FOOTBALL is full of financial imbalances and the gap between the Premier and, for example, League Two is painfully vast. The gulf is so substantial that there is an argument for shifting the bottom two division of the English Football League to part-time status. However, the emotional pull of the game is such that this is unlikely to happen in the near future. Supporters of clubs at the lowest end of the structure are just as passionate as fans of Manchester United and City.
The growth in English football has mostly been at the top end, with Premier League attendances rising some 82% since 1992-93. Similarly, the Championship has seen gates increase by 93%. Compare that to the 24% growth of League One and 35% in League Two in that same period and it is clear that football’s new audience is gravitating towards the high profile, heavily marketed, end of the industry.
This is further evidenced as you go down the ladder – in the past 10 years, attendances at non-league step 3, often considered the very essence of the game outside of the Football League, have remained unchanged, confirming that this level still faces challenges in terms of winning support.
In an era when new stadiums have helped redefine some clubs, making them more community accessible and enabling them to generate more income from their facilities, it is perhaps surprising that fewer than half a dozen League Two clubs are playing in recently-built grounds: Colchester, Forest Green, MK Dons, Morecambe and Northampton. That said, there is no shortage of clubs that aspire to relocate to a new site. Clubs like Bury, Carlisle United, Grimsby Town, Lincoln City and Macclesfield Town have all looked at the possibility of moving. Those that own their own home are in a better position than those at the mercy of their landlords. Clubs like Bury and Carlisle, with stadiums found in the middle of heavy residential areas, are arguably sitting on prime redevelopment land.
Finding that happy compromise of space and accessibility is a challenge for any club, though. Most new grounds are not centrally-based, for obvious reasons. When most traditional stadiums were built (Bury have been at Gigg Lane since the era of gas lamp and horse-drawn transport), the pressure on inner-city traffic just wasn’t an issue. Although people complain that out-of-town means out-of-sight, very few people walk to games these days as the demographic and use of the inner-city has completely changed.
At League Two level, of the current 24 clubs, 11 have been at their current homes for over a century, with Bury leading the way with 133 years and Lincoln in residence at Sincil Bank since 1895. While many fans dread the thought of moving from the comfort blanket of their ancestral home, there has also been a shift in sentiment that relocation can bring many benefits – fans of West Ham United might not agree with that view, but conversely, the impressive structures at Manchester City and Arsenal have created eye-catching stadiums that combine function with form. Tottenham’s regulars probably cannot wait to move into the new White Hart Lane.
Certainly there are some homely grounds in League Two, but many are limited in terms of their potential for expansion and with some clubs owning sites that are ripe for building – solving space issues as well as financial problems – the temptation to call in the developer must be huge.
Currently, the stadium utilisation levels among League Two clubs is around 43%. Last season, Lincoln generated 86.8% and Luton Town 83.9%, but at the opposite end, Morecambe’s Globe Arena was just 23% full at most games. Compare these figures with the near-capacity utilisation level of the Premier and it is easy to see where future trends are heading.
Grounds like Crewe’s Gresty Road, Notts County’s Meadow Lane and Carlisle’s Brunton Park are steeped in the history and folklore of the game in Britain. But is their time coming to an end? For decades, these football homes have also provided landmarks in their respective towns, not least because of the floodlights that can be spotted for miles and provide a marker of a sort. But as we have seen at places like Forest Green and Dartford, where ecology is making a stand (no pun), football is changing. The question can clubs avoid being over-sentimental and acquire the appetite for change in order to ensure long-term survival?