Do you know what the 9th most watched sports league in the world is? Well, I’ll tell you, it’s the Championship. The league that will have Rotherham, Blackpool, Millwall, and my team, Blackburn Rovers in it. It’s bettered by Baseball in Japan and the USA, North American Ice Hockey and that weird form of rugby in crash helmets they play in America – and of course by the major football leagues of England, Spain, Germany and the USA.
The 552 games in the 2012 season were watched by an average of 17,738 people. On a league of averages the Championship ranks higher than the premier leagues of Brazil, Russia and Switzerland.
Even lowly League One records higher average gates than the Premier Leagues of Greece, Chile, Bosnia and Uruguay – all countries who qualified for the World Cup.
I started looking into this when I read The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, a neat little book by American writer Joe McGinniss following a team in a small town in southern Italy when they reached Serie B. It struck me that Italian football had a sort of Premiership Lite, then a sparsely watched second division and then the equivalents of Conference North and South.
Football as an ingrained part of our national culture is unique and special. And they hate it. They. The London-based marketing department of Manchester United hate it. The directors of the ‘project’ at Manchester City and the owners of the franchise at Liverpool. How it must mystify them.
All this talk of a competitive League Three was said to be motivated by getting match practice for the large squads of the Premiership clubs. You were encouraged to get excited about Chelsea B getting promoted into League Two and scrapping it out against Chesterfield and Carlisle. The example is cited that what’s good enough for Barcelona and Bayern to have B sides playing competitive matches should be available to our big clubs.
And of course our good English boys would be the best place to toughen them up on their road towards turning out for the national team, much better than any three month loan spell at Preston North End.
Even if the argument for match practice was a factor, don’t you think they’d just double the foreign intake? You always retain that suspicion about the deeper, darker motivations of any move which serves to further the interests of the Premiership, especially the bigger clubs.
What you suspect they are looking to chip away at is the season ticket holder at Rochdale and Walsall, who should be following a “major brand” winning over these fans and selling them all the tat that follows. You can’t help but wonder that the progress of newly purchased “franchises” wonder why on earth people would watch other clubs in their catchment area.
Look at the plans for the Etihad Campus next to Manchester City’s home, these include a mini-stadium with 7,000 seats – their reserves, sorry Elite Development Squad, currently attract a few hundred fans to watch them at Hyde. When that ends, City will be punting the possibilities of a match day experience against the stiffs of Juventus and Liverpool.
For all its faults, the popular pyramid league system we have in this country is nothing short of miraculous. A national culture of loyalty to a club, a centre of a community – a totem for a town. Something that matters, even when deep down we know that some of the football is pretty crap. All the scandals of owners cocking it up, clubs going bust, foreign players coming in at every level – it still carries on. Something still sustains it as a spectator sport that thousands upon thousands of people take part in every week.
Make no mistake, the close on half a million people who watched non-Premier League Football on one weekend in May is a barrier to the onward march of the greed league. League Three would just be another way to chip away at the foundations. That daft idea might have been kicked into the car park for the time being, but there will be something else equally as mendacious and stupid soon enough.