Ground debate: League One – between a rock and a hard place

WITH Sunderland now in League One, attendances in the third tier of English football are enjoying a revival, with the average above 8,000 for the first time since 2009-10 when Leeds United, Norwich City and Southampton were all in the division.

Sunderland’s Stadium of Light is averaging almost 30,000 this season – some 12,000 more than Portsmouth, another famous old name that has seen better days.

League One is a division divided between the aspirational and those clubs that are desperately clinging onto their status. Half the division’s clubs are owners of their home grounds, giving them the potential to capitalise on property prices and relocate to an out-of-town site. Despite the resistence this often brings, people are increasingly recognising the benefits a new stadium can bring.

Among those that are keen to move from inner-city locations are Luton Town, a club that has, for decades, wanted to leave the very limited Kenilworth Road for a site that offers greater potential in terms of revenue generation. Luton’s ground, like others in the division, is council-owned.

Some clubs in the division have already bitten the bullet and left rusting floodlights behind – Sunderland is case in point, leaving their traditional Roker Park for their current home as long ago as 1997. Coventry City departed Highfield Road for the Ricoh in 2005, although this has been a move that has been plagued with controversy and intrigue.

Other clubs that have moved in recent times include Burton Albion, Doncaster Rovers, Oxford United, Scunthorpe United, Shrewsbury Town, Walsall and Wycombe Wanderers. Others have expressed an interest in relocation, such as Portsmouth and Southend United.

Elsewhere, there is also a strong desire among other clubs to redevelop their existing sites, creating grounds that can open-up fresh revenue streams. Charlton Athletic’s Valley Stadium, which was once the biggest ground in England, now has a capacity of 27,000 but there has been talk of scaling-up to beyond 30,000. At present, Charlton average around 11,000 people at their home games.

League One games don’t necessarily need a ground that holds 20,000 or even 15,000 given current attendance levels. The important aspect is having the potential to attract bigger crowds but in truth, only a handful of clubs – Sunderland, Portsmouth, Coventry – are clearly in this category, although the trend at Bradford City is very positive. Valley Parade is currently drawing crowds of 16,000-plus, slightly down on the past few seasons, but the trajectory has been very positive with crowds rising from 10,000 in 2013 to almost 20,000 in 2017-18. Whether the future of the club will be in Manningham or a rejuvenated Odsal, a topic that re-emerges every few years, remains to be seen.

League One always has a few clubs that can attract decent crowds, but it also has its minnows. Accrington Stanley’s Crown Ground, with a capacity of little over 5,000 is one of the smallest stadiums in the division and it is seldom more than 50% full. Fleetwood’s Highbury, neat it may be, has a capacity of just 5,300 and a utilisation rate of more than. 60%. Overall, League One has a stadium utilisation rate of 55%.

On Boxing Day 2018, Sunderland will host Bradford City before a crowd expected to be the biggest third tier attendance for almost 40 years. It is anticipated the gate will exceed the 49,309 that saw the Sheffield Derby in 1979 in the old third division. Sunderland are in the promotion race, which proves that fans will turn out for a winning team, regardless of their current status. In this case, the club’s fans certainly see League One as a stepping stone back.

Photo: Along time ago CC-BY-2.0 Via Flickr

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