English Football Pyramid: Why It Must Shrink for the Benefit of the Game

Mike MillerContributor IIIApril 18, 2013

PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND - MARCH 23:  David Connolly of Portsmouth tackles John Fleck of Coventry City during the npower League One match between Portsmouth and Coventry City at Fratton Park on March 23, 2013 in Portsmouth, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

At the top of the English Football Pyramid, the health of the game couldn't be better. 

Premier League attendance has never been higher. The average attendance for a Premier League match is 35,885, which would be the highest ever, according to Sean Ingle of The Guardian. Seat-occupancy rates are around 95-percent of capacity.

Only two clubs, Wigan Athletic and Queens Park Rangers, have average attendances under 20,000. QPR can't be faulted for that, since Loftus Road is the Premier League's smallest stadium, with a capacity of just 18,439.

The Premier League has wrapped up television contracts worldwide that will bring in £5 billion. The champions of the top flight will likely earn £100 million in revenue, according to Owen Gibson of The Guardian.

But under the Premier League, there are signs of trouble—especially in League One and League Two.

Three League One clubs, Bury, Coventry City and Portsmouth, have all faced major financial difficulties this season. 

Bury, which is averaging just 2,763 fans at 11,669-seat Gigg Lane, recently posted a plea for additional investment of £1 million in order for the club to survive. Such funding will now probably be even harder to obtain, considering Bury have already been condemned to relegation to League Two.

Portsmouth are continuing their free-fall from the Premier League, and this week also clinched relegation into League Two for next season. Pompey have now been relegated in three of the past four seasons. Last month, a supporters' trust finally took control of the club from the administrators, hopefully stopping the downward spiral.

Coventry City have recently been put into administration for failure to pay £1.3 million worth of rent at the Ricoh Arena. Their 10-point deduction has ended any hope of the Sky Blues making the promotion playoffs for a chance to play in the Championship next season.

In 2010, the average attendance in League One was 9,144. This season, that number has plunged to 6,249, the lowest number since 1997. Half of League One's 24 teams fail to draw 5,000 fans a match.

The numbers are steadier in League Two, but that doesn't mean fans are turning out in droves.

Average attendance in League Two this season is 4,295, which is fairly consistent with previous seasons. But only eight of the 24 clubs average over 5,000 fans a night, and three clubs, Morecambe, Dagenham & Redbridge and Accrington Stanley, average less than 2,000 fans per match.

English football has 116 professional and semi-professional teams in its top five levels, the Premier League, Championship, League One, League Two and Conference National (Blue Square Premier). That's not even counting all of the regional leagues, which dip down another six levels of the pyramid, or all of the recreational and amateur teams that fall below further below that.

For a country of 53 million people (according to the 2011 census) that is just over 50,000 square miles—slightly less than the U.S. state of Louisiana—that number is just too high. 

With more and more attention focused on the top tier, it's time for the lower leagues to adapt in order to survive.

A lot of the problems in lower-league football could be solved by simply reducing the number of teams in each division.

The Championship, League One, League Two and the Conference all have 24 teams in each level. These levels should reduce their number to 20 teams like the Premier League.

Reducing each league to 20 teams would have a number of positive effects. Each team would only be required to play 38 matches instead of 46. While the loss of four home dates each season would result in a loss of gate revenue, it would increase each division's share of television revenue, as the revenue would only be split 20 ways instead of 24.

The lost dates would be games that are played mid-week, which are traditionally not as well-attended as games on the weekend. With fewer games crammed into the schedule, the quality of football should improve as players are less fatigued.

Each team would also be able to play with a smaller roster, as the schedule would be less of a grind. Despite their financial difficulties, Bury have 27 players on their books, and Coventry City have 32.

The trickle-down effect of forcing teams down the ladder would strengthen the lower leagues. The top team in the conference would be the 81st-best team on the ladder instead of the 93rd. Considering that more than half of the teams in the Conference average less than 2,000 fans, a move into the regional leagues would be more appropriate given their level of support. 

It would take a couple of years for the reduction of teams to take full effect. The leagues would each drop to 22 in the first season by promoting one less team and relegating one more. The Championship would relegate four instead of three, and League One would only promote two instead of three. League One would relegate five instead of four, while League Two only promotes three, etc. Relegation and promotion would go back to normal when the league reaches 20.

While it might bit of a blow to the ego for some clubs to play at a level below what they are accustomed to, it will ultimately benefit them in the long run. Not every club can be Manchester United or Chelsea, and nor should they try to be.