RELEGATION is often a big blow to clubs in Europe’s top leagues, mostly because it comes with financial implications, despite parachute payments. TV money and legacy wage bills are the biggest issue, but income at most clubs is affected by lower attendances. Or is it?
Football fans are known for their undying loyalty and a major setback often brings out the best in them, particularly if the club in question has made a strong stand against relegation and has been seen to have tried, perhaps against the odds. Even a relegated team can get applauded off into the summer, with the fans defiant that the club will bounce back and win promotion in a year’s time. “We’ll support you ever more.”
Given the fans feel they have something of an intimate relationship with the players, the blame for a team’s fall from grace is often directed at the club’s board rather than individuals on the field. In many cases, those very players will look to leave a Championship-bound team which is somewhat ironic. Badge kissing and thumping the heart mean nothing when an agent looks to move his man on to avoid playing at a lower level. Loyalty is less than skin deep!
In the big five European leagues, relegation can really hit a club hard at the turnstile, but in some cases, it can also lead to bigger attendances in relegation+1, especially if a promotion campaign is immediately mounted. The most loyal fans appear to be in Germany and England if you consider a stable attendance as a sign of devotion to the cause.
The Bundesliga has seen some very big clubs suffer relegation to 2.Bundesliga in recent years. Hamburg and Köln went down in 2017-18 and both have been among the front-runners for promotion in 2018-19. Hamburg’s gates have declined by 3.82% but Köln’s have actually risen by 1.5% – which does prove that the audience will return for a winning team.
Over the course of the past five years, the average drop in crowds for a relegated side in the first year outside the Bundesliga is 10.8%. There are exceptions, with Ingolstadt losing 29.9% of fans in 2017-18 and Paderborn falling by 26.4% in 2015-16. The big clubs, such as Hamburg, Köln and Stuttgart don’t seem to lose so many, most probably because their sheer size gives people the confidence for a quick return.
The German second tier has an average crowd of 19,029 in 2018-19, which represents 44% of the top division. Only the Championship in England has a better percentage among this group – 52% with an average of 20,181.
The average drop for Premier clubs after relegation over the past five years has been 13.6%. Not many clubs have seen crowds go up, but one notable exception is Newcastle United, whose loyal fans stuck with them in 2016-17 in a promotion winning campaign. Some clubs have not been so lucky – Sunderland lost 33% in 2017-18 and Hull and Fulham fell by 27% in 2015-16 and 2014-15 respectively. A significant decline can be a symptom of a club in turmoil, with disillusioned fans and deep-rooted problems.
The cruellest gap between the top and second tier can be found in Italy, where relegated clubs, on average, lose around 30% of their core attendance. There have been some dramatic drops that undoubtedly have a crippling effect on club finances. In 2016-17, Carpi’s gates went down 73% after a brief spell in Serie A, while Empoli hemmorhaged 48% in 2017-18. One explanation is the big gap between Serie A and B in terms of general crowd appeal – the 2018-19 average for Serie B is just 7,225 – which represents less than 30% of Serie A’s average. This is the lowest differential among the big five leagues.
In France, relegation from Ligue 1 can be transformational in a negative way, with a five-year average of over 27%. It is noticeable that Troyes, who have suffered relegation twice in that period, appear to lose their public when they drop into Ligue 2. In 2018-19 and 2016-17, their gates fell by more than 40%. Ligue 2’s overall average crowd is 6,600 versus Ligue 1’s 22,500.
Spain’s Segunda Divisíon has an average of less than 10,500 which is around 38% of La Liga’s top flight. A relegated club can expect to see gates go down by 17%, not bad considering the club will no longer have the likes of the big two, Real Madrid and Barcelona, on their fixture list.
Returning to the Premier, one of the big financial problems is the cost of thwarted ambition – what it has cost a club to get to the very top. Championship clubs spend far too much money on wages and often the bill exceeds club revenue. So when promotion is followed by relegation, the harsh truth can come home to roost. Clubs do everything they can to reach the promised land because the rewards are very lucrative – take a look at Fulham’s transfer expenditure last summer – but unless you have the resources to sustain life among the elite, the longer-term fiscal consequences can be desperate and damaging.
For some clubs, relegation can be an appropriate time for reinvention and reassessment. It has been encouraging the way clubs like Hull City, Norwich City and Burnley have been able to return after relegation, although the parachute payments have obviously helped. Conversely, Sunderland have had those same benefits but dropped another step to League One. The Championship is full of clubs who may feel their rightful place is in the Premier, but much depends on how a club handles relegation. It will be interesting to see how Cardiff City, Fulham and Huddersfield Town react next season to falling through the trapdoor in 2018-19.
The pragmatist would argue that breaking the bank can break hearts and clubs and may only deliver short-term benefits. People often fail to recognise that some clubs spend their lives in lower divisions for a reason, that their “deserved” place is not where they would like to be. Keeping calm, prudent, realistic and focused are obviously vital, but how many clubs can truthfully say they have those qualities in abundance?