons.
Observers as eminent as the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, have argued that the vogue for 4-5-1 formations makes for dull viewing, while statistics show Premiership scoring rates - 110 goals in the first 55 games - at an all-time low.
Clarke believes that high prices are significant. "The Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster said that the introduction of all-seater stadia should not be accompanied by huge price rises," he said, adding that £6 was a reasonable price for a top-flight game in 1990, and that should be about £11 now. Premiership tickets cost up to £45 each.
The Premier League cannot claim, as it did last year, that the loss of "big" clubs and their replacement by smaller clubs is accounting for the drop in attendances. That was true last year when Leeds, Wolves and Leicester were absent, taking with them some 400,000 more ticket sales than Norwich, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich managed in their places.
This year, however, the promoted Sunderland, West Ham and Wigan are on course to bring in more fans combined than the relegated Norwich, Palace and Southampton. "You traditionally see a slow start to the season and then attendances start to pick up," a Premier League spokesman said.
The Premiership is not suffering alone. Tens of thousands of seats were unsold at English grounds for Uefa Cup matches last week. Viewing figures for Chelsea versus Anderlecht in the Champions' League hit an all-time ITV low of 3.7 million viewers. And a lack of fans is nothing new overseas. Juventus had 41,748 unsold tickets for their Serie A game against Lecce on Sunday.