The price isn't right – recession and the Football League
The start of a new season. Optimism across the Football League is high, at least for a few games, for any club. Crowds flock back after the summer break and pack stadiums out… don’t they?
Coventry City appear on our television screens last Saturday facing Derby County. Both teams have enjoyed decent starts to the league campaign and it should appeal. It should do.
The Ricoh Arena is, literally, half-empty. On Sunday, Middlesborough beat Sheffield United in front of only 14,633 – a record low attendance for league games at the Riverside Stadium.
Now, even accepting that three weeks into a new season the games so far represent a very small sample size and this could be a blip and not a trend, what is going on?
Just the bare statistics tell the story for the Championship. Of the twenty-four clubs, only five have achieved attendances over 80% of ground capacity so far this season and 14 of the 24 haven’t reached 70% of capacity.
The trend is even more marked in League One, with no ground more than 75% full and more than half of clubs operating on attendances at less than half capacity. In League Two, no club has seen a ground more than 67% full.
Here are some possible factors:
1. World Cup Hangover
England disappointed, expectations were high and were not met. Furthermore, they were not met in a style that was commonly seen to reflect badly on the English game, its coaches, players and playing style. This consequently counter-acted the usual media hype surrounding the start of the new season for the jaded fan.
Investigating this, looking at Premiership attendances so far this season tells a different story to that of the Championship. All bar four teams have attracted attendances over 80% of ground capacity and eleven have seen virtual sell-outs. No sign of a hangover there then. So we move on…
After witnessing the swathes of empty seats at the Riverside, Middlesbrough boss Gordon Strachan said:
“The recession is hitting now. It’s only footballers that seem to have money. I think, in a place like ours where unemployment is huge, you’re not going to get people turning up to a game that’s on the television. I’ve seen games all over the country this weekend and there have been lots of spaces around the grounds.”
This intuitive view can, in fact, be backed up by Official Government statistics which show that, as of mid-August, annual RPI inflation was running at 4.8% while headline pay rates are rising at 1.6% year on year, a fall from 2% increases previously. In effect, the disposable income of the employed football supporter as a whole is being squeezed.
So, moving on from that we come to:
3. Ticket Prices
Taking the example of Middlesbrough, the cheapest Category B adult match tickets are £23 each, with concessions priced at £13. Look elsewhere across the division and prices of £30 per ticket are commonplace and, in isolated instances, Category A games at places like Loftus Road can reach in excess of £40.
A family group consisting of a couple of adults plus children is looking at £90-100 per game purely on tickets before even taking into account travel, food, a programme and other spending on a typical trip.
In this economic environment, the early signs are that these costs are pricing some fans out of the attendance market, especially if the game is live on television. Of course, with BBC and Sky deals in place, most weekends you can find two Football League games live on the television.
In my opinion, Football League club marketing messages of “freezing ticket prices” from last season to the current campaign are insufficient. Early signs would suggest so, anyway.
The economic squeeze suggests that half empty Football League grounds are a sign of things to come for the remainder of the season.
Written by: Rich Prew