Do Premier League clubs need fans at all? This is the question posed in a post on The Ball is Round blog. The main thrust of the piece is that with incomes from other streams such as sponsorship, broadcasting growing at such alarming rates the actual income from fans turning up has declined in importance so much as to render it comparatively unimportant.
This caught my attention as I wrote an article some time back in When Saturday Comes which made the suggestion that for clubs it was easier to chase a greater chunk of the increasing broadcasting revenue pie, than it was to sink money into costly – not to mention complicated – long-term ground improvement projects. My argument followed that as a result of this dynamic relatively little of the enourmous amounts of money flowing into football would go into ground improvement projects. Certainly there would be no return to the stadium boom of the late 1990s and early-to-mid noughties. This however, proved to be a rather controversial article. Since adopting a new comment-free format the original comments on the WSC site have vanished, but among the criticisms offered were that in a number of cases clubs have been investing in ground projects.
The Ball is Round article got me to think again on the topic of attendances in the Premier league and this dynamic whereby putting bums on seats simply does not matter as much to clubs as pursuing other revenue streams. Since I wrote my WSC article Tottenham – one of the few clubs who didn’t demolish and relocate in the stadia boom – have finally moved out of White Hart Lane, and are in temporary residence at Wembley. West Ham have also moved into the Olympic Stadium – which was funded overwhelmingly by public money. Elsewhere there have been gains in capacity, such as Liverpool adding 8,500 seats to their main stand, whilst other clubs such as Chelsea and Everton are pursuing plans for new grounds, but taking a look at the big picture overall activity is noticeably slower than in the recent past. From the 1990s onward there was an unprecedented construction boom as clubs brought their grounds up to date after a decades-long cycle of low investment; According to the Deloitte 2012 Annual Review of Football Finance, over the previous 20 years clubs collectively invested around £3 billion in grounds and facilities, including the construction of over 30 new stadiums.
One noticeable impact of this construction slow-down is that the rapid growth in attendances which was seen over the first decade of the Premier League era has slowed down considerably. It could be said that perhaps this is a natural tailing off of demand, but with many games sold-out or near capacity there is strong evidence that there is still plenty of unmet demand out there. The Premier League still also trails behind the Bundesliga in putting bums on seats. European Football Statistics puts average attendance over the 2015-16 season there at 43,300 – still significantly ahead of the 36,461 for the Premier League over the same period. There are some explanatory factors here, particularly that the Bundesliga contains only 18 clubs rather than 20 which may have an impact when looking at averages, whilst standing is permitted in areas of German grounds.
This latter point may chime with those currently advocating safe standing, although in practice converting all-seater stands to standing is unlikely to be straightforward and beyond the stadia themselves there are a whole range of infrastructure concerns such as the ability of transportation networks to cope. Secondly even if safe standing were a cheap and easy solution to increasing Premier League ground capacity at the present time it is likely that the same dynamic which leads to under-investment in stadia would remain in place over the long-term.
Ultimately though one of the interesting debating points which came from the reaction to my WSC article is that the question is how much should clubs be investing in the sort of facilities which will enable them to attract even more fans to games? Like with anything in the world of football there is a range of opinion – where do you stand?