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While average attendances in the English divisions below the top tier are unrivalled in Europe, an increase this season in the number of games broadcast live has had a swift impact

21 January ~ While there were more surprise scores than usual to talk about, the international media coverage of Christmas fixtures in England this year did not focus exclusively on the Premier League. The Boxing Day fixture at the Stadium of Light also generated plenty of interest, even incredulity. Sunderland’s 1-0 win over Bradford City on that day was watched by 46,039. It was the largest crowd in the third tier since 49,309 saw the Sheffield derby at Hillsborough on Boxing Day, 1979, a 4-0 defeat for the then league-leaders United. That match is a record for the third level since it became a national division in 1958, although Hull and Cardiff each drew a bigger gate once in the Third Divisions North and South in the late 1940s.

Sunderland’s presence in League One for only the second time in their history is sure to push up the average attendance this year. They were even the fourth best supported team in the Championship in 2017-18 despite what was arguably their worst ever season with only seven wins in 46 games. The year before, when Sunderland were experiencing the first of two successive relegations, the Championship drew a total attendance of just over 11 million. This made it the third most watched league in Europe according to a UEFA statistical report, behind only the Premier League and Bundesliga.

The total figures for European leagues in 2017-18 have not yet been released by UEFA but the Championship is unlikely to have slipped from its previous position. The average crowd last season, 20,489, was the highest since 1953-54, which is generally seen as marking the end of the post-war attendance boom across English football as a whole. This season’s figure for the most unpredictable of the League’s divisions is nonetheless expected to drop. For the first time, all eight rounds of Championship matches on Tuesdays and Wednesdays are being broadcast live by Sky and there has been a noticeable year-on-year decrease in midweek gates. The fact that no extra payments are being made for the extra live games is one of several reasons why Championship club officials have convened lately to share their misgivings about TV coverage. 

This has led to renewed calls for a “Premier League 2” (as covered in WSC 381) and an attempt to delay the signing of the next deal, worth £595 million over five years from 2019-20, ahead of its formal completion on November 19. As well as being dwarfed by the Premier League’s upcoming contract (which will be £4.5 billion over three years), the League’s deal includes a hotly disputed provision for “red button” live coverage of all its matches not scheduled for 3pm on a Saturday. The drop in gates for Championship midweek games in 2018-19 does not augur well for the effect this will have for all the League’s divisions from next season.

That such an arrangement was agreed supports the claim made by dissenting club chairmen that the League’s commercial negotiators don’t understand the principal appeal of their own product, and believe that it needs to be marketed in exactly the same way as the Premier League. Football below the top level will always be best experienced as a live event in which spectators can still feel like participants rather than simply consumers. The top divisions in Spain, Italy and France have all sold their next domestic broadcasting packages for far more than the EFL (between £500m and £890m annually over three or four years). These leagues feature global stars with all the attendant commercial brand value yet still draw smaller crowds than the Championship, principally because public interest is largely directed towards a handful of clubs. By contrast this season’s Championship contains ten former English champions (the Premier League has 12) and its record as the only second division to have staged games between two former European Cup winners, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa, is never likely to be matched.

Despite the unrelenting barrage of hype surrounding the Premier League, a huge number of people still turn out to watch live matches lower down, including semi-professional football – a total of 35 clubs below League level averaged gates of over 1,000 last season. Clubs’ efforts to maintain this support are undermined when their fixtures are treated as an adjustable component of TV schedules. The longer that goes on the more damage will be done to the game’s health.

This article first appeared in WSC 383, February 2019. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here

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