THE NEW YEAR DAY clash between FC Halifax Town and FC United of Manchester (pic) has gone down in the record books as the largest Evo-Stik League crowd of the season and this may be an encouraging omen for non league football finacially.
Both teams have been traditionally well supported and head the attendance charts in the division, nonetheless it is an incredible gate at this level of football.
4023 fans packed into The Shay to witness the home side run out 4-1 winners, with over 900 FC United fans making the trip across the Pennines. The Shay crowd was the second highest in the Non-League pyramid (Luton drew nearly 7000 to their game against Rushden and Diamonds), as well as being larger than the attendance for 13 Football League clashes, including Hartlepool's clash with Oldham in League One.
At the other end of the spectrum, armchair fans couldn't help but notice the swathes of empty seats at St Andrews for the TV game against Arsenal. But they may be an exception with just over 80% capacity taken so far at Birmingham's ground this season. Twelve of the twenty Premier League clubs have crowds in excess of 90% capacity so far, with only Wigan (63%), Blackburn (76% ), Sunderland (77% ), Bolton (79% ) and Aston Villa (79%) having average gates below 80% capacity as we move into 2011.
Worrying signs elsewhere
The more worrying signs are in the Football League. In the Championship, only Hull, Norwich and Cardiff have average gates of more than 80% of capacity - and Middlesborough has been below 50% average capacity.all season.
In Leagues 1 and 2 the picture is bleaker. Only League leaders Brighton (shoe-horned into the Withdean) has an average gate over 80% capacity (would be higher still but for unused away capacity). Of the other 23 clubs, 16 are running with average gates under 50% capacity, with six clubs under 40%.
The picture is no better in League 2 with only Oxford, Burton, Chesterfield, Northampton and Shrewsbury over 50% full. Morecambe despite the new Globe Arena have only been pulling in enough fans to fill 38% of the ground and Hereford is the only club in the league below 30% full so far this season.
At the top end of the game - quality and the spectacle of Premier League football suggests current ticket prices are sustainable for most clubs, and in the non-league where you can watch a game for as little as £7 or £8, price is a big plus.
The capacity going begging every week at Football League grounds suggests that if the Football League has one new year's resolution, it must be to look long and hard at the current price structure. With austerity a key word in 2011 things can only get worse. The problem for the Football League clubs is gate receipts are a much more important slice of total income than they are in the Premier League where TV and other media rights far outweight gate receipts.