The British football sector is characterised by considerable diversity in relation to the nature, type, size and success of football clubs (Wilson and Piekarz, 2015). However, what these clubs all share is a diminishing ability to attract large audiences. For example, by June 2015, just two months before the start of the 2015/2016 season, the English Premier League club, Newcastle United had only managed to sell 70 per cent of its season tickets; articles that just one decade earlier had been the subject of considerable demand (Edwards, 2015). Clubs at the lower echelons of the English footballing hierarchy, like Millwall and Brighton are faring even worse (Gupta, 2013), while many of those in the Scottish League are suffering a similar fate (Watt, 2014). This paper examines and discusses the drivers of the fall in football attendances and ticket sales in the United Kingdom in recent years. The paper finds that the decline cannot be attributed to any one factor; rather, a number of aspects have combined to produce a decline in interest, or ability of football fans to attend games. Against this background, a number of strategies to boost ticket revenues are proffered. The paper is organised as follows. The next section identifies and critiques four possible reasons for the decline in attendances and sales (the late 2000s recession, the limits of capacity, hooliganism and the increase in the number of televised football matches). Next three novel tactics to boost sales are identified. A short conclusion summarises the key findings of the paper.
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Causes of decline
The late 2000s recession
In 2008, the British economy officially entered into a recession. Unemployment rose – particularly among the working classes (the social class in which football fans and audiences have traditionally been located), downward pressure was placed on wages, and, as a consequence of growing inflation, disposable incomes were squeezed (Wilson and Piekarz, 2015). It seems reasonable, therefore, to suggest that the decline in the uptake of football tickets by potential attendees is at least partially attributable to their inability to afford the expense. Indeed, research shows that during periods of economic downturn, households cutback expenditure on items that are perceived to be non-essentials or luxuries; for many households, attendance at a football game will fall into one of these categories (Dobson and Goddard, 2011). Thus, a negative correlation between (paid) football attendances and inflation rates should be expected. However, there is some research that indicates that football consumption is in fact, price inelastic, even in the higher price brackets (Forrest, Simmons and Feehan, 2002). What this means is that avid football fans will continue to purchase tickets and attend matches if the relative price increases (as occurs during a recession) even if their economic circumstances should, according to a rational analysis, inhibit this. The price inelasticity of football attendance has been explained according to the theory of fandom (Goldblatt, 2014). This refers to the fact that football should not merely be understood as a game, but as a subculture comprised of a community of consumers whose identities and interests are reinforced through the consumption of the activity of which they are a fan (Harris and Alexander, 1998). Many individuals are long-term fans of football teams (or, of the game in general); their history of interaction with the sport can often be traced through familial lines. In such instances, expression of fandom continues regardless of obstacles such as affordability and economic context.
The fact that football is characterised by fandom suggests that the recession alone cannot explain the sharp decline in attendances and revenues witnessed in recent years. However, some commentators have argued that the effects of the recession should be understood in conjunction with the massive, real rise in prices of football tickets that have been evident over the past two decades. Since the 1980s, the cost of attending a football game has increased substantially (Buraimo, 2014). In the English Premier League – the highest professional league in the country – the average price of a ticket has risen by some 1100% (in real terms) since 1995 (Buraimo, 2014). One of the reasons for the huge increase in prices is the need for clubs to invest substantial sums in new talent in order to remain financially viable (Dobson and Goddard, 2011). Devoted fans understand this and may be happy to contribute funds through higher ticket prices during normal economic times. However, faced with declining incomes, even the most dedicated followers may be forced to make cutbacks on attendance.
Capacity limits have been reached
Another explanation for the decline in attendances and sales is that the limits of growth have now been reached. During the 1990s and early 2000s, many large clubs built new stadia or extended or remodelled their existing infrastructure (Dobson and Goodard, 2011). Examples include Bolton’s Reebok Stadium, which was built in 1997, Sunderland’s Stadium of Light (completed in 1997) and the DW Stadium (Wigan) which was built in 1999. Indeed, Deloitte (2014) catalogues some 30 new stadium built between 1992 and 2012. The improvement in facilities and increase in capacity meant that aggregate attendance levels, and hence, revenues, sharply rose in the late 1990s and early to mid-2000s (Dobson and Goddard, 2011). Thus, the fall in numbers attending games and the revenues that this yields that has been witnessed in recent years merely represents a return to what economists term equilibrium, or the natural state of things (Dobson and Goddard, 2011).
