Have Roman's billions bought Chelsea millions of fans? It depends what you mean by "fan", as a sceptical Adam Powley explains while calculatng which are our best-supported clubs

Of all the many eyebrow-raising comments Chelsea’s chief executive Peter Kenyon has made in his eventful career as a football mover and shaker, one of his more surprising claims barely caused a ripple. Last spring, when welcoming Chelsea’s new sponsorship deal with Samsung, Kenyon proclaimed: “In the last 12 months, our domestic fan base has increased by 300 per cent to 2.9 million.”

How much? In a Premier League awash with big figures, this particular stat appeared at best a trifle exaggerated. Even allowing for a flood of wide-eyed kids attracted by the club’s success, or a rush of glory-hunters ditching their Man Utd or Arsenal shirts in favour of Chelsea blue, it seemed an unlikely surge of popularity within 12 months. And this for a club that only a few years ago were getting gates plenty of Championship sides would regard as poor.

Kenyon has since followed up his aforementioned statement with further declarations as to the power of the all-consuming Chelsea project and the ambitions he and Roman Abramovich have for their adopted club. Kenyon says, with an apparent lack of irony, that he wants Chelsea to “own London”.

Chelsea are not alone in playing the numbers game. Kenyon’s former employer, Manchester United, have long trumpeted their credentials as the world’s best-supported club. Arsenal’s projections for attendance at their new stadium speak of providing greater access to vast hordes of otherwise excluded fans, while Daniel Levy, chairman of Spurs, has countered with his own statement that Tottenham are the fourth best-supported club in the country. Football fans are familiar with such hubris, but behind the scattering of statistics, a question inevitably arises: how many fans do individual clubs actually have?

There are various means to quantify numbers of fans. The most straightforward is to gauge actual punters through the door, by way of measuring attendances. That, clearly, is a narrow parameter and so clubs seek other ways to engage in what is, in its most reduced form, an expression of status symbolism: my support’s bigger than yours. Estimating a football club’s fan base has become an in-demand service and Sport + Markt is an organisation foremost among those providing valuable data. A communications and research company based in Germany, it conducts regular independent surveys, in part to evaluate the extent of support, by drawing on the responses of a representative sample of football fans. Individual clubs can then purchase the relevant findings.

Sport +Markt ask the obvious question of the participants in their surveys – “what team do you support?” – and then extrapolate the resulting figures to arrive at a level of support, in much the same way as opinion pollsters identify political inclinations. Among Sport + Markt’s recent findings, for example, was the announcement that Liverpool’s  Champions League success has increased their European fan base to ten million. Calculating numbers of fans is not just an idle exercise in one-upmanship, however, or an excuse for consultants and researchers to try out their methodology. Clubs pay good money for such data because, as ever, there is an obvious commercial imperative. They need to appeal to sponsors by dangling the marketing carrot of numbers in the millions, not tens of thousands, and the bigger the fan base, the more lucrative the TV, sponsorship and merchandising deals.

Filling a stadium with 50,000 fans every other week looks impressive on screen, but corporations are more likely to be impressed with the prospect of millions more who have bought into the “brand”. Everyone associated with the football industry, from kit manufacturers to publishers, has a vested interest in knowing how many people support each club – or more pertinently how many potential customers that club attracts.

Such information is well guarded. Sport + Markt understandably would not release actual figures, on the basis that theirs is a paid-for service. Among the Premier League clubs contacted by WSC for our own stab at number crunching, several declined to provide specific figures on a variety of indicators, particularly in the case of the number of replica shirts sold and website users, citing “commercial sensitivity”. Fiercely protective of any information in an era of image rights and “maximising the brand”, clubs operate a contradictory policy. They like to boast how many fans they’ve got, but don’t want too many people to know about it.

The problem with estimates of any kind, however, is that they are just that: judgments or approximations. For example, the fact that Chelsea’s fan base has reportedly increased so significantly in such a short period of time suggests that these new devotees could be more like “floating voters” than diehard supporters. The bare figure doesn’t reveal if they are likely to actually attend a game at Stamford Bridge any more than it suggests they admire the team’s achievements.

Nailing down the concept of “fan” is an inherently tricky business. Is the satellite-watching, replica shirt-wearing fanatic who cannot afford a season ticket less of a supporter than the corporate box-holder who attends every home game, partly for the football, mostly for the complimentary food and drink? Is the supporter who lives hundreds of miles away and cannot get to home games less of a fan than the local who goes to the odd match out of a casual interest?

Short of asking every single person in England (and how far beyond?), it is nigh on impossible to arrive at absolute, definitive figures. Instead, for the purposes of WSC’s own fans survey, we compared selective figures for various Premier League clubs to average attendances over the past 20 years (see right).

Inevitably, the latter measurement presents its own inaccuracies, not least that it excludes traditionally well supported clubs such as Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday currently out of the top flight. Absent, too, are the Glasgow clubs, with their huge fan bases. However, we have opted for a 20-year timescale based on current Premier League clubs for several reasons.

First, it reflects attendance over a reasonable period, allowing for variations in success on the pitch, thus reducing the “fair-weather” factor. Second, it spans a period when virtually every club has either rebuilt or redeveloped their stadium, allowing differences in capacity within individual clubs to even out over the period. (It follows that successful clubs tend to have larger support and thus have historically been those with larger capacities.) It also spans a pivotal period in English football, beginning when the game hit its lowest post-war trough in the aftermath of Heysel and Bradford, and ending with the peak of a TV-revenue induced boom of 2005. As such it covers an era when, in crude financial terms at least, the top-flight game was transformed.

Finally, it reflects a fundamental aspect of support: it measures the number of people who are actually prepared to travel, pay and attend matches. A restrictive definition? Perhaps, but one that by default represents committed supporters rather than just interested customers.

It is noticeable that many of the higher figures have occurred in the past two years. This may reflect the culmination of stadium expansion, but also indicates that, for whatever reason, fans find the expensive all-seat, foreign-import option preferable to the rudimentary charms of the mid-1980s.

Clearly, there are anomalies. Given Arsenal’s consistency of performance in the past decade, it is unlikely that they have only a marginally larger fan base than trophy-less Newcastle. The limitations of Highbury’s capacity have in part kept their average in check. Concerning Newcastle, they have the largest difference between highest and lowest average, a whopping 35,087, suggesting that the “best fans in the world” may not be the most loyal, though, for a club without a major honour in nearly 40 years, sustaining a more recent average of over 50,000 is impressive.

The column for the lowest attendance indicates that the self-styled “Big Five” of the late 1980s have consistently pulled in the most paying fans. Wigan, not surprisingly, occupy bottom place, but their first Premiership season should see their average climb and give a new high in excess of 20,000.

And as for Chelsea? Clearly, they have some way to go before Peter Kenyon can proclaim with concrete justification that they are a better-supported club than perennial underachievers Spurs, let alone that they “own” London.

From WSC 227 January 2006. What was happening this month

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