An Economic Geography of Football

Posted by on Apr 12, 2011 in Uncategorized | 22 Comments
Heading to Ryton for last Saturday’s Northern League Day, I was once again treated to one of the classic vistas of UK travel. The sweeping arc of the train as it approaches Newcastle upon Tyne is a dramatic one — the Tyne far below, Victorian palaces on the opposite shore, the Millennium Bridge and Baltic Arts Centre gleaming in the sunshine and St. James’ Park visible on the horizon. It seems a confident city these days; its smart central business district thronged with consumers, a quintessential regional centre.

It’s a pattern that is repeated the country over: marking a resilience that has falteringly defied the slings and arrows of the financial crisis. Take Cardiff. Flush with Millennium money and building projects, it’s a youthful, dynamic capital; its football club threatening to dine at the top table for the first time in eons — the community focus heightened by the sometime presence of national heroes Craig Bellamy and Aaron Ramsey.

Despite the recession, the underlying prosperity of UK cities has impinged greatly on football during the post-Hillsborough era. Regional Innovation Systems — broadly, the institutions that influence innovation and the performance of firms in particular regions – have had a swingeing effect. The rise of new technology, knowledge spillovers, linkages between companies and a healthy spirit of competition and collaboration are said to be at the heart of economic success, spurring entrepreneurial activity and driving growth.

At the heart of this is that prime component of economic geography: the cluster. Just as a city region like Oxford has benefitted from the concentration of biotechnology firms in its orbit; thus attracting a host of businesses that feed off this trend and leading to a spurt of pharmaceutical industry start ups, certain patterns of production, distribution and usage in the economic landscape can be seen to have boosted our national game.

For contrary to received wisdom that a club needs a large catchment area free of competing attractions from which to draw support, being close to one’s rivals can provide benefits. London sides contest for Champions League honours like never before, Greater Manchester and Lancashire provide us with an extraordinarily high number of Premier League participants and the likes of Watford and Reading have ridden the wave of regional prosperity to establish themselves higher up the pyramid than their history has led them to be used to. The pattern is also repeated abroad in Germany’s Ruhrgebiet (Schalke, Borussia Dortmund), Lombardy and Piedmont (Milan, Turin), Catalonia (Barcelona and Espanyol) and elsewhere.

For the satellite businesses that football interacts with include the constructors of new stadia, providers of electronic ticketing schemes, caterers, sponsors and hoteliers along others – it’s held that more money circulating in the economy is good for everyone. Wigan and Bolton maintain their top flight status partly because the supplementary amenities that a football club needs to function are located handily and locally.

But this is only part of the picture of course and the downturn is far from the blip it is often painted as. UK regional growth throughout the Blair years in particular was very much centred on landmark projects, and showpiece city centre developments were encouraged at the expense of hinterlands. Hence, those parts of Britain most likely to attract investment, including from abroad, were helped along at the expense of more out of the way places. One only has to contrast Sheffield with Barnsley to view the impact of this — the former has its Showroom and Winter Garden pavilions; the latter had changed not a jot when I visited in 2009 after a gap of 10 years.

For we are now witnessing the dangers in fostering uneven growth. It’s said that the private sector is a major engine of wellbeing, but entrepreneurs tend to flock to an area once it’s up and running and rarely start their activities in a vacuum. The conditions that attract them — tax breaks and benevolent funding – have often been positioned strategically and ideologically, with the outcome of science and technology policy diverted towards city centres and faceless business parks.

Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University has argued that the state has sought to make and break development in Wales by preventing the coal industry from diversifying into the related engineering sector that supplied equipment for the state-owned industry, and concentrating instead on a knowledge economy through the creation of a network of so called Technium Centres to promote business-university linkages — a strategy that left traditional working class communities behind, union strongholds as they are.

For those areas that have missed out, the successful specialization of the past can lead to disastrous lock in with towns reliant on one employer or one sector. The Welsh valley towns are a world away from Cardiff Bay and the Millennium Stadium, beset by unemployment and some of the lowest average incomes in the UK. In football, more isolated burgs like Gillingham, Wrexham, Carlisle and Plymouth have felt detached from the agglomeration economies enjoyed by the Northwest, London and, at least for this season alone, the West Midlands.

But at least Blair and his cronies did pump some money in, even if it was unevenly distributed and eagerly gobbled up by the private sector and the middle class — presenting a large scale shift in economic governance from the regional to the city-region level. There is even more danger in allowing regions and cities to develop organically. Our new year-old overlords are more parsimonious with the finances and the ideological basis of the Cuts agenda is clear and present.

