Grounds are full and expanding them is too risky for clubs
16 February ~ The Premier League is celebrating another record-breaking TV rights deal – this time valued at just over £5 billion over three seasons, and that’s not including the worldwide rights. But there is one area where the League has proved less successful in recent years – namely filling the grounds. At first this seems counterintuitive. Last season's average attendance of 36,695 per game was not just a record for the Premier League, but a level not seen since in the English top-flight since the 1950s – a time when the fledgling television industry barely had any involvement with the game.
However, this headline number masked what has been over a decade of at best sluggish growth. The (unofficial) attendance figures on the European Football Statistics website reveals that while average attendance for the Premier League grew by around 68 per cent over the course of its first decade between 1992-93 and 2002-03, they have since then increased by just three per cent, causing the Premier League to trail behind the German Bundesliga with the latter’s combination of big stadiums and cheap tickets.
A look at the financial figures also reveals that while broadcasting revenue has in recent years surged upwards, matchday revenue – the money made from selling tickets, VIP packages and catering – has struggled to keep pace. According to Deloitte’s Football Money League reports, for example, Manchester United’s 2008-09 season matchday revenue was £108.8 million. By 2013-14 this had dropped to £108.1m. At the same time the club’s broadcasting revenue rose from £99.7m to £135.8m. For Arsenal, who also draw some of the largest crowds in the league at the Emirates, the Deloitte figures reveal that although matchday revenues are similar to their 2008-09 level, their relative importance has fallen dramatically from 45 per cent of the club’s overall revenue to just 33 per cent.
One reason for this widening discrepancy is that while there are few limits on the size of a television audience and its potential for growth, Premier League stadiums have been operating at near capacity for some time – currently in excess of 95 per cent. There is simply, for most games, no more room. Stadium building projects can be fraught with complexity, and a financial risk which grows exponentially with the scale and ambition of a scheme.
Diverting funds from the playing budget can also be a gamble with clubs missing out on a bigger share of broadcasting revenue to competitors focused more on the short term. While Liverpool and Tottenham are developing new and upgraded facilities and West Ham will be moving to the Olympic Stadium (built with a large amount of public money), there have been few signs that clubs' massively increased revenues will result in anything like the kind of large-scale investment in facilities seen in the stadium-boom of the 1990s. Neil Cotton