Revenue more important than crowd size
16 January ~ The continued rise of English league football is something we take for granted. With the Premier League concluding another record broadcasting deal we would be forgiven for thinking that this growth shows no signs of ending. However, data from the European Football Statistics website point to an inconvenient truth; recently attendances for English football have been stagnating. The figure for average League attendance post-war peaked in the 1948-49 season at 22,318 before embarking on a long decline, reaching a low of 8,130 in 1985-86.
Attendances then entered the period of sustained growth, rising throughout the 1990s and the subsequent decade before slowing dramatically in the past few years. Just how dramatically can be seen by looking at two periods; between 1995-96 and 2003-04 the overall average attendance for the football league increased by a third but between 2003-04 and 2011-12 the total grew by a barely noticeable 0.8 per cent.
One factor behind this may be social change: fragmentation of popular culture, a wider range of leisure options, changes to working patterns and the alternative of watching games on television means that football attendances may never realistically reach the heights of the late 1940s. The Bundesliga, however, defies the suggestion that attendances have reached a new equilibrium. Over the 2011-12 season, with the same distractions, it recorded a league average attendance 10,000 higher than the Premier League. It seems that English attendances still have room to grow.
The most obvious explanation would be to blame the recession, along with high ticket prices, for dampening demand. While this may have had some impact the flat-lining of average attendance figures pre-dates the economic troubles by several years, so recession is unlikely to be a cause of the trend. High prices also do not appear to have been an impediment to growth in the past. The inflation-busting rises that have accompanied attendance growth suggest football possesses a certain price-elasticity and in the most expensive league, the Premier League, capacity utilisation has remained consistently above 90 per cent. Still, it would be counter-intuitive to suggest that lower prices would not get more fans through the turnstiles – this is the experience in the Bundesliga.
There is also the ending of the stadium boom. According to the Deloitte 2012 Annual Review of Football Finance, clubs collectively invested around £3 billion in grounds and facilities, including the construction of over 30 new stadiums, over the previous 20 years. After decades of neglect this spending served to drive up attendances – the report mentions that Brighton's recent move to Falmer resulted in attendances increasing by 172 per cent, referring to this as the "new stadium effect". However, the report adds that in recent years the builders have been markedly less busy, with 2010-11 being "the fifth successive year in which no new stadium projects were underway in the Premier League".
This last detail reveals the economics behind stagnating attendances. If clubs, particularly those in the Premier League, were to maximise spectator numbers then capacities would be increased and prices reduced – much like the Bundesliga. Instead clubs are seeking to maximise revenue by pricing in-demand tickets as high as the market will bear: watching football has become a premium product, for a limited audience as opposed to the mass market product for a mass audience it was in the late 1940s. Neil Cotton