In the past, many of our cities as well as those in Europe, fell into what has been termed a “museum trap” — inhabited only by tourists and abandoned by residents unable to afford to properly participate in the cultural life of the city. The Italian academic Luciana Lazzeretti has argued for more creative spaces within cities — viewing the metropolis as an informal collective environment that can foster creative activity. I would argue that football can be a very big part of that, but socializing activities have instead been hit hardest by the tightening of the purse strings.

Economic growth does not happen spontaneously. This is a post that has explored some elements of the economic geography of football but the ingredients that go to make up this heady brew would be nothing without money. The strangling of public funds, significant under Blair, is now influencing every aspect of our lives, with football no exception. Whether or not the game should be directly funded by taxes is not a view many favour; but the sport’s centrality to the cultural life of a town or a region is, in my opinion, unarguable. So, leaving our heartlands to fend for themselves is a short sighted tactic, leading to an unsustainable future and concentrating wealth even more in a few dazzling cityscapes – perhaps hastening the likelihood of a European Super League and damaging the grassroots of English football as we know it.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.


  1. unitedite
    April 12, 2011

    Interesting when you choose Sheffield. Certainly parts of the city have been architecturally revitalised and the recent manufacturing and entrepenaurial festivals are trying to get business back on track. David Stubbs in this month's When Saturday Comes refers to the the walk from train station to Bramall Lane as being “Full Montied” since his last visit. I only wish these changes had co-incided with more than a brief flirtation with Premier league football.

  2. Lanterne Rouge
    April 12, 2011

    Good points all round and thanks to the anonymous posters for exposing my tendency to sometimes over generalise!

    As for Sheffield, like other cities, the landmark projects have been very much in the centre of the city and the suburbs have often been less blessed in terms of financial help.

  3. Stanley
    April 12, 2011

    Thought-provoking post, LR. The anonymous commenter above makes the salient point that other factors have a significant impact on the success or otherwise of a club. The clustering trend is evident in the progress or decline of football clubs over the long term, but those clubs still need visionary managers to take advantage of the opportunities.

    Sheffield is a curious example to explore. The city is one of those confident regional centres you refer to: a strong and separate identity and what seems on the surface like increasing prosperity on my frequent visits should make it a motor for a cluster of economic activity. However, the trajectory of its League clubs has been one of decline in recent years. Is this because the consequences of deindustrialization are still impacting upon the supporters who fill its two footballing arenas and thus the clubs themselves? Or is it just rank bad management (on and off the pitch) that has led them to this sorry state?

  4. Lanterne Rouge
    April 12, 2011

    Yes – I think the economic fortunes of an area are only one aspect that impinges upon a club's fortunes. I think it's fair that Sheffield United are having their worst season for some tiem this year and until recently, were in comparatively rude health – promotion, followed by a year in the Premier League and then a near miss on getting back to the Promised Land in 2009.

    Wednesday's fortunes can possibly also be put down to the boom – they seem emblematic of a club that flew too close to the sun during the years of high finance.

  5. Ben
    April 12, 2011

    Sheffield really should be able to support either a Premier League club or two in the Championship – I suspect it's bad management that's done for them both, as Stanley suggests.

    Newcastle isn't much different than other 'regenerated' cities in the sense that economic development has focused on flagship/iconic projects in the city centre. I guess that's only natural, but the trickle-down effect is important and I'm not convinced it's been particularly widely felt. Likewise Birmingham, which now boasts a largely fantastic city centre but at the heart of miles of neglected sprawl.

    Worth mentioning too that Leeds is arguably the large city to have experienced the most growth since the regeneration boom began, and it's only been home to a Championship side again for less than a season.

  6. deangraziosi
    April 13, 2011

    Wonderfully secretes are revealed. I love to see more on it. It will gone set golden period.
    dean graziosi

  7. Michael (Regista-blog)
    April 13, 2011

    This is a very thought provoking post, great stuff.

    Quick point on Watford — they’ve nearly gone under twice in the past decade. You are right that they benefit from a local population with relatively high employment, but their gates have been fairly static, and they struggle to attract fans drawn to Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea.

    The general point you make about prosperity is important, but there will always be uneven distribution of wealth. I'm not sure Barnsley has ever been a rich town. That doesn’t mean it can’t support a professional football team, but it does mean the club will have to be realistic about what it charges fans to attend.

    I wonder, where do Stoke fit into this? It’s a fairly isolated city — halfway between Birmingham and Manchester, I don’t know how wealthy it is compared to those two, but it has a football mad population and an increasingly confident premier league football club.

