Take a good look at this graph, based on data from the European Football Statistics website, of English football attendances in the period following the second world war. The story it tells is one of, firstly, a long decline from a peak of 22 318 for the 1948/49 season to a trough of 8 130 in 1985/86, but more recently a period of sustained recovery throughout the remainder of the 1980s, through the 1990s and on into the noughties.
However, looking at the graph too it seems as if football attendances have, been flat-lining over the last decade, in direct contrast to the previous decades of continual growth. The question this raises is what does this mean for English football? Is it simply a pause before further growth towards the kind of 1948/49 attendance levels, or are these sort of figures now unobtainable in today’s much-changed world – and are we consequently seeing attendances reaching their new natural level, or thirdly – most worryingly – are we now at a peak from which point attendances will go into a second decline?
Blame it on the recession:
To answer this we really need to look at possible explanations for the current trend in attendances, starting with the most obvious explanation – the recession. This is a highly plausible argument; As important as it may be to some football isn’t an essential in the same way as food, rent, petrol, or gas and electric are. So as incomes are eroded it should not be much of a surprise that a luxury like going to the match is sacrificed to meet the cost of these essentials. Similarly high-prices are another explanation for declining attendances. Are prices now too high? As this rather excellent post on the Swiss Ramble blog points out over some 20 years ticket prices in the Premier League rose by a truly staggering 1100%. Could it be that fans are just no longer able, or even prepared to pay?
In terms of price attendances, particularly at the top level, have grown continually in the face of price increases suggesting that football is, to a degree, a price-elastic product, but there is some evidence that clubs have been attempting to freeze, or reduce prices – an acknowledgement, by some clubs at least, that action is required to mitigate worsening household financial circumstances. One issue with the recession explanation however, is that the stagnation in attendances began some time before the recession; In 2003/04 the Premier League saw a small decline in average attendance on the previous season and in 2005/06 the overall average for all four divisions fell, a full two years before the recession began in 2008. It seems therefore that whilst the recession and falling incomes has had an effect of exasperating the slow-down in attendances, it is more debatable as to whether it is the actual cause of the phenomenon.
Build it and they will come:
The mid to late 1990s and were a particularly busy time for the builders of stadia with many new grounds opening their doors. Among others were; The New Den in 1993, McAlpine Stadium in 1994, Riverside Stadium in 1995 Pride Park, The Reebok Stadium, The Brittania Stadium and Stadium of Light all in 1997, and the JJB Stadium in 1999. Not to mention all the upgrades and re-modelling of older grounds. According to the Deloitte 2012 Annual Review of Football Finance report the total invested in grounds and facilities by clubs over the last 20 years stands at around £3 billion, which includes over 30 new stadia. After years of neglect and under-investment this activity undoubtedly drove up attendances as capacities were increased and facilities brought up to date.
The Deloitte report refers to this as the ‘new stadium effect’ citing Brighton and Hove Albion’s increase in attendances of 172% since moving to their new ground the Amex however, the report also notes that despite spending of £570m on ‘stadium and associated facilities’ across the 92 football league clubs 2010/11 has been “the fifth successive year in which no new stadium projects were underway in the Premier League.” Could it be that this reduction in new-stadium activity has contributed to the stagnation in attendances? It is quite possible that having previously increased capacity, in turn providing room for growth, the limits of this capacity have now been reached and a further wave of stadium building/expansion is required to facilitate any further growth.
One sign that this may well be the case is the fact that a number games, particularly in the Premier League, are sell-out’s which point to higher levels of demand than supply. Indeed the Deloitte report records that average capacity utilisation for the premier league increased to 93% – it’s 15th consecutive season above 90%. Undoubtedly were stadium capacities higher many games which sold-out would have attracted a much greater number of spectators, raising the overall average. Certainly the high utilisation rates make it tempting for clubs to pursue a high-price strategy.
The figure given by the Deloitte report for capacity utilisation across the total Football League was a much lower 58% which suggests that outside the Premier League limits of capacity play a lesser role in constraining attendance growth. However, looking at this graph which is indexed to 1985/86 attendances for all four divisions, both League One and League Two – divisions in which sell-out games are less common – show a similar trend of leveling-out attendances from the early to mid-noughties.
Blame it on the TV:
It seems almost bizarre that at a time of stagnating attendances the Premier League has just struck it’s biggest ever TV deal with Sky and BT, worth £1 billion a year for 3 years and this only covers domestic rights -overseas rights have similarly been increasing over time. Can it therefore be that football has come to be a ‘product’ we consume by watching on television rather than in-person? Whilst the size of the deals do not reveal anything about individual viewing habits, the inference is that for the broadcaster to be willing to pay such an amount there must be a more than reasonable level of demand.
Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in their book Why England Lose and Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained however, make the arguement that TV exposure, far from being a cause of decline in football attendances, has been the catalyst for the growth of attendances. They state:
The only identifiable change linked to league footballs recovery from it’s 35-year decline is live broadcasting
It was Sky that gave league football exposure. If Rupert Murdoch wanted to sell subscriptions, he needed fans to think the league game was sexy
Their reasoning follows the Van Gogh logic – that is the suggestion that the more an image is reproduced the more valuable the original becomes. But, even if this was true then, in the 1980s, is it true now? Looking again at the indexed graph the most notable feature is how the Championship has consistently outperformed the Premier League in terms of attendance growth, yet the Football League, unlike the premier league, has been much less successful in terms of TV rights. Aside from the ITV Digital debacle, the most recent Football League TV deal of £195 million was in fact £69 million lower than the previous deal.
If there is a relationship between TV exposure and growth attendances, then would it not be right to expect the more over-exposed Premier League to out-perform the rather more under-exposed Championship – a league reportedly facing difficulties finding a sponsor – which is according to Deloitte “The fourth most watched league in Europe.” One possibility that after two decades of Sky, watching football on TV is now, to many people no less in value than watching a game in person, another possibility is that due to the size of the TV deals premier league clubs do not need to concern themselves with getting bums-on seats quite so much as clubs in the Championship and below – Interestingly according to the Deloitte report in 2010/11 for the first time matchday revenue dropped into third place behind broadcasting and commercial revenue, which both grew at a higher rate. It could also well be that the Championship has been getting things right in terms of overall capacity, quality of football and the price spectators pay.
So what about the future?
Out of the three possibilities mentioned earlier, growth, stagnation, or decline, what seems the most likely scenario for English football attendances in the future? At this stage, with rising inflation, and household finances still under pressure further growth seems, for now, unlikely. In the Premier League in particular any possibility for growth is also limited by existing capacities. Should a portion of the proceeds from the new TV deal be put towards either, constructing, or upgrading stadia, along with a lowering of ticket prices it is perfectly possible that the conditions could be created for another boom in attendances, however as the Swiss Ramble points out it would be unwise to hold our breath for such a possibility far more likely the windfall will be swallowed up by high wages.
Fortunately there seems to be little sign, so far, of any sustained decline in attendances. We still have the legacy of many comfortable new stadia, and some of the top talent in the world attracted by the high wages. Indeed English professional football, as evidenced, by the recordbreaking broadcasting deal appears in many ways – unlike in the early 1980s – to be in particularly good health.
But, perhaps most worrying in terms of attendances is the sliding in importance of match-day revenues for Premier League clubs to third place behind broadcasting and commercial revenues. Overseas markets in Asia and the US continue to offer huge potential for the growth of broadcasting and commercial revenue and this may well be the focus of clubs attentions above trying to tempt more people into bigger and bigger stadiums – the stadium boom, which peaked in the late 1990s, is it seems well and truly over.