FOOTBALL’S popularity shows no apparent sign of waning, judging by the attendances at the top leagues across Europe. But among the “big five”, only France showed any sign of increase, and that rise was negligible.
Whether, in the case of England and Germany, the game has reached saturation point, remains to be seen, but most stadiums in those two countries are close to capacity. It should also be remembered that overall attendances also depend on the composition of the leagues themselves, so the loss of a well supported institution and possible replacement by a smaller club can have an artificial effect on aggregate crowds.
In England, the slight drop of 2% is explainable by the fact that Newcastle United and Aston Villa were relegated in 2016. Their loss (a combined average of 83,000) to the Premier undoubtedly impacted the total attendances for the division. To counter that, West Ham United became the fifth club to generate average gates in excess of 50,000 after their move to the Olympic stadium.
The Premier averaged 35,822 in 2016-17, the lowest since 2012-13. But across the four divisions in England, the average of 15,565 was the highest since 1960.
The stadium utilisation rate across the Premier averaged more than 94%, with West Ham (99.95%), Chelsea (99.72%) and Arsenal (99.21%) the highest and Hull City (81.72%) the lowest.
In the Premier, 11 clubs showed increased gates, with nine posting drops. Most notably, West Ham’s gates were up by 63%, Liverpool’s by 20% and naturally, the promoted trio of Middlesbrough, Hull City and Burnley all enjoyed improvement above 20%. The biggest drop in attendances was seen at Tottenham, a decline of almost 12%, probably attributable to the stadium project in progress at White Hart Lane.
The Bundesliga expected a drop in gates and indeed they were down by some 4% in 2016-17. That was due to the relegation of Stuttgart and Hannover in 2016, clubs that had a combined average of 93,000. Their replacements, Freiburg and Leipzig drew some 30,000 lower. However, 10 of the 18 Bundesliga clubs saw their attendances drop in 2016-17. But Germany has more 50,000 clubs than any other country – six clubs generate crowds north of that figure at their home games.
The average Bundesliga crowd of 41,514 was the lowest since 2008, but with Stuttgart and Hannover returning to the top flight, replacing Darmstadt (17,000) and Ingolstadt (15,000), this should rise once more.
The stadium utilisation rate is over 93%, with Bayern Munich playing to a 100% capacity every home game. Hertha Berlin had the lowest utilisation rate, some 67%, although their average was over 50,000.
Attendances in Italy hit a new low in 2016-17 with the worst Serie A average since 1965, just 22,164. Just consider that in 1985, the year of Heysel and of Juventus’ first European Cup triumph, Italian crowds averaged 39,000 – which included a Napoli average of 77,000. The last 30,000 season was in 1999.
Italian attendances are more or less stagnant, but they slipped 2% lower, despite AC Milan showing a 12% increase. 12 of Serie A’s 20 clubs saw declines at the gate and half of the division can only draw sub- 20,000 crowds.
Too many Italian clubs are playing in stadiums they cannot fill, hence whenever you see Serie A action, some of the stadiums look empty. They have a utilisation rate of just 56%, only Juventus with a rate of 88% from an average crowd of 39,489 compare favourably to English and German clubs, although Cagliari’s small stadium is 84% filled. The Milan giants, while having the best crowds in real terms, Inter averaging 46,620 and AC Milan 40,294 have utilisation rates of 58% and 50% respectively. The San Siro is a vast stadium that needs filling to create an atmosphere.
Gates in Spain were also down by 2%, with 13 of the 20 La Liga clubs showing decreases in their averages, including Barcelona and Real Madrid. The overall average for La Liga was 27,700 which while being lower than 2015-16, was higher than past seasons where the average bubbled below 27,000. The La Liga story underlines the reliance on the big two, for the average among the remaining 18 clubs is barely 22,000.
But Spanish clubs have the highest stadium utilisation across the big five leagues. Fifteen of the 20 top division clubs have in excess of 99% of their capacity filled every home game.
Attendances in Ligue 1, averaging 21,029, were more or less flat in 2016-17 and for the fifth season in the last six, Paris St. Germain were the biggest draw at the box office with an average of 45,317. Only six of the league’s 20 clubs saw their crowds increase during the season, the most notable being early pacesetters Nice (up 19%), champions Monaco (+22%) and Dijon (+25%). Interestingly, the poorest supported club in Ligue 1 was Monaco with an average of 9,500. Stadium utilisation in Ligue 1 amounted to 65%.
Elsewhere in Europe, the biggest increase in the league average was in Scotland, which rose by 46% to just under 14,000. The reason? Glasgow Rangers were back in the top flight. Portugal, Poland, Austria and Turkey were among the climbers, but there was an alarming fall of more than 20% in Denmark.
From the figures compiled across the top five leagues, however, it appears that crowds are relatively stable. These people waiting for any bubble to burst may have to wait a bit longer – at present demand in the top leagues prevails.