The Big Five’s Lost Decade of Attendances

I had a conversation with a friend recently about the merits of watching a game live at the ground, versus watching from the sofa, or a barstool. I’ve always been a bit of a purist where these things are concerned, feeling that football has to be experienced in the flesh, up close, whilst my friend was perfectly happy watching it all on TV.

He had some good points – notably that watching on TV is considerably cheaper and more convenient. Still, I maintain there is nothing like being there in person. For me the whole matchday experience from the moment you take the first step on the trip to the ground to when you exit in a tide of your fellow supporters, sharing either joy, or despair is something to be savoured. It’s why I follow things like attendance stats. For me it’s almost a given that attendance at games is a good thing and growing attendance something to cheer us, like hearing that more books were borrowed from a library this year than last.

This is why something about this graph, based on average attendance data from the European Football Statistics website, alarms me. What it shows is that over the past decade average attendances have remained relatively static across all of the so-called ‘big five; leagues (Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga and Ligue 1).

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In the case of Serie A attendances have experienced a dramatic slide over the past thirty years, so some stability is, perhaps, to be welcomed, but for The Premier League, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga the trend over the last 10 years is in sharp contrast to stunning growth all three experienced over the 1990s (and in the case of the Bundesliga on into the early noughties). Just to take the Premier League the figures show average attendance grew from 20,757 in 1989-90 to 30,757 in 1999-2000, a growth of 10,000 spectators per game. Between 2005-06 and 2015-16 however, average attendances have fluctuated around the 35,000 mark (Unfortunately the website only has figures for La Liga from the 1999-00 season so it isn’t possible to see any earlier trends.)

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So what common factors can be behind the trend which has emerged in all five over the past ten years? The economic crisis of 2008 emerges here as a prime suspect. Data from the Office of National Statistics shows that in the UK mean household income stopped growing and then fell between 2006/07 and 2007/08, really recovering only between 2013/14 and 2014/15. Given the expense of football tickets it doesn’t seem far-fetched to link a slowdown, and decline in disposable incomes to a slowdown in the attendance of football matches, but this is to exclude the fact that the flat-lining trend in England, France and Spain seems to pre-date this, whilst Serie A was already by this point in the grip of a long downward trend.

Stadia capacity is another potential factor. Both the Premier league and the Bundesliga have capacity issues with many grounds operating at, or near capacity. The only way around these is to invest in stadia however, such projects are expensive, convoluted and as a result inherently risky – not least in a time of economic uncertainty. History has shown too that without either external pressure forcing clubs (i.e the Taylor report) or external funding sources (i.e public funds ahead of a major tournament) projects of this kind are few and far between (a question I’ve asked before is are clubs investing enough in stadia). The capacity argument though fails to account for a slowdown in growth in Serie A, or La Liga whilst in Ligue 1 there was a considerable investment ahead of the Euro 2016 tournament.

A third possible common factor is the growth of the amount of football available on television. In the Premier League broadcasting now generates more revenue than matchday revenue. It is therefore little surprise that now fixtures are organised (and changed) to suit television schedules – allowing for more games to be shown live. Across Europe more people than ever have access to the means of watching games broadcast on a pay-tv platform of one kind, or another. Could this easy-availability mean more people – like my friend – are now opting to watch at home instead of going to the ground? This is a point which is subject to debate – and the rise in broadcasting coincided with the Premier League attendance boom of the 1990s, but there is some evidence that live-broadcasting does have a negative impact on attendances and in a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Sports Economics researchers looking at data from Scottish football found that live broadcasts reduced the numbers of ‘pay-at-the-gate’ home team supporters by 30%.

On top of these common factors, there are also likely to be a number of local factors in each case which exert an influence over attendance trends – certainly Serie A’s trajectory has been very different to that of the Premier League, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga and owes at least part to circumstances particular to that league. What though of the prospects for the future – what will attendances look like in ten years time?

If like me you believe that football is best enjoyed at the stadium there are at least some grounds for optimism. Attendances have proved resilient to economic crisis – they may not have grown, but, Serie A aside, they haven’t declined either. In the Premier League and Bundesliga, although growth has been dramatically reduced and is subject to fluctuation, there is a sign of a weak upward trend in average attendance. Importantly too in the Premier League capacity is rising. West Ham have increased their capacity since moving to the London Stadium and construction is currently taking place at Tottenham’s new stadium which will create yet more capacity whilst a number of other projects are in development. Perhaps the real issue though is with judging attendances by the yardstick of the recent past which was, in many ways, a spectacular period of positive adjustment for most of the big European leagues and quite simply could not be sustained over the long-term.

Data from European Football Statistics

Season Ending Ger Eng Spa Ita Fra
2016 43300 36461 28568 22162 20896
2015 43526 36179 26835 22057 22250
2014 43499 36670 26955 23310 20953
2013 42624 35921 28237 23234 19211
2012 45116 34600 28796 22466 18870
2011 42665 35294 28221 24306 19742
2010 42500 34151 28286 24957 20089
2009 42565 35614 28276 25045 21050
2008 39426 36076 29124 23180 21841
2007 39975 34363 28838 18473 21940
2006 40745 33864 29029 21698 21552
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