The Irresistible Rise of the Conference League

There’s an old bookshop I like to visit occasionally. It’s got that proper old-bookshop feel; It’s a bit smelly, the floorboards creak and bow under your step and there are lots of tiny rooms just crammed with books.  Maybe it’s just me but somehow I always feel I need to buy something, even if I don’t want anything, if only to demonstrate that I haven’t abused what seems to be the huge amount of trust they place in their customers.

This is how I ended up with a £2.50 copy of the Playfair Non-League Football Annual 1992-93

Flicking through it on the way home though I thought I’d try to at least get my moneys worth out of it, and as it happened there was a few pages of info on one of my favourite subjects average attendances..

1992-93 was also a pivotal moment for English football, with the first Premier League season. If this was a film I’d now cut to a montage beginning with a Premier League crest, footage of huge new stadia being constructed, Eric Cantona doing that strutting goal celebration of his, a shower of banknotes, Posh and Becks posing for an army of photographers, fans gleefully gulping down prawn sandwiches, a huge crowd bobbing up and down on their way to a match.. you get the idea. But what about the non-league game, how has it fared in comparison?

Better than League One? Attendance Growth in the Conference

The answer – based on data from the Playfair Annual and the European Football Statistics website – is quite well, at least for the Conference Premier. Not quite as well as the Premier League whose average attendance has grown by 61% from 21 622 in 91/92  to 34 821 13/14, or even the Championship where the average attendance over the same period went from 10 525 to 16 609, a rise of 57.8%, but better than League One where attendance rose 37.9% from 5423 to 7476, or League Two where it increased from 3393 to 4351, some 28.2%. In fact between 91/92 and 13/14 the average attendance figure for the Conference increased from  1214 to 1866, representing a rise of 53.7%

%change av att

Below the Conference Premier it is tricky to make comparisons over time thanks to the re-jigging of the pyramid structure. In 2004 the Conference North and Conference South were established. What I’ve done in the chart is to combine the average for the three leagues which made up  the two divisions: the Northern Premier, Southern Premier and Isthmian Premier to give a figure for 91/92 and then compared this to a combined average of the Conference North and Conference South for 2013/14. Overall this shows that at this comparable level overall average attendance rose from 473 to 541, just 14.4%. Looking at the chart we can see just how uneven the substantial growth in attendances since 91/92 has been. The highest levels of growth are concentrated at the top, and generally diminish in proportion as you go down the leagues. The one big exception to this is the Conference which pokes out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Decades of growth:

Using the European Football Statistics data I’ve plotted average attendance in the conference, beginning with it’s first season in 1979/80.

Conference attendance graph

Mirroring the football league in general attendances in the Conference showed a decline until the mid-to-late 1980s before embarking on a long period of growth. In 1987  the Conference also received the boost of  having it’s champions promoted to the previously closed-shop of the football league (pending ground grading), which appears to coincide with a growth spurt. All attendances are cyclical to an extent (caused by promotion and relegations), and this appears to be so with the Conference, but the underlying trend is clear, one of steady and sustained growth.

More Unequal on the Terraces = More Equal on the pitch?

One question, of course, is how evenly spread out has this attendance growth been within the Conference itself? Looking at the bottom of the average attendance ranking for 91/92 we find Gateshead with an average of 401. In 13/14 the lowest ranked club Hyde achieved an average attendance figure of 689, so all along the range clubs have seen some growth. Looking t the very top however, we can see the gains have been much bigger. In 91/92 Wycombe Wanderers topped the chart with 3606. Moving to 13/14 though top-club Luton Town pulled in, on average, a crowd of 7388.The effect of this has been to make the Conference more unequal in terms of attendances; In 91/92 the coefficient of variation (the standard deviation as a percentage of the average) was 69%, but this rose to 75.6% in 13/14. Paradoxically though on the pitch the league in 13/14 was, in overall terms, more closely run. If we take the standard deviation of wins and convert this to a coefficient of variation this falls from 35.6% in 91/92 to 31.9% in 13/14. Of course it needs to be stated that we’re just taking two snapshots here, but it’s interesting that despite attendances being more unequal in 13/14 than 91/92 this was not reflected with a growth in inequality on the pitch.

But what about the rest of the Non League Game?

As mentioned, it can be difficult to track attendance trends below the Conference as leagues over time are not always comparable due to changes in the pyramid structure. To compare the leagues immediately below the Conference with the 91/92 figures we have to combine the three leagues which were converted into the Conference North and Conference South. This isn’t perfect, but it at least gives us a broadly comparable figure. This figure, 473 compares to a combined Conference North/South average for 13/14 of 541. Though this represents a rise of 14.4% it masks some variation. Notably the average Conference south in attendance for 13/14  of 446 compares unfavourably to the two primarily southern based leagues the Isthmian Premier and the Southern Premier which had average attendances of  512 and 558 respectively in 91/92. The current Conference North on the other hand has an average attendance for 13/14 of 635 which is rather improved on the 349 achieved by the Northern Premier in 91/92.

 

north & south

 

This raises some important questions for the non-league game below the Conference: Is it simply that in the South the Conference South is a poor replacement for the Isthmian and Southern Leagues? One issue in particular is that the Isthmian and Southern Leagues operated over a smaller geographic area which was better for local derbies, travelling fans and therefore attendances. As for the Conference North this figure can be seen to have been boosted by the falling-from-grace of former league clubs, including Stockport County and Halifax which perhaps inflates the figure. a more fundamental question though is whether non-league football below the Conference Premier has missed out on the growth in popularity of football over the past couple of decades.

 

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