Is Non League Really Thriving? A Statistical Analysis

Speak to any UK-based groundhopper – as Dan Robinson often does – and you’ll hear an increasingly common sentiment being expressed: non league is the place to be.

Cheap tickets, interesting grounds, and a tight sense of community; this oft-overlooked heartbeat of the English game is, as Robinson’s interviewees regularly claim, the antithesis of the “product” the Premier League has now come to be.

And they are right. After all, if the Premier League is the entertaining, big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, designed to be consumed supersized in megaplex surroundings, then non league is a charming play: raw, authentic, and loveably flawed.

Yet there is room in life for both of these things and Robinson – a Manchester United fan now ensconced in the grassroots scene – encapsulates this blossoming duality perfectly. He represents a newer subculture of football supporter, a movement that is too broad to be labelled “hipster”, but too slim (so far, at least) to represent a full-scale revolution.

But is this “movement” actually driving a quantifiable trend, or is it all a romanticised perception? Are football supporters really flocking to non league in numbers, or, in this post-ESL, AMF era, do we just want to believe they are?

I wanted to explore this question in more detail, so, with my footballing travels currently capped by our good friend COVID, I decided to do some research.

Here’s what I found.

The Premier League Is Dead, Long Live Non League

To start, I delved into the average attendance figures of steps one to four (some 15 leagues) of the English non league pyramid. I wanted to see how those figures had changed over the last 10 years, and if they represented any kind of trend across the board.

Overall Trend

When combining the total average attendances of every league at steps one to four, I saw a sizeable growth over the last 10 years.

Average Matchday Attendance (Steps 1 to 4 of English Non League Pyramid)

To put this growth into context, that’s a 21% increase over last season, a 37% increase in the last five years, and a 43% increase overall since the 2011/12 season. All of which would suggest, then, that yes: this is indeed a very real, very quantifiable shift.

But where in particular are these changes happening? Where specifically are these surges in attendance occurring?

Breakdown By Leagues

To answer that question, it was necessary to break down the non league pyramid geographically. As you are likely aware, steps one to four of the pyramid currently look like this:

With this in mind, you can see from the charts below that, actually, a big driver of this increase is in the north of England.

Average Matchday Attendances at Step 2 of English Non League Pyramid (By Season)

Average attendances have more than doubled in the National League North in the last 10 years (a 106% increase), while its southern counterpart is seeing an upward trend, too. This has been helped, in part, by several former Football League clubs dropping into the lower echelons, but the consistency of the trend points to a more general uptick in supporters coming through the gates.

Average Matchday Attendances at Steps 3 & 4 of English Non League Pyramid (By Season)

This is supported at steps three and four, too, where average attendances and growth remain highest in the Northern Premier League. Again, there are some well-supported clubs playing at these levels, but there are also plenty of established Premier League and Football League competition in these regions, too.

Breakdown By Tier

Regardless of geography, though, the trend remains positive at every step.

National League attendances in particular have skyrocketed in recent seasons, inflated perhaps by external factors such as Wrexham’s high-profile resurgence (their average gate this season of around 8,500 has an enormous influence on the overall average). The number of former Football League stalwarts currently stuck in the division has to be considered, too.

But at the same time, the numbers don’t lie. Only the Southern League Premier (South) and the Southern League Division One (Central) have seen decreases in attendances over the last two seasons; most have seen significant growth. And every single league on this list has seen an increase in matchday attendances over the last 10 years. That’s right; every single one.

Key Takeaways

So, what does this all mean?

Aside from assuring us that the non league game is in a healthy place (especially given the impact of COVID), these figures actually pose a new – and perhaps more interesting – question: who are these fans? Are they, like Robinson, existing supporters of bigger clubs that have grown increasingly disenfranchised with the lunacy, consumerism, and globalisation of the top table? Are they a younger generation of fans searching for a different footballing experience? Or are they indicative of a wider socio-economic shift, working class fans simply priced out of the big leagues?

It’s far beyond my means to arrive at an accurate answer for that, of course, but anecdotally, it would seem that there’s some substance to all of these thoughts. For example, the disparity in growth between non league attendances in the north and south of England is significant – especially given that it perfectly reflects the economic realities of the country.

It should also be pointed out that the increases here don’t mirror a downward trend at the other end; Premier League grounds are certainly not short of paying customers (insert your own Manchester City joke here). Whether these fans are being replaced (or even driven out) by a footballing gentile that can afford those price hikes or are doubling up by watching teams at both ends of the spectrum, it’s again difficult to say.

A deeper discussion for another day, then, but for now the numbers speak for themselves – and non league clubs will no doubt take the win.

These attendance figures were collected and aggregated from Non League Matters and, where any gaps existed, TransferMarkt. For obvious reasons, I didn’t include the figures from the 2020/21 season.