More is more

Contrary to the beliefs of the Phoenix League "reformers", Roger Titford argues that other European countries are moving towards the structure of our League

We dullards who are forever against wonderful in­novations like the Phoenix League are often en­couraged to look abroad and draw inspiration from the Continent. There, it is said, we will find more rational and streamlined ways to organise football leagues, which are not dragged back by the need to maintain an unwieldy four national divisions of professional clubs. The debate of late seems to be led by issues about div­iding up TV money. The more fundamental question should be about league structures.

To bring some facts to bear on the subject, we com­piled some simple statistics from our four comparable, well-populated footballing neighbours: Italy, Germany, France and Spain. Such cross-country comparisons can never cover all of the complexities of the structure in each country, but some general conclusions can safely be drawn.

We looked to answer two basic questions: how does England (including the three Welsh Nationwide clubs for these purposes) compare with our European neighbours on the number of professional football clubs; and how are their Leagues organised on a national/ regional basis?

Table One shows the number of professional clubs in each country and the divisional structure (first level in England being the Premiership). In absolute terms we have more clubs than any other country; nowhere else has a fully professional fourth level. The picture becomes more dramatic when the number of clubs is compared, first to the population – England has twice as many professional clubs per person as Germany – and second by each country’s geographical area.

There are about three times more clubs per square kilometre in England than the European average. There­fore, one might easily suggest, we have too many clubs to support.

Table Two, however, shows a quite different story. In absolute numbers, at every level of the League, average attendances in England are larger than all our neighbours. When the relative size of population is taken into account (fans per million of population) only Spain comes close in attendance strength and only for the top two levels. Our Second Division (level three) is equivalent in popularity of most countries’ level two. Over a ten-year period, crowds in every English division have risen by at least 25 per cent. So, far from the idea of the English game “spreading itself too thinly”, we see that our strength in depth does in­deed make our game stronger. If anything, it seems that the more pro­fessional clubs any country can sustain, the strong­er the game.

There are two other factors worth considering. Only English football has a sizeable national team sport competing for public attention (the two rugby codes) which means our strength is further against the odds. Second, and rather surprisingly, we are less likely to be watching football on TV than our European neighbours. Figures from the TGI survey (a consumer re­search study) published by BMRB International show that only 30 per cent of English adults like to watch football on TV compared with 35 per cent in France, 39 per cent in Spain, 44 per cent in Germany and 50 per cent in Italy. The comparison with Italy is particularly telling: is this the way the modernisers want the Eng­lish game to go?

Whenever changes in League structure are mooted, the question of regionalisation is never far behind. This ought by now to be a complete red herring but some pundits and those with over-fond memories of the Third Division (North) still insist on chasing it. Bas­ketball, ice hockey and women’s football would all kill for the crowds that our Second and Third Divisions get (as would our Continental counterparts) but that doesn’t stop them organising on a national basis. The Conference has been national for 20 years, during which time its credibility and its gates have increased. Because England is a relatively small, densely pop­ulated country, it is particularly suited to a national structure. The travel savings of regional football would not amount to one month’s wages for one player.

It is worth noting the trend in other countries. France have recently introduced a national third level as part of strengthening club football (which sees Calais travelling to play Pau in the deep south-west). In Germany, there will soon be a vote on “nationalising” the two regional leagues (third level) which, if it is pas­sed, will be a further step towards a structure that looks like the English model. The 36 clubs in the two regional leagues (North and South) are professional in all but name. Some, like Eintracht Braunschweig and Rot-Weiss Essen, are former national champions with strong support bases.

The third level in Italy, Serie C1, has existed for many years with a regional north/south split and below that a more regionalised semi-pro Serie C2. In Spain, below the second level the structure splutters out into a series of complex and often obscure regional semi-pro leagues into which teams can disappear never to return. Where there is movement in Europe on this issue it is towards national, not regional, professional football, despite the much greater distances involved than in England.

The motivating forces behind the Phoenix League seem to be a few chairmen of ex-Premier League clubs whose business plans are not quite working out. There is, at present, a huge money gulf between the Premier League and the First Division but it is not true to say that clubs that go up must come straight back down. The pressures on the next TV deal are likely to be towards fragmentation and a lower fee. Sacrificing the status of national, full-time professional football in many English towns and cities to bridge this possibly short-term gap would be a selfish move born of desperation rather than a clear-eyed look at the wider picture.

In England, more people go to more matches at more professional clubs in more divisions than in any other European country. It is time that football ack­nowledged this as a strength, understood what the causes of its success are and openly debated plans to sustain it.

From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month