Stable gates, but study underlines systemic clubs

FOOTBALL’s principal emerging nations, the US and China, have almost arrived, with the top divisions of their leagues in the top 10 in terms of spectator interest.

According to CIES Football Observatory’s latest report, China and the US are sixth and eighth respectively over the past five years by average crowds.

The German Bundesliga has an average of 43,302 with the English Premier second-placed on 36,675 and Spain third with 27,381. In fourth place, and the top country outside Europe, is Mexico with a crowd of 25,582.

China, with an average of 22,594 is only marginally behind Italy’s Serie A and is ahead of Ligue 1 of France. The US has a gate of 21,358 over the same period – not the highest average posted by Major League Soccer, but a sign that the game in the world’s biggest economy is growing.

Interestingly, the 10thhighest league is Germany’s Bundesliga 2 (18,814) and England’s Championship is 11th(18,526).

Over a 15-year period, the league with the highest percentage increase is Poland with a 47% rise. The US is up by 34% and Germany’s second tier has grown by 32%. The Premier and Championship have expanded by 6% and 8% respectively.

Over the last five years, only 14 clubs have recorded an average gate of more than 50,000 and another 23 have exceeded 40,000. Notable in the top 10 is the MLS’s Atlanta United, a club that was founded in 2014 but one that lifted the MLS Cup in 2018. Atlanta’s 51,547 is remarkable given the population of Atlanta City is less than half a million.

Predictably, the top 10 includes Borussia Dortmund at the summit with an average of 80,230 with Manchester United (75,218), Barcelona (74,876) and Bayern Munich (73,781) the other clubs with more than 70,000.

On a similar note to Atlanta, another rising power is China’s Guangzhou Evergrande, who are placed 26thwith an average crowd of 44,905. While it should be remembered that this is a city with around 12 million people, Guangzhou has a higher gate than big guns Chelsea (41,463) and Juventus (38,778).

CIES Football Observatory’s paper does underline the systemic importance of the top clubs in a number of countries,  which should hit at the heart of any debate over restructuring European football.

For example, Celtic’s attendances account for more than a third of overall Scottish gates (36.5%) and the top three clubs in Scotland contribute a massive 65%. Little wonder that past discussions around Celtic and Rangers joining the English League probably sent shivers down the spine of Scottish FA officials. In 2018-19, Celtic’s 58,000 regular crowd at Parkhead is more than three times the average of the Edinburgh duo, Hearts and Hibernian. The differential between Celtic and Hamilton, the lowest supported club in the Scottish top flight, is a massive 54,000.

Portugal is another good example of the systemic importance of the marque names. Benfica, Sporting and Porto account for 63.9% of total Portuguese gates, with Benfica alone responsible for more than 25%. Benfica’s 2018-19 gates are more than 54,000 per game, while the bottom club by attendances is Aves, who attract less than 2,000. The impact of losing this triumvirate of well supported clubs would be a disaster for Portugal’s domestic football landscape.

By contrast, the more prominent football nations – the so-called big five – are less reliant on their top clubs, hence the Premier’s top three by drawing power contribute 26% and the others – Germany (27.6%), Italy (28.1%), Spain (35.1%) and France (30.2%) are relatively low compared to the likes of Scotland, Portugal, Croatia and others.

Overall, across the 26 leagues surveyed by CIES, the average crowds over 15 years have barely changed, suggesting the appetite for the game remains constant. One area where football seems to be in decline is in the Nordic region, with Sweden (-11%), Finland (-13%), Denmark (-23%) and Norway (-29%) among the worst performing at the turnstiles over the past 15 years. Greece, a country that has confronted economic turmoil over the past decade, is bottom of the list with a 32% decline since 2003.

What does the future look like? For Germany and England, their stadium utilisation rates are currently so high it is difficult to see crowds rising much more, although new builds – such as Tottenham’s impressive ground – would create the potential for bigger capacities. Clubs need to be less reliant on TV money, so growth of matchday and commercial revenues will undoubtedly be a priority for major clubs, which may result in more construction projects to allow supply to better meet demand.

Photo: PA


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