There’s no other sporting leagues in the world quite like those in English club football


There are many reasons why people around the world support English club football and especially in Australia, where the recent struggle for higher A-League crowds is perhaps obstructed by the many choosing to pay a subscription to watch the English Premier League.

While America’s National Football League (NFL) leads the world in terms of average crowd attendance (69,500 in 2023) and annual revenue ($US12 billion in 2022), with 67 players in 2023 earning a staggering $US20+ million per season, it’s the four major tiers of English club football which remains the greatest national sporting league in terms of history, depth of professional teams, passion, support and interest.

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah celebrates a goal. (Photo by Str/Xinhua via Getty Images

I argue this in full acknowledgement of the various problems faced by English club football in recent decades, which required some policy response (as I shall later explain).

First, with the Football Association (FA) codifying rules in 1863 to provide a gentler and more skilful alternative to rugby union, English club football soon emerged as one of the world’s first professional sporting leagues, alongside American baseball.

With clubs from Lancashire charging admission to spectators from the early 1870s despite the FA’s amateurism rule, such clubs attracted highly skilled working-class players (including many from Scotland) with compensation paid for lost working hours and injury.

When professional English football was formally legalised in 1885 the number of English football clubs and size of crowds quickly exploded. After the first final of the FA Cup (1871-72) hosted just 2,000 spectators, crowds of 42,500 to 110,800 attended various finals played at Crystal Palace from 1894-95 to 1900-01.

Although the first year of English club championship football in 1888-1889 had just 12 teams and an average crowd of 4,600, it quickly expanded to two divisions of 16 and 12 teams by 1892-1893 with the 18-team first division attracting average crowds above 10,000 for the first time, led by Aston Villa who averaged 23,000.

The popularity of English football further exploded in the early 20th century with three divisions of 22 teams each by 1920-21, with division crowd averages of 29,000, 16,700 and 10,600. The third division was separated into ‘north’ and ‘south’ to split 42 teams in the 1921-22 season, before a third and fourth division was established for the 1959-60 season with 24 teams each.

Wolverhampton’s Mario Lemina celebrates after scoring. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

By the 1948-49 season, with England (and Wales) having a combined population of around 42 million, the first division (22 teams) attracted a record crowd average of 37,792, the second division (22 teams) 24,528 and the third tier (north and south divisions with 44 teams) 12,977.

At the time, English club football attracted crowds that dwarfed those of any other national football league.
For example, German football in 1950-51, despite Bundesliga 1 achieving a crowd average over 40,000 for most years since 2005-06, only had five teams with a crowd average above 20,000 (Schalke highest with 26,000). German football crowds only really took off after 1963-64, the first year of the Bundesliga, then again from the late 1990s after an average crowd of 27,500 in its first season.

Even America’s NFL, today with the highest crowd average of all national sporting leagues, only had a crowd average of 31,500 in 1946 (then a record) before increasing greatly from the 1960s to break 60,000 for the first time in 1981.

As the growth of any national sporting league can never be taken for granted, so the FA and UK government have adopted measures in recent decades to address problematic issues.

With the increase in hooliganism resulting in 6,185 football-related arrests in the 1988-89 season, average crowds for England’s four tiers of football plummeted to 19,300, 7,688, 4,512 and 2,551 during the late 80s. In response, the UK government introduced the ‘Football Spectators Act 1989’ which could bar troublemakers from stadiums for up to 10 years.

Sam Kerr of Chelsea celebrates with the Women’s FA Cup trophy after beating Manchester United. (Photo by Harriet Lander – Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

As a result, through increased CCTV use, greater police presence and greater cooperation between police, football intelligence officers and other security authorities, the number of incidents reduced to 1,381 arrests in the 2018/19 season despite rising attendances (although the post-covid 2021-22 season had 2,198 arrests).

Another issue of concern involves the increasing dominance of foreign players in English football, with 2023 data indicating 386 of the 567 players on Premier League rosters were non-English, and 340 of 658 players in the Championship. It’s worth noting though, 188 of ‘foreign born’ in the two highest tiers came from Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where players have long been involved with English clubs.

Despite the FA adopting tougher transfer rules for clubs to acquire foreign players since Brexit, the number of English players starting in Premier League matches reached a new low of 28% for two weekends during February and March 2023, this in stark contrast to just 13 foreign players who’d started in the opening weekend of the first Premier League season (1992-93). This recent low English representation led to national team manager Gareth Southgate raising concerns about the impact on his team’s player development.

England Manager Gareth Southgate. (Photo by Carl Recine – Pool/Getty Images)

Taking account of such concern, as well as top Premier League clubs needing access to the best available talent to match it with their European club rivals, the FA and UK government now allow Premier League and lower-league clubs to sign more overseas players at one time (4 for the Premier League and Championship and 2 for Leagues One and Two), in exchange for English players being on the ground for 35% of total playing minutes.

There’s ongoing concern about the net debt of Premier League and Championship clubs, which reached £5.9 billion during the 2020/21 season. The FA’s recent profit and sustainability rules limits each club to a financial loss threshold over a three-year monitoring period, but the Premier League is currently considering UEFA’s ‘squad cost ratio’ approach, which means a club’s total expenditure spent on transfers, wages and agent fees cannot exceed 70% of revenue.

Bu despite these difficulties, English club football remains at the pinnacle of club football.

In 2022-23 Premier League crowds exceeded a 40,000 average for the first time, the Championship averaged 18,600 (only exceeded three times since 1960), League One averaged 10,600 (the highest since 1959-1960), and League Two achieved its best average since the 1960s with 5,800.

Further, the fifth tier National League (formed in 1979), attracted a 2,700 crowd average in 2022-23 with three of its 24 clubs at around 6,000 or higher.

Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds, owners of Wrexham, celebrate with the Vanarama National League trophy. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

England’s recent support of female football is also illustrated by a super league (12 teams) which attracted an average crowd of 5,387 in 2022-23 led by Arsenal and Manchester United with 15,000 and 10,000.

In addition to 40% of the UK’s 67 million people watching Premier League matches in 2020-21, the top tier is broadcast in most countries and an estimated 1.4 billion people around the world identify as fans (including 300 million Chinese and 147 million Indians).

With the Premier League signing a six-year broadcast deal in China in 2019 worth around £564 million, and America’s NBC network paying $US2.7 billion over six years from 2022 to televise matches, the English Premier League is currently supported by broadcasting revenue of over £10 billion for the 2022-2025 period, with more revenue coming from foreign sources than domestic ones.

English football recently signed a new domestic broadcasting deal worth £6.7 billion for the Premier League from the 2025/26 season until 2028/29, while the three lower tiers have accepted a record £935 million deal from 2024/25 to 2028-29.

As a result, while the top 30 highest paid Premier League players currently earn a weekly wage ranging from £195,000 to £400,000, many British and foreign players are likely to benefit for some time yet.

The five tiers of English football presently deliver average weekly wages of £60,000 (Premier League), £7,000 (Championship), £5,000 (League One), £2,500 (League Two), and £1,000 – £1,500 (National League).

Shaped by its history, ongoing passion and more recent policy response, there is no other national sporting league quite like the English football club system, which rightly stands alone as as the world’s most popular.

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