  8. Lanterne Rouge
    April 13, 2011

    Very good points folks. I think economic prosperity is only one factor in determining a club's fortunes. Leeds may have struggled for the past few years but the boom started in the 1990s and for a time, the Peacocks rode that wave – even appearing in a Champions League semi final.

    So, I'd argue that economic prosperity allowed a lot of clubs to launch bids to become higher profile but some pushed the envelope too far and ended up in financial problems as a result.

    Stoke is indeed an interesting case – very isolated and low income and yet still thriving on the pitch.

  9. DdraigGochCymru
    April 13, 2011

    I think that Cardiff City is actually a great example here because the improving economic performance of the city and its increasing profile globally were a massive part of why Sam Hammam and, more recently,the current Malaysian owners of the club, decided to invest in the club which, in turn, has led to improvement in the club's fortunes.

    The improving economic fortunes of an area provides great opportunities for football clubs to ride that wave and improve their own fortunes. However, as has been pointed out, there are many other factors that affect a club's fortunes and whether the management of a club is capable of taking advantage of the opportunities presented to it is another matter entirely!

  10. Frank Heaven
    April 13, 2011

    There's one factor that massively distorts the economic geography of football – Sky.

    The £30m-plus a season each Premier League club gets means relatively small and poor towns like Wigan and Bolton sustain top flight teams. While big and affluent regional centres like Bristol and Leeds do not.

    The problem with a thesis linking football success to economic growth is that there is generally a contradiction – as one poster above points out, why are Reading successful now, while Oxford are not? Both are based in similar-sized, affluent Thames Valley towns.

    There may be a closer link further down the leagues, where sponsorship and local disposal income are more important. Since automatic promotion was introduced from the conference 23 years ago, new league clubs have generally been southern-based. But even then, the north has provided the likes of Morecambe, Accrington and Macclesfield.

  11. Bill Turianski
    April 13, 2011

    Holy cow. Great post, Lanterne Rouge. I feel like I just attended a lecture at a prestigious university. Plus I like how you called Cameron and his ilk 'overlords'.

  12. Lanterne Rouge
    April 14, 2011

    Thanks for articulating my point a little better than me DdraigGochCymru – success does attract investors and entrepreneurs who, contrary to their image as brave soldiers for national economic growth tend to follow rather than lead.

    And probably an even bigger factor – certainly Bolton and Wigan have a lot to thank Murdoch for even if the former are actually dicing dangerously with financial peril.

  13. William Abbs
    April 14, 2011 Reply
  14. William Abbs
    April 14, 2011

    The decline in Yorkshire clubs' fortunes in relation to those from Lancashire is particularly profound. The first Premier League season featured both Sheffield clubs and Leeds, with Barnsley and Bradford both making an appearance (however brief and ultimately traumatic) over the next ten years. Next season, even if Leeds make it back to the top flight, it looks like three of those local rivals will be outside the top two divisions.

    I don't know enough about the respective economies of Yorkshire and Lancashire to comment too technically. However, looking at the circumstantial evidence, it seems possible that the notion of a reciprocal relationship being enjoyed between clubs from the same region – a point this article raises – might explain why the Yorkshire clubs have declined together and Lancashire's smaller sides (Bolton, Wigan, Blackburn) have been carried along in United (and now City's) slipstream.

  15. Stanley
    April 14, 2011

    I think that Stoke's rise has had a lot to do with a benevolent owner: the founder of the online betting company promoted by Ray Winstone, I believe. (The Swiss Rambler posted a typically brilliant analysis a while back.)

    William raises a very good point about the stark disparity between the Red and White Roses. There must be a thesis (or at least a decent blog post) in that.

  16. Michael
    April 17, 2011

    Interestingly, Newcastle United's startling renaissance in the mid-1990s came under the stewardship of John Hall, a man who came to prominence by building Europe's largest out of town shopping mall on derelict land owned by the Church of England. Back when Hall was still speaking of the importance of the 'Geordie Nation' (i.e. before he flogged his shares at a vastly inflated price to the witless Mike Ashley) he expressly modelled the club on Barcelona (another city to have benefited from early-90s regeneration cash) by snapping up ice hockey and basketball teams. Didn't last, of course. At Newcastle, things rarely do.

  17. Great Football League Teams 40: Reading 1985-6 | The Two Unfortunates
    December 4, 2012

    […] had spent just two seasons in their history above the third tier of the English game. Since then, the impact of economic geography and demography, the emergence of John Madejski in classic sugar daddy mode and a cautious, realistic emphasis on […]


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