Recession proof

Roger Titford ponders what football can learn from previous financial downturns and what fans can expect in the current credit crunch

English football has become much more efficient at gathering its harvest early and therefore should be cushioned from some of the most immediate effects of the credit crunch. TV deals are wrapped up for years to come – the ITV Digital fiasco notwithstanding – sponsorships are in place and season tickets sold. Things can go wrong in the world of high finance, though, as West Ham have found, having an Icelandic owner and losing a shirt sponsor.

 In the early 1990s  recession, football’s cash cushion was not so plump and some lower-division clubs (Aldershot, Maidstone, Newport) went out of business. It was in this era that the supporters’ trust movement began as a way of saving troubled clubs, with Northampton a notable example. Even before today’s credit crunch began there were a few crisis clubs bearing points deductions and others, too, on the edge of survival. Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, there has to be a question about how many times or how often fans can rally round to save, say, Bournemouth or Luton. Once in a generation is fair enough but to do it every five years must get incredibly fatiguing, however worthy the cause.

In the Premier League, the investment level by new owners is sometimes beyond rational economics and the usual rules of business sense. It certainly helps to have a billionaire and the world’s best sporting TV deal on your side at times like these. Yet there is always the worry that some major loans can be called in or subject to disastrous renegotiation.

Crucial to the image of the game at the top are TV pictures showing full stadiums. A packed ground is a powerful statement for viewers at home and abroad that this is an event worth attending – and so one worth watching. Popularity breeds popularity. A bum on the seat in front of the TV cameras is worth more than a bum out of view, so seating arrangements are manipulated accordingly.

Will the fans still keep coming through the recession, though? There has been a major change in attendance patterns. Clubs rely much more on season-ticket sales – they constitute the cake and are what clubs work to attract; for most, the “walk-up” sales are the icing. Compared with the mid-1970s, fewer people in the whole population go to matches but those that do attend go more frequently. Season tickets encourage frequency and away support has become more regular.

Two crunch questions will be posed over the next few months. One is over the kitchen table, where the family consider whether their £1500-a-year football habit, including a £750 season-ticket bill, can be maintained in 2009-10. The other question is in the club marketing department: what is going to keep season-ticket sales up? Even this season, clubs have been taking quite divergent stances. Some, such as Sunderland and QPR, have pushed prices on; others have reduced them, in the case of Bradford City, very severely; yet more, like Middlesbrough, have brought in very attractive kids’ deals.

Football is doubtless a consolation and an escape in difficult times. For committed fans, supporting a club live is such an ­important part of their personal identity that they would be prepared to sacrifice other major expenditure – holidays, furniture replacement, golf-club memberships etcetera. Nevertheless, economic depression does have a negative impact of attendances and more so in the lower divisions, where the clubs can least afford it.

Analysis of gate figures for the seasons either side of the 1929 Wall Street crash reveals a fall in crowds in Division One of ten per cent (1930-31 versus 1928-29). Manchester United were the worst supported club – at 11,685. For Divisions Three North and South the decline was almost double – 19 per cent down. The Thatcher ­recession of 1980-81 coincided with even steeper falls, though part of this could also be ascribed to the hooliganism of the time. Division One crowds were down 14 per cent (1981-82 versus 1979-80) and Divisions Three and Four by an eye-watering 24 per cent in the same period.

If history is any sort of guide, clubs ought to be contemplating a fall of 15-20 per cent in live attendance in a coming serious recession, though it is guess-work how the new factor of mass season-ticket holding will play out. Life in the lower divisions may be about to get even tougher. But there’s no reason why overall interest in the game will diminish. 

From WSC 262 December 2008