Is non-league dying?

1.34 am and despite my better judgement telling me to go to bed I’m somehow still surfing the web. It seems I’ve got a question which urgently needs answering; namely what was the name of that band that did that song – the one that has that cool muted riff? Oh yeah,  The Breeders, and they had that one from the Pixies didn’t they? Thanks Wikipedia. Maybe I’ll just have a quick look at the video, oh and while I’m at it is there any new news on the Guardian, and what’s been going on on the Conference South Forum…. and so it was all bleary eyed I first came across the question, perched atop a conversation thread; Is non-league dying? Now, if there is one thing football fans tend to do it is to make sweeping statements – see I did it myself there – without necessarily basing their views on the most robust evidence base. So I decided to see if there is any evidence supporting the demise of the non-league game.

Is non-league dying?

There could be a number of ways we approach this question – to begin with what is non-league? It is generally regarded as anything below the football-league – hence non-league (not, as my younger self once believed that the teams didn’t play in leagues), but what is and isn’t non-league is not necessarily straightforward; does it for instance mean all football below league two, or does it just mean the seven steps below, or can we go right down to Sunday League football? In this case it seems what we are interested in is what the thread was referring to, namely the first few steps below League Two where clubs can expect to play in their own grounds and attract spectators in double figures.

A second issue is by which criteria is the health of non-league football to be assessed? Is this to be by referring to the financial footing of clubs, the number of spectators showing up to games, number of sponsors, or is it something more intangible like the oft-quoted ‘spirit’ of non-league – can we for instance say that this is at threat from professionalism, or is it flourishing? To assess the health of non-league we need to make a normative choice here about the ideals for ‘healthy’ non-league football – far from straightforward, but I’ve decided here, for the sake of simplicity that I will focus on attendances mainly as I don’t have the time, or other resources needed to do a complex in-depth piece of research. Also what the original thread was getting at was that due, in part, to the recession non-league attendances are falling and this is having a negative impact on clubs and the non-league game as a whole.

The Data

To do this analysis I’ve managed to obtain  some historic data for a number of leagues below league two from the 2004/5 season. The data come from the late Tony Kempster’s site which is a real veritable gold-mine of non-league data – All except the data for the years 2009/10 and 2010/11 which is obtained from Mike Avery’s site – and itself links to Tony Kempster’s. I have searched for data for 20011/12 however this is not available on a league-by-league basis. Where possible I have cross-referenced the data with other sources and it seems broadly speaking reliable, however, it is worth noting that non-league attendance figures are particularly hard to obtain and therefore it is difficult to cross-reference them – unless using old programmes, or approaching individual clubs. There was an issue with the premier league attendance figure for 2010/11 quoted by Mike Avery which seems to be an typo and this has been corrected.

League and Non-league attendances – 2004/05 to 2010/11

To enable an easy visual comparison I have indexed the data setting the 2004/05 season as the base year; This will show at what rate attendances have grown, or declined relative to that each particular league. Before looking at the non league figures I have decided to look at the three divisions of the football league in addition to the Premier league.

The graph shows that the four divisions have had mixed fortunes. For the Premier League and the Championship the period has been one of virtual stagnation. From 2004/05 to 2010/11 average crowds in the Premiership – football’s flagship division were up by just under 4% whilst for the Championship the average crowd was virtually the same at the end of the period as the beginning. League One shows a sharp spike in 2009/10 – possibly the result of the entrance of three relatively big clubs; Norwich, Southampton, Charlton. League One finished the period with average attendances some 3% lower. League Two is the worst performing of the group with average attendances sliding by just over 7%

So how do non league average attendances compare over the same period? If we take steps one and two of the pyramid we get this graph:

For the Conference  rather than mirroring the decline of League Two the picture seems to be the same as the Premier League and the Championship – one of stagnation with a league average attendance figure being very similar at the beginning and end of the period. Like League One the Conference North spikes in 2007/08, but the figure soon reverts back and again there is barely any distinguishable difference at the end of the period – around a 2.5% increase in total. The Conference South on the other hand seems to have, more than any other division so far, done particularly well with the league average attendance growing by just under a quarter for the period – not so much dying as thriving.

But what if we go down another level? Here we see three leagues at step three; The Northern Premier, Southern Premier and Isthman Premier:

These leagues present a very mixed picture. Starting with the Isthman Premier which sees a bulge followed by a sharp decline in its average league attendance. The reason for this is what I have elsewhere termed the Wimbledon effect – wherby a club with a much bigger following than can be expected for the division passes through and distorts the avearage attendance figures. AFC Wimbledon themselves were present in the Ryman Premier for three seasons, between 2005/06 and 2001/08 and undoubtedly their high attendance figures are responsible for most of the increase. Saying that however, following the inevitable fallback once Wimbledon achieved promotion the league average was still up by 9% over the period.

The Northern premier claims the title as the most successful league in the analysis with it’s league average increasing by a huge 79% over the period in question.On the other hand the Southern Premier’s league average attendance has steadily declined over the same time – dropping by 19.5% making it the worst performing league.

Further down the pyramid it is harder to analyse trends over time, due mainly to league re-organisations, which make data on individual leagues almost meaningless, so it is hard to make any comment on trends in these divisions, but from what we can see is that for at least the period 2004 to 2011 which includes a period affected by the economic crisis average attendances, at steps one two and three, were only in decline in one case out of six, whilst in two cases, the Conference South and the Northern Premier League league average attendances had consistently been growing. In fact for these two divisions outperformed divisions which make up the Football League and Premier League, which appeared themselves to be in either a state of stagnation, or decline.



  1. I think non-league will be around forever.

    As a phenomena, it’s a much more organic one than the leagues above. In fact, I fear more for the Football League’s existence, particularly if the Premier League, one day, expands to create a PL1 and a PL2, which is something that has been rumoured.

  2. @ Dave Wood – Yes, I agree. I’m convinced that there will be a major re-organisation within a decade whether it’s PL1 and PL2, or even a European Super league. I think the stats show too that at present League two is heading for some real trouble in terms of declining attendances so it’s questionable whether it is sustainable in it’s current format as these clubs must rely more than any others on matchday revenue.

    @ The First Man – great point. I’ve been rather Southern-Centric (in my defence I’m on the south coast) and referred to the ‘Wimbledon effect’, but it could just as easily be called the ‘FC United effect’. I could have used median attendances though these would also to a degree – though much less so – be inflated by large numbers of away fans from one, or two big clubs.

    I think that the question of what it means for the health of non-league probably depends on your viewpoint – are big-fish clubs like AFCW, or FCUM good for non-league in terms of getting people watching NL and generating higher gate-receipts, or do you see them as damaging, and having little long term benefit to the leagues they pass through – as in the case of the Ryman league once AFCW achieved promotion attendances reverted back, albeit around 10% up on 5 years previously.

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