Build it and they will come? The impact of hosting a World Cup on domestic league attendances

It seems that these days, before any major sporting event has even properly begun questions are already being raised about its legacy: the hoped-for long-term benefit which accrues from hosting an event beyond the few weeks that it takes place. Given the sheer investment required to hold an event – and the fact that much of this is derived from public funds – the kind which could otherwise fund schools, hospitals, and other critical infrastructure – it is a question which has never been more pertinent.


Although some of the wider benefits can be hard to establish one of the main items of expense in hosting any tournament is the cost in providing adequate stadia (to host the world cup requires a stadium with at least an 80,000 capacity for the opening game and the final, 60,000 for the semi-finals and 40 000 for the group stages, round of 16 and quarter finals.) It should be expected that the key beneficiaries from this in the long term will be football clubs who inherit enhanced facilities which they would struggle to finance themselves. Across a whole league the effect can also be potentially significant, dramatically increasing average attendances.

Major Tournament attendance Index

Looking at this one aspect of legacy it is clear that since Italia 90 hosts have experienced mixed fortunes. Italia 90 itself saw an investment of £200 million from the Italian government in renovating and building new stadia. Between the 1988/89 season and the 1992/93 season Serie A average attendance rose by 10.7% from 29,454 to 32,607. The rise in attendances which came in the wake of tournament was however, only able to interrupt the downward trend Serie A attendances had been on since reaching  the heights of 38,872 in the 1984/85 season and within just four seasons of the tournament the average attendance was back down to 29,884. There was also a question of unfortunate timing, as this article on points out, Italia 90 occurred at the end of an era of stadia design meaning that many of the new and revamped stadia were outmoded within a short space of time.  One of the new stadia constructed for the tournament the Stadio Delle Alpi, home to both Juventus and Torino, was much maligned: Criticised for lack of atmosphere, poor visibility and exposing spectators to the elements it was demolished in 2009.

Four years later when the world cup arrived in the USA although there was no top-level professional football league  finding venues was not a problem. The US boasted a wealth of stadia – mainly used for American Football – which were pressed into service with very little in the way of renovation. No new stadia were constructed and though a few World Cup venues would also go on to provide venues for teams from the fledgling professional league, the MLS, launched two years after the tournament the major legacy was in raising the profile of the game, rather than any infrastructure improvements.

France 98 also saw the hosts adopt strategy of utilizing existing stadia, with refurbishments made to a number of grounds. Only one new stadium was constructed, the Stade de France. In terms of legacy however, Ligue 1 attendances grew sharply in the period immediately around the tournament rising by 63.5% from 14,163 in the 1996/97 season to 23,160 in the 2000/01 season. Though they lost some of this ground, falling back to 19,846 by 2002/03 the growth spurt was still enough to propel Ligue 1 away from the second-stream of European leagues.

World Cup Legacy Flags1

After the frugality of the previous two tournaments 2002 represented a different approach. With Japan and Korea as joint hosts in 2002 a record-breaking nineteen stadiums were constructed or underwent major renovations. The reported cost of this was $4.6 billion for Japan and $2.7 billion for South Korea (both nations had intended to bid for the event individually). In Japan this construction boom coincided with a rise in average J-league attendances; Attendances rose by 69.6% from 11,065 in the 2000 season to 18,765 for the 2005 season though, like other tournaments, within just three seasons of the tournament this growth had ceased. Individual stadia have also had a mixed impact with some such as the Miyagi Stadium finding themselves being shunned in favour of smaller grounds. Korean attendances are harder to come by, however the Seoul World Cup Stadium plays host to FC Seoul who in 2010 boasted the league’s highest attendance of 30,849 however, both their and the leagues average attendance appears to have declined in the past few years: in 2013 FC Seoul drew an average crowd of just 17,740 to the 66,000 capacity Seoul World Cup stadium whilst K-league average attendance was reported as 8,440.

2002 would always be a hard act to follow in terms of stadia building. The next tournament’s hosts, Germany, also possessed relatively up-to-date stadia so 2006 saw a more modest construction programme carried out. Still, almost $2bn was spent on the construction of four new stadia (including the Allianz Arena in Munich with a capacity of 69,901 and a cost of $473 million) and the renovation of a number of others. Although Bundesliga attendances did increase in the period around the tournament growth was far less spectacular than in France, or Japan, rising by just 12.6% between 2004/05 and 2008/09. One reason may be that demand may have already been well served, thus limiting the novelty effect of new stadia. Another factor is that two of the four new stadia; the ESPRIT arena in Dusseldorf at the cost of $313 million and the Red Bull Arena in Leipzig, built at the cost of $166 million played host to lower division teams so as well as being possibly underutilized these did not contribute to the Bundesliga average.

South Africa 2010, the first ever tournament held on African soil, has proved one of the most controversial tournaments in terms of legacy, with questions enduring long after the tournament left the continent. Reportedly around $1.8billion was spent on stadia, (which included five new venues change?). Football in South Africa attracts comparatively few spectators so it was always going to be difficult to fully utilize stadia constructed for the purpose of hosting the world’s greatest tournament. Nevertheless in the wake of the World Cup, in February 2011 a spectacular crowd of 92,515 saw Kaiser Chiefs play Orlando Pirates at Johannesburg’s new Soccer City stadium. While the effect of outliers such as this did help to drive up average attendance – The average figure rising by 42% between 2006/07 when the league averaged 5360 spectators and the 2010/11 season where the average peaked at 7601 – averages have, just four years on from the tournament fallen back to 5073 for 2013/14. In July 2013 shortly after his appointment the new South African Premier Soccer League CEO Brand de Villiers also stated that increasing the number of spectators at games was his key priority.

SA Premier

This brings us to Brazil where the eventual cost of $4.7 billion for construction or the refurbishment of 10 stadia far outstripped the initial estimate of $1.1 billion putting it on a par with Japan in 2002. Although Brazilian teams attract fairly healthy crowds – on a par with Ligue 1, and in the Maracana – built for the 1950 World Cup, can boast what was once one of the world’s biggest stadiums attendances have however, been sliding for the past few years – from 18,487 in 2008 to 13,465 in 2012. Though a pre-tournament boost has seen these rise to 15,893 for 2013 there are more general issues with the affordability of tickets, which remain beyond the reach of many ordinary workers whilst four of the new stadia have also been built in areas with lower division sides.  In Manaus, for instance, the local second division team has an average attendance around 1,500 per game however, the city now has a new stadium with a capacity of 42,374, at a cost of $325 million.

It remains to be seen which trajectory Brazil will now follow. Will the legacy of investment in stadia be re-invigorated Brazilian football attendances, or underutilized stadia with high maintenance costs and the niggling sense that money could have better been spent elsewhere?


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