Offside, 9 December
Experts carp about the decline of football, while fans flood through the gates.
Last month the Observer ran a series of articles entitled The Game That Ate Itself, arguing that greed is killing football.
It’s a sermon that has become tediously familiar in recent years. Ever since the Premier League was created in 1992 an endless stream of miserablists have been issuing apocalyptic warnings about the ruinous influence of money on the game. I’ve read at least half a dozen almost identical books exposing football’s Faustian pact with Rupert Murdoch. ‘The End of Football is Nigh’ the authors cry like sandwich-board loons while football’s popularity continues to grow.
The Observer’s latest investigation is very much of the same Nostradamus-with-a-laptop genre. The Premier League, it is argued, has become uncompetitive and overpriced, with the consequence that match-day attendances are falling and TV viewing figures declining (1). The Observer’s sports editor Brian Oliver concludes that ‘from a long-term perspective, there is plenty to be gloomy about’ (2).
It is true that Premier League attendances dipped slightly last season – average gates were down from 35,464 in 2002/3 to 35,020 in 2003/4. But let’s get this into perspective. Attendances across all four divisions have been steadily rising since the mid-1980s. Last season’s Premiership average was almost double that of the 1984/5 season when average top-flight attendances sank to a postwar low of 18,834. In fact you have to go all the way back to the early 1950s to find attendance levels as high as they are today. Moreover, current attendances would be even higher if stadium capacities were greater.
It is probably too early to tell whether the dip in attendances represents a longer-term decline. However, let’s suppose for argument’s sake that fans have stopped going to games because ticket prices are too expensive. Does this mean that irreversible decline is inevitable? Not unless club chairman have collectively chosen to commit commercial suicide. While TV revenues make up a far larger proportion of Premiership clubs’ income today, gate receipts still account for 30 per cent of their income. If high ticket prices do start to hit turnstile income then club bosses will inevitably be forced to reduce those prices.
What about the charge that the Premiership has become uncompetitive and predictable? The Observer’s Denis Campbell points to a report on ‘competitive balance’ in football, which warns that ‘the widening wealth gap in the Premiership is reducing England’s showcase division to an increasingly unequal and uncompetitive struggle between a small, rich elite and the other clubs’ (2). The authors of the report Jonathan Michie and Christine Oughton deploy a bewildering array of curves, indexes, graphs and equations to demonstrate that competitive balance remained constant between 1947 and 1987 but had significantly declined thereafter (3).
Michie and Oughton warn that the loss of competitive balance leads to sports leagues becoming ‘predictable and boring’ and the attendant risk of ‘losing spectators in the long term’. However, what neither the Herfindahl Index of Competitive Balance nor the Lorenz Seasonal Balance Curve can explain is why the decline in competitive balance during the 1990s coincided with an unprecedented revival of popular interest in football. Not only are attendances back to 1950s levels but, if we factor in several million Sky Sports subscribers and legions of bar-stool fans in pubs, it is clear that far more people in England are watching football today than ever before. If the gluttonous game has eaten itself then evidently someone forgot to tell the sporting public.
Of course it would be better if the top five clubs didn’t get the lion’s share of TV revenues – even better if more money was redirected to emerging Croydon-based soccer superpowers. But the fact that the little people no longer stand a chance of winning the Premiership does not necessarily make the league as dull or predictable as the Observer investigation suggests. ‘Another illustration of just how far ahead of the also-rans Arsenal are is this: the bookies’ odds against their remaining unbeaten for a second consecutive season are 8-1’, wrote Denis Campbell in an article published on 24 October (3). Six weeks and two league defeats later and Arsenal’s aura of invincibility has disappeared. Predictable league? You’re having a laugh!
What competitive balance curves miss is that football’s remarkable renaissance is driven largely by non-sporting factors. Football has filled a gaping void in our lives once occupied by engagement in public life. I’m not suggesting that, if Arsenal were to play against 11 traffic cones, Highbury would be packed, but undoubtedly many people would still come to gawp at some of the most high-profile public figures in Britain today. And with Arsenal’s current goalkeeping problems you wouldn’t bet against the traffic cones nicking an away goal.
(1) The game that ate itself, Observer, 24 October 2004
(2) Empty seats – who cares?, Observer, 14 November 2004
(3) Dead Cert, Observer, 7 November 2004
(4) Competitive Balance in Football: Trends and Effects, Jonathan Michie and Christine Coughton, 2004
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