WHEN Liverpool met Manchester United at Anfield in the Premiership last month the game was watched by an estimated global audience of nearly half a billion people.

From Jamaica to Malawi, and Burkina Faso to Bolivia, it would seem everyone wants to watch the world's most popular national football league.

On a weekly basis, Premiership football is beamed to 195 different countries, with a global reach of 517 million homes - or one in 12 of everyone on the planet.

In the words of Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, it's a 'global sporting and televisual phenomenon'.

But while the rest of the world appears to be watching the Premiership, the question is 'are we?'

The doom-mongers point to falling attendances and rising discontent amongst supporters as the reasons for claiming football's bubble has burst.

Speak to the experts and everyone offers a different theory as to why the game appears to have lost some of its appeal in this country.

Richard Caborn, the minister for sport, reckons there are too many games on television; Chris Coleman, the Fulham manager, believes the dominance of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United has turned the Premiership into a glitzier version of the Scottish Premier League; Charlton boss Alan Curbishley feels the big clubs are creaming off too much of the Premiership's riches, making it impossible for the rest to compete.

Even Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United boss and the most decorated manager in Premiership history, claims there are just not as many thrills on offer as there used to be.

Others reckon the average man on the street is simply falling out of love with the beautiful game, and the Premiership in particular.

There would certainly appear to be a growing disconnection between football's multi-million pound stars and the supporters who pay their wages.

I recently heard of one middle-aged man who cancelled his subscription to Sky's sports channel in protest at Rio Ferdinand's exorbitant salary demands.

But, whatever your stance on the rights and wrongs of the game, the one thing that cannot be ignored is the banks of empty seats that have now become a regular sight at most Premier League grounds in the country.

For a third consecutive season, Premiership attendances are down.

While that is not the case across the board - at Liverpool and Everton, for instance, gates are actually up - there is a sense of gloom elsewhere and no-one is feeling the pinch greater than Blackburn Rovers, where the average gate has plummeted from 26,226 in 2002/3 to just over 20,000 this season.

The fear now is Rovers could become a barometer for others and unless something is done to stem the tide, our national sport could be plunged into a crisis.

"If there's a chill wind blowing then we feel it first because we have a relatively small fan base compared to others," said Rovers' executive chairman, John Williams, who will sit on the Premier League's Attendance Working Group when it meets later this month to look at ways of improving the game.

"It's still too early in the season to predict an overall pattern, but my view is 'why bother to wait?

"If you think you can make the product better, or you think you can give it greater longevity then why wait for that cold wind to come (before you do something about it)?

"When you've got a car you don't just put it in for service because it's not running well, you put it in at regular intervals because you know that if you carry out preventative measures it's more likely to keep on running.

"In my opinion, the Premier League has been a great a success and it will continue to be a great success, but it might need some servicing along the way to keep it running smoothly."

Williams is right to point out that the state of our game is not all doom and gloom, as some would suggest.

Premiership attendances continue to dwarf every other league in Europe bar Germany, where average gates are similar to those here.

Nevertheless, questions still need addressing in a country where it costs more to watch Accrington Stanley than it does to see Borrusia Dortmund, the best supported club in Europe.

On top of that, fewer goals are now being scored in the Premiership than Italy's notoriously defensive Serie A.

And 3pm kick-offs on a Saturday are becoming rarer than a Chelsea defeat.

"There are all sorts of pressures on individuals for the pound in their pocket and the hour on their watch," said Williams.

"It's not just about competitive pressure for the so-called leisure pound, there's also pressure of time and lifestyle changes.

"And that's one of the issues we at Blackburn Rovers can't address in isolation.

"Kick-off times and things like that need to be addressed together. It's something we all have to look at for the good of the game."

If English clubs don't want to alienate fans in their droves then they could do worse than follow the examples set by some of their European neighbours.

Barcelona, one of the best supported clubs in world football, are using a variety of tricks in a bid to entice even more devotees to the Nou Camp, from offering different regional cuisine on matchday depending on the identity of their opponents, to laying on amusements outside the stadium with the aim of attracting more women and children to games.

The result has been a 20 per cent increase in membership, although much of that can be attributed to the club's recent success on the field.

At Rovers, the club prides itself on offering the 'best value tickets in the Premiership' (it's still possible for a dad and his lad to watch a Premiership game at Ewood for £20).

But the fact remains the general cost of watching football is still too expensive and even people like Fergie are now proposing a cap on ticket prices.

"You can have something that's good value which you still can't afford," said Williams.

"What we need to explore in our town is the difference between affordability and value, and they are two closely connected concepts because they are both ultimately about price."

While cutting costs at the turnstiles would be a major step in the right direction, the problem of dwindling attendances is not just a price issue.

This season, 138 games will be screened live on television in this country, which has all sorts of implications for kick-off times, and the European Commission are pushing for even more from 2007, a move that would create even greater fixture chaos.

There is, therefore, plenty for Williams and his colleagues on the Attendance Working Committee to chew over when they meet up in the middle of this month.

In fact, the future health of our game could well depend on it.