The controversial owner has angered fans and authorities but on one issue he may be correct
4 November ~ Leeds United chairman Massimo Cellino has been in the news over the past week, firstly for saying that he was prepared to sell the club to supporters’ group Leeds Fans United, then announcing that he had changed his mind. No one will have been too surprised by this latest development. After all, in the space of a week last month he sacked his fifth manager in less than 18 months in charge, was banned from running a football club – for the second time – following a conviction for tax evasion (although he has since appealed the decision) and launched an offensive on the Football League for its exploitation of Leeds supporters.
On the latter point Cellino argued that the club and their fans were being unduly punished by the authorities due to the sheer number of times the club’s games had been televised live. Changing the dates and kick-off times of games was unfairly punishing fans who had already bought tickets and was also having a negative impact on the club’s finances, with matchday revenues for home games taking a hit when the TV cameras were in town.
So far this season the club have had ten games moved – a joint league high – for television, despite the fact that they spent the first quarter of the season in the bottom half. And this season isn’t a temporary blip, it’s a continuation of an on-going trend with Leeds appearing live on TV more than any other Championship club since the beginning of 2009-10, according to data collated by City AM newspaper.
The data, which was published in December 2014, revealed that Leeds appeared live on TV on 35 different occasions in the preceding five and a half seasons – Leicester appeared the same number of times over the same period prior to winning promotion to the Premier League. However, the data also showed why the club are so attractive to broadcasters. While Leicester’s 35 live games attracted average viewing figures of 344,000, Leeds drew in an average audience of 477,000.
But what about Cellino’s allegation that this has had a negative impact on the club’s gate receipts? There’s no clear answer to this question and Cellino didn’t offer any hard and fast financial evidence to support his claims. But by comparing Elland Road attendances for the league fixture with Blackburn Rovers over the last two seasons it looks as if he might have a point. In April 2015, 25,293 fans saw Blackburn win the game 3-0, but in October this year only 19,666 fans turned up to watch the Thursday night game which was televised live on Sky.
In its own right this isn’t conclusive proof. However Bill Gerrard, a sports data expert who has worked with rugby club Saracens and Billy "Moneyball" Beane, and is also a Leeds fan, says that there is some evidence to support claims that TV coverage has a negative impact on gates. “One study in the early years of the Premier League showed that Monday night games reduced gates by an average of 15.2 per cent,” Gerrard says. “I did a small study of games in 1997-98 in which the identical game the previous season was not televised. The average effect was a reduction of 9.6 per cent.”
Gerrard adds that finding concrete evidence that proves televising matches has a detrimental impact on matchday revenues is even more complicated in the Premier League because most games are sell outs so the “stay-at-home effect” can’t be observed. That’s why for his own study he only looked at games that were not sell outs.
Cellino’s initial attempt to tackle the issue failed miserably. He issued a dictat that the club would limit sales of tickets to away games to just 2,000 – the bare minimum dictated by the Football League. He knew that this would hit clubs hard in the pocket as last season Leeds had the biggest away following in the second tier with an average 2,774 fans per game – already this season Leeds have taken 3,789 supporters to Craven Cottage, 6,000 to Milton Keynes and 4,400 to Bolton.
However, within a week of declaring his clampdown Cellino was forced to reverse his decision as angry Leeds fans argued that they were the ones being unduly punished as they wouldn’t be able to support the club on their travels. Whether or not he stands a chance of winning his argument with the Football League is highly debatable – particularly as it seems likely that he may have to take a back seat following the new banning order. But just for once it looks like Cellino may actually have a valid point. Simon Creasey