Attendance at football matches: Why clubs need to apply some economics!
Later this afternoon I’ll be going down to watch my beloved Leicester City. Our first home match drew a crowd of just over 21,500. This was perhaps a little disappointing for the first home match of the season. Normally, supporters’ spirits are high are the start of the season, we all go down to the ground with renewed optimism, and so ‘first match’ crowds are high. But, this year a number had not come along and the problem was not confined to my club. Just down the road in Coventry, their first match against fellow Midlanders Derby County drew a crowd of only a little over 13,000. While this match was televised by SKY, the attendance is likely to have disappointed many at this historic club. Up by the River Tees, Midllesbrough’s first home match drew a record low league crowd of 14,633 and led manager Gordon Strachan to blame poor crowds on the recession. But, while some clubs are struggling to get supporters through the turnstiles, others seemed rather more immune from the affects of the economic climate. Manchester United’s first home match drew a near-capacity 75,221, despite being a televised match on a Monday night, while Arsenal’s first home match against newly promoted Blackpool drew a capacity crowd of 60,032.
These contrasting experiences amongst football clubs raise some important questions about the nature of demand for attending football matches. Perhaps a good place to start for any chief executive thinking about the demand for their club’s matches is to actually step back and consider about how supporters derive satisfaction from attending matches. This satisfaction from consuming something is also known by economists as ‘utility’. In understanding how supporters derive utility clubs may gain some really useful information when pricing season tickets or match-day tickets.
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Well, let’s start with me! I am a fox (a Leicester supporter) through and through and so it’s about an emotional attachment. I was first taken down to Filbert Street by Grandfather in the early 1980s. We were soundly beaten on the day by Notts County on the day. But, while I was gutted, I was supporting my team! I derive a lot of my satisfaction from supporting my home-town team. I guess that makes me what we might term a ‘core supporter’. It’s important for clubs to have a sense of their core support because these are likely to be supporters who are least sensitive to pricing. In other words, this group of supporters is more likely to exhibit a price inelastic demand.
So, a happy chief executive of a football club is likely to be one with a sizeable core support. Another way of looking at this, which is not always popular amongst football traditionalists, is to think of a football club as a brand. A popular, sought-after brand gives the supplier a greater degree of power over pricing. The greater the attachment to the brand the greater the power to set price. While for me the attachment comes from the geography of my birth, for others the attachment comes from being associated with success. This helps to explain the attachment of so many supporters to what we refer to as ‘the big clubs’. Therefore, success can help generate supporter-attachment which can therefore be ‘priced-in’ by clubs when determining the pricing structure for matches and season tickets.
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But, not everybody is attached to a team out of loyalty to their town or city or because of its success. For others, the utility from attending matches could come from a variety of sources. A ‘floating supporter’ is therefore likely to be more choosey and pricing needs to try and take this into account. For these supporters it might be a question of who the two teams on show are on a particular day. This helps, in part, to understand why local derbies are generally well attended – but why they are also relatively expensive to attend. It might also be the case that particular matches allow supporters to see a ‘superstar’. If a certain player or club is in town then prices at the turnstiles are likely to reflect this.
What we have suggested here is that in beginning to understand the demand for attending football matches, clubs need to build up a profile of their supporters and their potential supporters. We have focused on how supporters derive satisfaction from watching football and how this affects what they are willing to pay. Yet they need to do more than this, including building up a profile of the economic, social and geographic demographics of supporters. As Gordon Strachan points out, supporters are not immune to economic conditions and football clubs can’t be either. Therefore, clubs will also need to have a sense of how income-sensitive is the demand for attending their matches. The economic climate means that many in football, especially those at clubs involved in setting prices, may need to give considerable thought to the demand function for attending live football matches. May be an economist really could help in the board rooms of many football clubs. While I may not make the board room at the Walkers Stadium later, I will be in the crowd!