Crowded Out?

ObroniO wonders if the numbers in the stands add up....

The gigantic game of power poker that is the struggle for the Olympic legacy just keeps rumbling on, with Boris now deciding to “call” Barry with what might be an even bigger bluff of his own – a cunning attempt to pick the deadlock by declaring he has no objection to Orient having a share of the Olympic Stadium.
Clearly the issue continues to galvanise Barry, a man known to love a good scrap – and casting ourselves (with some justification) as underdogs under siege can be seen as the source of the unity, determination and fighting spirit so evident on, around, and beyond the pitch this season.
Legacy, wot?

But the whole matter of how the legacy sweeteners are distributed (the real legacy at stake here being BJ’s own political one) leaves us with a lingering set of questions about the ongoing viability of Orient at Brisbane Road. And while our incredible season begins to look less like a freak series of results, this worry is no less acute as attention switches to how the club might be sustained at a higher level without either re-developing the ground or moving.  

Indeed, it’s probable that the prospect of playing second tier football next season is as much of a surprise to Barry as it is to the rest of us, although he has indicated a readiness to invest in the playing staff to support our ascent. But there are deeper structural issues that remain unresolved, and it is a typically tart twist of synchronicity that the Olympic stadium affair comes to a head again just as we threaten to break into the upper half of the football league for the first time in over three decades.

There’s lots of argument and supposition about the “right thing to do” in this situation, so I thought it was a good time to introduce a little cold, hard data into the debate. This was prompted by a question some of us were pondering in the boozer before the MK Dons game, namely wondering which was the smallest club to have established itself in the second tier in the modern era. So, having recently got back in touch with my inner geek, and with the help of www.european-football-statistics.co.uk I had a closer look at the figures to try and find the answer. As with any analysis like this, it ended up raising as many questions as it answered – and it is these questions, dear reader, that I bring to you now…
Hairy Hands
Football began in the early 90s...
But before I began, I had to define my terms a little better. So, by “modern era” I limited the study to the last 20 years – a neat, round number, and a period that co-incided with the beginning of football as we know it, ie Sky’s acquisition of the game’s soul after a routine deal by the crossroads went sour. Co-incidentally, 1992-93 was the last time that Orient got anywhere near the second division before Mr Slade’s arrival.
The clubs I chose for comparison were selected for their historical status, current status, and average attendances. Clubs with a complicated backstory (Brighton, Wimbledon) had to be excluded, for obvious reasons. So that left me with the following “small” clubs: Scunthorpe, Crewe, Tranmere, Port Vale, Grimsby, Southend, Swindon, Oldham, Stockport, Oxford, Bury, Gillingham, Walsall, Luton, Peterborough, Doncaster, and Rotherham. I excluded Yeovil, as they’ve only just been promoted, and Bristol Rovers, Cambridge, and Brentford – who all enjoyed one season in the second tier at the very start of this “new era”, coming straight down never to return. 
Whenever the subject of us getting promoted has come up over the last few seasons, folk have generally said that we’d be bound to come straight back down. Now, of those clubs listed above, that has happened only to Scunthorpe, Peterborough, Swindon, and Southend – and all but the last of these (ha!) bounced back up again very soon after. Now look at the other names in that list again, and consider the fact that they all managed to stay up for at least one extra season – doesn’t seem so intimidating now, does it?
Heady days on the Wirral
Let’s look at the story the told by the numbers a bit more closely. Most impressive of all, Tranmere managed 9 straight years in the second tier, coming pretty close to promotion out of it on 3 occasions! During that spell, they were drawing an average crowd of 9,018, whilst competing against the flashier clubs on the other side of the Mersey. The effect of playing home games on Friday nights is hard to gauge here, but, given some of his recent remarks about the possibility of our playing on Friday nights, I fancy that Barry has considered these issues just as I am now.
Another reason why Tranmere may seem like an attractive model for clubs in our position is because they didn’t suffer a painful crash after relegation in 2001, and have maintained a position of some comfort in the third tier ever since. So that makes just one change of division in two decades – a contender for the award I just invented: “most stable football league club in the Sky era”. But is stability what all football supporters really want?
Other impressive achievements include Port Vale (7 straight seasons, drawing an average of 6,601 punters), Grimsby (10 seasons, in two spells of 5, 6,739 punters), Crewe (a spell of 5 straight seasons, bouncing right back for another 3, averaging 6,609), Stockport and Gillingham (5 seasons each, 7,382 and 8,604 respectively).
Straight away, these attendance figures suggest that at that time second tier football was sustainable on crowds the size we can realistically expect at that level, given what we’ve already seen this season, the likelihood of regular 2-3k away fans showing up, and what the data says about what happened to the attendances of the teams in this study when they got promoted. But there is a warning here too – look at what happened to some of these clubs once they eventually dropped out of the second tier – Grimsby and Stockport being particularly salutary examples, as are Luton (4 seasons and 2 seasons, 8,064 overall). And even though Port Vale and Southend kept hold of their league status, both clubs suffered financially during the come-down.

What’s more, it’s also looks like this sort of “punching above your weight” has been getting harder in recent years, as what used to pass for a level playing field in English football resembles more of a sheer cliff-face. The long spells discussed above all ended at least a decade ago (OK, Gillingham’s came to an end in 2005, but ‘low that one).
Now we shouldn’t forget that Orient also enjoyed a sustained run of eleven consecutive seasons in the second tier from 1970-1982. Remarkably, our average crowd over that period was a measly 7,381, albeit with plenty of fluctuations - ranging from 11,793 when we nearly went up in 1974, to just 4,419 in the season when we eventually went down. There’s not enough space here to talk about all the many ways that professional football and the local area has changed in the intervening period – this is a dry, statistical piece, after all – but it’s worth noting that in the 1970s the average attendance across the whole of the second tier was around 5,000 lower than it is now.

Mmmmm, hubris.....
Similarly, there’s a lot more to be said about the effect of a new stadium, or spending big on stadium re-development than space allows here (but hello to Swansea, Cardiff, Hull, Brighton et al… and my condolences to Plymouth, Darlington etc), but seeing as Donny appear in our list here, I might as well point out that they’ve spent 5 out of the last 6 seasons in the second tier, getting an average of over 10k coming through the door when they were up there. So, the new ground has obviously worked for them – although I’m not sure I’d like to see Barry immolate the West Stand (ugly as it is) in order for us to find the same success.
But let’s go back to the pub for a moment (yes please) - when this question first came up, the consensus answer was that Barnsley was the smallest club to have successfully established itself in the second division – and a subsequent glance at the figures suggested this might be right, revealing that an average of 11,815 go to Oakwell on matchdays since they went up in 2006 (only around 2,000 more than they were getting in the third division). Before Plymouth’s sad demise, they were averaging just shy of 13,000 over their 6 consecutive seasons in the second flight, and (excluding their one fanciful taste of top level football) Burnley have been attracting 13,596 since they went up in 2000.
Lastly, there are other ways of looking at this question – eg what is the typical attendance of yer characteristically middling second tier club, “your Ipswiches, your Watfords, and your Middlesbroughs” as they might say on Soccer Saturday. The answer here seems to be 15-25k. 
Maybe we'll put some seats in it
Taking all of this together, this leads me towards the conclusion that while there is no neat, magic number to represent the threshold at which a club’s attendances allow second division status to be sustainable, it is likely to be a real struggle if you aren’t routinely getting at least 10,000 through the door. In any event, it seems unlikely that even with superhumanly excellent management Orient will be able to sustain second tier football for more than a small handful of seasons without either moving or re-developing Brisbane Road.