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Voting with their feet? A look at Europa League attendances

27 July 2011

Unsurprisingly, Fulham's July Europa League qualifiers have been sparsely attended (Image: Flickr, nicksarebi)

Fulham’s early start to the new season was a reminder of the indifference of English clubs towards the Europa League, as Craven Cottage was a little over half full for early July qualifiers.

England’s snobbery towards UEFA’s second-tier competition is well-known, but has it always been this way?

Personal memory suggests the UEFA Cup or Europa League stigma is a relatively recent phenomenon. But how recent?

English clubs have regularly enjoyed packed houses for even the most insignificant of Champions League group stage matches, but this has not been the case with the competition’s inferior sibling.

Yet strangely Europa League and UEFA Cup attendances in the Premier League era have been consistently reasonable. The chart below illustrates these attendances as a percentage of average Premier League attendances.

Even as recently as the 2007-08 season, average attendances in the UEFA Cup have been as high as 94% of average Premier league attendances. Indeed Everton’s European crowds during that season exceeded domestic levels during a run that did not include any significantly high-profile visitors.

Removing sides that progressed far in the competition, the semis and final, does not paint a wholly different picture, and certainly no downward trend that one would expect as the stigma ‘kicks in’.

Removing so-called smaller sides, here classified as teams that have appeared in the Europa League or UEFA Cup less than three times since 1992, begins to more clearly illustrate the period in which fans turned away from the competition.

Ignoring sides such as Millwall, Portsmouth and Leicester* removes the novelty factor of European competition, whereby fans attend matches to get a feel for intra-continental football. It also eliminates the incredible final-reaching runs of Middlesbrough and Fulham.

Attendances showed a decline in the early part of the century, before picking up again towards and above 80% of Premier League attendances.

If that timing was the ‘true’ beginning of English clubs’ coldness towards the UEFA Cup, it is interesting on two counts.

First, UEFA moved the majority of matches to Thursday nights from the 1999-2000 season. Second, from the 2001-02 season the Premier League was granted four places in Champions League.

These changes coincided with the English decline of interest in the competition.

Yet attendances appear to be back on the up. Despite the soaring cost of domestic tickets and timing and financial issues with the second-tier competition, stadiums are around 80% full, a highly respectable number.

Is the stigma attached the Europa League fading? And what caused it in the first place? Please provide your thoughts below.

*Full list of clubs with less than three seasons in UEFA Cup/Europa League since 1992: Bolton, Fulham, Ipswich, Leicester, Middlesbrough, Millwall, Norwich, Nottingham Forest, Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton and West Ham.

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