I was asked by a couple of people the other day to have a look at EFL Trophy attendances and how the changes have impacted the competition, both in broad terms and here at Lincoln.
Your wish is my command. If you asked, and you’re not a Patreon, please do consider signing up here – this article took me far longer than anticipated!
I have taken the average attendances for the competition from one web source, then manually entered our own seasonal averages for the EFL Trophy back to the 83/84 season, the first of the Trophy’s final being at Wembley.
I’ve then worked out how our attendance compares to the rest of the Football League, as a percentage, and how the EFL Trophy, in its various guises, compares to our average attendance in the Football League each season. I have more information on a spreadsheet if anyone wants it (Fa Cup & League Cup), but typically, there are a lot of anomalies when it comes to comparing cups; the nature of the opposition and how deep we go do have a say in attendance. I think comparing to the average home attendance has some merit. I’m going to break the analysis down into a couple of manageable headings for you as well.
EFL Trophy Attendances
There’s no beating about the bush here; attendances are down in the competition since Under 21 teams were introduced in 2016/17. They were averaging between 4,000 and 5,000 for a decade, topping out at 6292 in 2009/10, but they dropped off a cliff in 2016/17 – down to 1979. That’s more or less remained the norm, with 2018/19 picking up to 2432. However, the Under 21-era high of 2432 was lower than any season prior to Under 21s entering the EFL Trophy system.
The Football League can dress it up how they like; attendances have taken a hit. What I think is important to bear in mind is the increase in matches; between 2007 and 2016, there were just 49 matches in the competition from round one to the final; there are now 127. Even with almost 60% more games, the cumulative total of supporters has remained stable; the last total for the non-U21 era was 213,815 fans, whereas the total last season for 27 matches was 257,635.
We do buck the trend to a certain degree, which is not always seen as a good thing by some. Our attendance in the competition has been significantly higher than the average; last season, we averaged 3825 fans across the games, 162% up on the overall average. That’s a pattern seen across the board since our return to the Football League; in 2017/18, we were up 351% (not including the final), then 142% (2018/19) and 166% (2019/20). Sadly, there were no fans in stadiums for 2020/21, but given our run to the semi-final, there’s no reason to suspect those figures would drop.
Prior to exiting the Football League, those figures were very different. I’ve only included home games, so the first data set I could use was 2007/08 when just 936 fans turned up to watch us lose 5-2 to Hartlepool, just 19% of the tournament average.
In fact, prior to the U21 teams coming into the competition, we never exceeded the tournament average. For three years between 98/99 and 00/01, we were at 78%, 79% and 72%. Throughout the nineties it was lower, as low as 23% (1988/89), 24% (1995/96) and 25% (1990/91). It’s interesting to see our return to the league in 1988 didn’t fire a passion for the competition. However, in 1983/84, a season after we reached the final, we had 73% of the national average; maybe the hint of Wembley fuelled a few fans!
Lincoln Compared to The League
It’s okay showing strong percentages compared to the other clubs in this competition, but the real proof would be if our attendances were up as a percentage of our league games. I mean, if (for instance) our EFL Trophy attendances were around 50% of our league attendances (as they were in 1994/95), has that changed significantly?
The answer is no.
Last season, our EFL Trophy attendances were 37% of our average league gates. In 2019/20, it was just 30%, and in the year before that, 38%. 2017/18 is obviously different, attendances were 74% of our league gates, but that included 9000+ against Chelsea U21s and almost 7000 for the Peterborough quarter-final game.
Those numbers are up against 2007/08, but with one game under 1,000 fans, it’s no surprise. However, in 2006/07 the average was 39%, in 2004/05 38% and in 2002/03 34% (those were the only seasons we had home matches). Despite an uplift in numbers at these games, there hasn’t been a significant change in the percentages (in a typical season of no real success) since the turn of the century.
Those three years around 1998/2000 are the oddities – we averaged 66% and 62% either side of the year we made the two-legged area final against Port Vale, which saw the percentage rise to 106%. It’s easy to see why; one of the seasons saw us reach the semi-final in three matches, one of which was against local rivals Mansfield, The other we were eliminated after a single game, but it was against Scunthorpe. Introduce a local rival, and the average went up. The home games before that little spell (1995/96) were against Preston and Rochdale, averaging just 24% of the usual league attendance.
The obvious conclusion is that the EFL Trophy has not improved with the inclusion of Under 21 teams, which I think is obvious. The rest of football has widely stepped away from more matches, certainly against U21 teams, whilst our fans haven’t embraced it as much as it appears. There has been no major uplift in the percentage of supporters attending matches in both the Football League and the EFL Trophy since the turn of the century, and generally, it has remained the same. The difference is more fans now attend league games, so more fans are attending the EFL Trophy games, but it feels more like a product of our relative evolution and not a consequence of playing Newcastle’s kids.
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