Since the 1980s, many football matches have been marred by instances of hooliganism (Hopkins and Treadwell, 2014). Hooliganism refers to a bundle of deviant and criminal behaviours (including violence, destruction, vandalism, intimidation, brawling and fighting) that is not typical of, but unique to the sport of football. Although hooliganism in football has a long history (according to Hopkins and Treadwell, 2014, the earliest recorded incident of football hooliganism occurred as far back as 1880), it proliferated during the 1970s and 1980s in English football. Many teams were supported by organised groups of hooligans such as Middlesbrough’s Frontline, the Naughty Forty (hooligans associated with Stoke City) and the County Road Cutters (Everton) (Hopkins and Treadwell, 2014). Growing incidents of hooliganism arguably made physical attendance at football matches far less desirable compared with the ability to watch the sport at home or televised in some space away from the stadium (Jewell, Simmons and Szymanski, 2014). The impact of hooliganism on attendances and revenues may also be more indirect. It may also have been partly responsible for the hike in prices that occurred during the 1990s, as clubs sought ways to attempt to dissuade hooligans from attending games. However, the impact of hooliganism on football attendances and revenues could perhaps be overstated. As Green and Simmons (2015) and Perryman (2013) have both noted, there has been a decline in incidents of hooliganism in recent years in both England and Scotland. This is attributable to a crackdown placed on hooligan activities by British law enforcers as well as increased powers of clubs to prevent sales of tickets to individuals known to be associated with football related crime.
Increased access to televised football
Finally, it is argued that physical attendances at football matches have dropped because there is simply no need for fans to attend any longer. As a consequence of new economic models characterised by the sale of the rights to televise football games to a number of production companies, it is possible for fans to watch most games either at home (if they have the relevant subscriptions) or in some other space (such as a public house) (Solberg and Mehus, 2014). Furthermore, channels through which football can be watched and accessed are growing in diversity as a result of advances in communications technologies. The proliferation of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets means that individuals can tune in to their favourite clubs’ games even when they are on the go (Cleland, 2015; Solberg and Mehus, 2014). Although football fans express the joy and excitement of attending a ‘real-life’ game (Goldblatt, 2014), there are many advantages to watching a game outside of the football stadium. First, audiences have access to home comforts and facilities, such as toilets and drinks, and do not have to endure poor weather which may in fact improve their enjoyment of the game. Second, watching a game at home or in a public space is considerably less expensive than attending a physical game, even if a television (or other platform) subscription must be paid for (Dobson and Goddard, 2011). The cost of ancillary products such as food and drink is lessened, and souvenirs, if desired, can be easily sourced online (Solberg and Mehus, 2014). Thirdly, there may be better camaraderie for fans of the game because large groups of individuals are able to watch the game together; whereas only devoted fans are likely to travel to away games, and the cost of both home and away games, as well as restrictions on sales may prevent some individuals from attending. Fourthly, if hooliganism is perceived to be a problem, fans may believe it to be safer to watch the game away from the stadia (Perryman, 2013).
Despite the advantages of watching football games away from the stadia, as well as the increased ability to do so, some commentators argue that the impact of television and other media on the negative economic fortunes of the game have been overstated. Firstly, it is pointed out that clubs derive considerable revenues from their deals with television companies (Cleland, 2015). Secondly, many avid fans view televised games as inferior to watching games in real life. Thirdly, the games of many football clubs, especially those in the lower leagues, are not televised at all (Wilson and Piekarz, 2015). This means that the drop in attendance at these games cannot be attributed to the proliferation of broadcasted matches.
Strategies to boost revenues from ticket sales
Many of the factors that may be driving reduced sales are, to some extent, out of the control of the football clubs. Therefore, novel or innovative strategies may be necessary to increase sales. Drawing on the tactics used by American sports teams faced with declining sales (reported in Howard and Crompton, 2004), the following strategies are recommended to UK football clubs to boost revenues from ticket sales.
- Use differential pricing. Differential pricing is a pricing strategy in which the price of tickets is adjusted according to the quality of the teams involved in the game, the weather or the time of the season (Dobson and Goddard, 2011). If low audience numbers are expected due to, for example, poor weather or the economic climate clubs are advised to drop prices in order to boost sales.
- Flexible season tickets. This involves offering fans the ability to tailor season ticket packages to their needs and has been found to be highly successful in boosting sales (Howard and Crompton, 2004).
- Facilitate resale markets. Clubs are advised to develop ticket facilities that enable secondary sale of already purchased tickets. This will allow individuals facing financial difficulties to recoup losses by selling tickets to other fans.
Football is big business. The survival and thriving of British football clubs depends largely on their ability to attract audiences, to grow those audiences (particularly season ticket holders, who are more loyal) and to convince those audiences to spend cash on ancillary goods (e.g. food drinks and souvenirs) when they are in attendance. However, the ability of clubs in the UK to grow audiences and to convert them into revenues is under threat. This paper has highlighted some of the drivers of the drop in football attendances and revenues from ticket sales in the United Kingdom in recent years. The paper finds that reduced revenues cannot be attributed to any one factor. Rather, the fall in sales is likely due to increased prices in tickets, reduced affordability caused by the economic downturn, the increase in hooliganism and the increased ability to watch football matches in spaces away from the physical stadia. Against this background, clubs are advised to adopt three tactics to support their economic and financial growth.
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