European football attendance trends; Comparing the big 5; Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A and La Liga

Whilst some people may bemoan the lack of football in the summer, for a stats person like me it’s brilliant as I’ve got my hands on another years worth of data and browsing through the excellent European Football Statistics website I’ve been comparing the average attendances of what are these days called the big five; The Premier League, Serie A, Ligue 1, La Liga and the Bundesliga – Particularly revealing is the differences which can be seen in the long-term trends between them as this graph, which shows the average attendances for each league from 1987/88, illustrates:

European football attendance chart

Interestingly the graph shows that around the millennium three of the five; The Premier League, Bundesliga and Serie A were broadly in the same place with an average attendance of around 30 000. Some 13 years or so later however, we can see that the three have taken vastly different paths; Whilst Bundesliga attendances would continue to grow, Premier League attendances would stagnate and Seria A would enter a major decline.

The fall from grace of Serie A

Thanks in no small part to Channel 4 when I think of Italian football still  I get a picture of an urbane James Richardson sat at a pavement cafe in the sun with his pink Gazetta dello sport. It’s a fitting image the sun was shining on Italian football in the 1990s. With Serie A widely regarded as  the best in the world with awe inspiring stadiums like the San Siro, it was the destination of choice for the worlds best players including Paul Gascgoine who had himself shot to prominence on Italian soil during the 1990 world cup.

Attendances were the highest on the continent peaking at an average of 34 204 in the 1991/92 season – about 10 000 higher than nearest challengers the Bundesliga and Premier League. However, sadly from Serie A the only way was down. A gradual decline from the peak at first but thanks to hooliganism and corruption the decline hastened in the noughties. By  2006/07 with Juventus reglegated to Serie B as punisment for their part in a match-fixing scandal the average attendance figure had fallen to just 18 473. Although staging a slight recovery from this trough the trendline still remains firmly downwards with Serie A now lying in fourth place out of the big five – a massive fall from grace.

The rise of the Bundesliga and the stagnation of The Premier League

Until the early part of the noughties there was not much to separate the Bundesliga and the Premier League in terms of attendances. Both were growing at a similar steady rate, until the early noughties when Premier League attendances began to stagnate leaving the Bundesliga to pull away into the lead. So what happened? One explanation which has been given is that ticket prices are, on average, lower in the Bundesliga than in the Premier League, or indeed Serie A, or La Liga as this article in the Guardian shows.

This however, would only be part of the story – as this article posted on the The Stadium Guide blog in 2012 points out more Premier League clubs consistently sell-out of match tickets than their Bundesliga counterparts. The issue therefore is one of overall capacity with high ticket prices in the Premier League are a symptom of lack of capacity, rather than a cause of lower attendances.

There are several reasons for the discrepancy between the size of German and English stadia; English stadia were largely re-developed, or constructed anew in the 1990s in the wake of the Taylor report which followed the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989. This redevelopment, which was imposed on clubs, helped to act as a catalyst for the resurgence in English football attendance, but by the early noughties the stadia were becoming full. At around the same time German stadia were receiving a massive funding boost including – some 1.4 billion Euros worth of public money ready for the for the 2006 World Cup. The value of this public cash to clubs cannot be understated -as developing a ground is a difficult business and is fraught with risk.

La Liga and Ligue 1 – Going nowhere fast

Given the prominence of Spanish football in recent years it’s something of a surprise not to see La Liga perform better. It’s hard however, to interpret the trend in attendance for the division as the data are incomplete and don’t yet include the current season. This article however suggests that attendances for the 2012/13 season appear to have been in decline, pointing to three issues affecting attendances; the timing of fixtures, ticket prices and the economic crisis.  Finally Ligue 1 which  experienced a sharp rise around hosting the 1998 World Cup has also seen attendances stagnate since the early noughties, leaving it in bottom position of the five.

Overall trends 

With the exception of Seria A and La Liga (for which there is incomplete data) European football attendances have over the period looked been on an upward trend, however  with the exception of the Bundesliga, the past decade seems to have seen growth replaced by stasis. That this trend towards stagnation seems to pre-date the continents economic woes by several clear years removes the economy as a causal factor – though this is not to say it is not exasperating things. Rather there may be something more fundamental at work within the European game.

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