Saturday, September 17, 2005

Football in Decline - Some more thoughts....

It seems my last post regarding the slow decline of football and moreover, the dangers of Charlton increasing its debt (and the stadium's capacity) at the wrong time, was well-received judging from the number of responses. I've had some further thoughts on the matter, particularly in light of today's inevitable defeat to Chelsea.

If football's last 'decline' occurred in the 1980s, culminating in the Hillsborough disaster, then the its rebirth began with the Taylor Report, Italia 1990 and then in 1992 the creation of the Premier League. Although many fans did (and still do) resent the move to all-seater stadia, and whilst the atmosphere in grounds may have suffered, the Report definitely increased football's attractiveness to previously under-represented segments of society (women and the 'middle class' in particular). England's brilliant run in Italia 1990 and the creation of the Gazza phenomenon put the sport back in the nation's consciousness for positive reasons, and the creation of the Premier League saw the first proper attempt to market the sport properly and maximise its revenues.

My observation however is that these changes happened to occur during the last economic recession, and as the country emerged from it, so did football emerge from its own malaise. In the space of just over a decade, we have seen changes which would have been almost inconceivable, not all of them for the better of course, but few in 1989 would have predicted for example that football would become perhaps the highest paid profession in the country.

It cannot be mere coincidence that football's seemingly never-ending rise occurred alongside uninterrupted economic growth, rises in incomes and consumer confidence. The technology boom of the 1990s provided further support for this rise, providing cable/satellite access to more matches, analysis and gave the game a razzmatazz that used to be the preserve of Frank Worthington and his ilk.

However, in the past year, the economy and particularly consumption, has slowed markedly with retailers talking of the worst conditions on the High Street they can recall. The consumer sector is essentially in recession - growth overall is positive only thanks to investment and government spending. House price growth has fallen to zero (and is actually negative, if you ignore what the vested interests tell you) and with debt levels at all-time highs, consumers are realising they can no longer use the home as a cash machine, and are being forced to cut back to repair their balance sheets. Hence for the first time since its 'rebirth', football is being forced to operate within a soft economic environment, and the early indications of lower attendances and interest are hardly surprising.

Clubs know full well that the vast majority of fans will only ever support one club. Knowing that they cannot prise away fans of other clubs by lowering prices (as would occur in any other business), clubs have instead sought to fleece their captive fanbase by pushing admission prices to levels which are now out-of-line with most other leisure activities. I have heard Chairmen comment that theatre tickets also cost say £50, but most people don't go to the theatre 19 times a year. Moreover, it is possible to be reasonably assured of the quality of the product when you attend the theatre, by reading reviews etc.. Whilst football's unpredictability is part of its attraction, if we are honest, I suspect that with hindsight, we would not have bothered to attend perhaps 7 out of 10 games if we knew what rubbish we'd have seen.

Charlton have managed to sell the majority of their seats in the form of season tickets, but I wonder how many of those fans would have declined to buy one if they felt confident that they could always get a seat at whatever game they wanted to attend? Ironically by increasing the capacity to say 35,000, we could see attendances fall not rise. Those fans who bought a season ticket probably turn up to say the Wigan or WBA game (or give the ticket to someone else) in part because they think "I've paid for it so I've got to use it" (flawed thinking as it's a sunk cost but anyhow). Those same fans, upon seeing the capacity increase, may well opt instead simply to pick and choose the games they attend, and not bother buying tickets for the less attractive games.

If you don't agree with the above, then I question why we get such shocking attendances in the FA Cup, games not included in the season ticket. The fans who do turn up for these games might be described as the 'core support' which suggests we have 10-12,000 or so in this category. As much as the Board would like to think otherwise, our league games against the lesser Premiership clubs in a larger stadium would be 20,000 or so because thousands of fans would switch from a season ticket to match-by-match tickets. I suspect most fans stick their season ticket on a credit card and forget about how much their football habit is costing. Ask those same fans to produce ready cash at the gate, and many will baulk at shelling out £35 to watch lousy opposition.

Football clubs will rapidly learn that whilst fans are loyal to only one club, those same fans can certainly choose to consume less football, or even no football. It has always been a big part of my life and I assumed I would miss it terribly when I moved to the US, but the transition has been remarkably easy. Being able to watch perhaps ten Charlton games on TV plus a handful on returns to London satiates my need, particularly when combined with reading Internet reports, blogs and the message boards.

Over the next few years, the sport will have to rethink its business model because having shrinking revenues and bulging costs is not sustainable in the long-term. Clubs have relied upon a steady stream of generous (or naive) benefactors willing to plunge their fortunes into filling the gap with equity injections and 'free' loans. However this too is unsustainable - in a softening economy, the numbers of people able to fund clubs will shrink and moreover, many will choose to spend their fortunes elsewhere. Wages have to fall and ticket prices have to fall in tandem - as Richard Murray stated in an interview in the Independent, players are hardly going to leave the game and become postmen if they can 'only 'earn £10,000 per week, instead of £20,000. Only by the game finding its financial senses again, and finding ways to equalise the playing field, can its future success and prominence be maintained.


At 8:41 AM, Blogger Wyn Grant said...

Another excellent post, particularly the emphasis on how falling real disposable income is having an impact. I did three media interviews on this subject yesterday so it is clearly a hot topic but whether that will lead to anything in terms of change is open to doubt - there are many people who have an agenda that would involve fewer clubs or at least fewer clubs competing at the top level. The ground expansion issue is now a difficult one for Charlton for the reasons you state.

At 2:55 PM, Blogger Pedro45 said...

This really does start hitting nails on heads! Have you sent this to Peter Varney? Maybe you should so he can raise it at the Premier League's attendances working committee meeting in a couple of weeks time...
At least at Charlton we do vary prices (£10 for Hartlepool for instance), but the obvious social problems of matching cost with entertainment are becoming greater. The expense of going to a game (with or without family in tow) is rapidly overtaking the desire to see a football match (be it involving Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, or Liverpool) for many people, especially "casual" supporters.
The Observer today has an article claiming it is cheaper to see Bayern Munich play than it is Crawley Town!
I'll be at Charlton, through thick and thin, as I have been for almost forty years, but others may not be so financially or socially able wherever we are in the league table.

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