It seems like a strange question. Surely the Premier League, which generated 2.5 billion Euros in 2010/11 – making it by a long-shot the highest revenue generating league in the continent (according to the Deloitte 2012 Annual Review of Football Finance), which attracts the cream of the worlds footballing talent, and is breaking all records in securing £5 billion for its TV rights alone, is far more successful than the Championship, a mere second tier league.
But if we define success in terms of the ability of clubs to attract spectators, as this graph shows in the period since 1985/86, the year English football attendances fell to a post-war low, what is now known as the Championship has significantly out-performed the Premiership, not in terms of total attendances, (the Premiership still draws considerably more spectators – on average – per game) or the total increase in numbers (again for much of the period the gap between the two in terms of average attendances has grown), rather the rate at which attendances have grown. As the graph shows if we take the 1985/86 season as the starting point, in percentage terms the growth rate for average attendances over the season in the Championship has been much higher than for the Premier League
So what possible explanations exist for this?
1.) A mathematical quirk
As any student of GDP growth will tell you in percentage terms it is much easier to record high levels of growth when starting from a low-base. In the analysis here The starting figures for the Championship and the Premier League are 7688 and 19563 respectively, so even a lower increase in the total figure for the Championship could see a much higher growth rate in percentage terms. As this graph shows, for much of the period, and particularly during the 1990s, the size of the gap between the season average attendance of the two divisions actually grew.
It is worth noting however, that both League 1 and League 2, also starting from a low base have displayed rated of growth more in line with the Premier league, so a mathematical quirk alone is an insufficient explanation for the Championship’s runaway success.
2.) The Premier league is too expensive
In economic terms the Championship is like a rump steak to the Premier Leagues fillet i.e a cheaper alternative. Whilst this is sure to anger many football fans who will insist that their club is the club, the question has to be asked as to whether being comparatively cheaper than the Premier League has helped the Championship to higher levels of attendance growth.
It is hard to say whether this is the case, particularly as it is unclear just how much cheaper, if at all, the Championship is compared to the Premier League. As this BBC survey shows in terms of some ticket prices, particularly at the lower end of the range there are cases where Championship clubs have higher prices, for instance Man City’s cheapest season ticket is £275, whilst Hull City in the Championship offer their cheapest at £485.
3.) The Premier League lacks competitiveness
Along with high prices this is another accusation which has been continually leveled at the Premier League, that it is just uncompetitive, that at the start of the season we know who will win it, or who the top four will be, and that we also know who will be relegated. As the Deloitte report acknowledges in the 2010/11 season there was:
a particularly strong correlation in the Premier League between league finishing position and a club’s wage ranking, implying that, all other things being equal, spending more on wages translates to on-pitch success.
Whereas in the Championship, the report adds, the correlation “remains relatively weak” which it suggests is indicative of the competitive nature of the league.
Whilst this leaves little doubt as to the relative competitiveness of both leagues, the actual affect this has on attendances is more of a grey-area. In their book Why England Lose and Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski state that previous research in this area has generated mixed results and they themselves suggest that an unbalanced league can provide more interest. Comparing the Premier League to the much more equal US league, MLS, they argue:
the MLS lacks one of the joys of an unbalanced league; the David v Goliath match. And one reason why fans enjoy those encounters is that surprisingly often, given their respective budgets, David wins.
As someone who counts their most memorable ever match as the time Southampton beat Manchester United 6-3 it is hard to argue with this, though to say the Championship does not have ‘big-teams’ would be to do it an injustice, perhaps it’s success is in its combination of the two; big clubs and a competitive league.
4.) Supply and demand
Ever tried getting hold of a ticket for a Premier League game? It’s not always easy with a number of games selling-out. In the case of sell-outs demand exceeds supply which is in effect capped by stadium size. The solution – increasing stadium size – also isn’t necessarily easy. Notwithstanding the expense there is the need need for planning permission which can often lead to years of wrangling. According to the Deloitte report in 2010/11 average capacity utilisation for the Premier league was 93% whilst the figure for the total Football League stood at a much lower 58%. If supply did match demand for the Premier League it may well be that attendances and attendance growth would be much higher.
Overall – More than a quirk…
Overall whilst there may be an element of mathematical quirk to the results in the opening graph, this alone does not explain the Championships strong performance. It seems quite possible that a cap on attendances imposed by stadium size has also acted to slow growth in the Premier League, but again the Championship has no more advantage here than League 1, or League 2 clubs which it has also out-performed. Price too (particularly in the current ecomomic climate) along with competitiveness may also have played a part, along with other factors we have not covered, but overall it seems the Championship has experienced a perfect-storm of factors enabling it to grow at a rate faster than the Premier League. As the Deloitte report states the Championship is the highest revenue generating second-tier league in the world, and that’s more than a mathematical quirk.
This graph was produced to analyse the relationship between a teams form and attendance at football matches as part of an investigation into the factors influencing attendance at football matches.
The key question was; Did a winning streak attract higher crowds, or conversely did a losing streak repel them? I obtained some data for Havant and Waterlooville FC which included attendance figures and results for a number of past seasons. Choosing 2009/10 and 2010/11, the last two complete years at the time, I then excluded data from cup competitions as attendance for these games varied greatly depending on the prestige of the tournament and the level the opponents played at.
The match attendance for each league game, some 42 in total, is represented by the red line whilst the blue line represents a measure of the teams form at that point in time. I created a measure of the teams form by compiling the results of the previous five league games; Awarding 1 point for a won, 0.5 for a draw and 0 for a defeat I calculated a ratio so that say if the team won all their last five games the ratio would be 1.0, but if the team won two, drew one and lost two the ratio would be 0.5.
I then plotted both sets of data on a single graph.
Whilst not a perfect fit the graph does seem to suggest that there is at least some kind of link between form over the previous five games and matchday attendances. Other factors almost certainly come into play in determining attendances. It may also be interesting to see what the measure of form can be tweaked to be a shorter, or longer time period, or maybe also made to include goals scored or conceded.
This line-graph came about as part of an investigation into the impact of ground-sharing on the attendance figures of the football clubs involved following an accusation made by a fan of Kingstonian FC that sharing a ground with AFC Wimbledon was having a detrimental effect on their clubs attendances.
As part of the analysis, which can be seen in full on my Row Z blog, I decided to look at what is perhaps one of the longest ground-sharing arrangements in the upper-reaches of English football; Between 1985 and 2003 Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace FC, also hosted Charlton Athletic (1985-1991) and Wimbledon FC (1991-2003).
On the graph I have plotted the average attendance figures for Palace and their respective tenants. Rather than seeing a relationship where rises in one clubs attendances corresponded with falls in the other clubs attendances (which we would expect if ground-sharing was having a negative impact on one club) it seemed that over the long-term both sets of attendance figures were rising – the nosedive of the ‘tenants’ attendance at the end of the graph is the result of the clubs 2001 announcement that it would be seeking to relocate to Milton Keynes.
One explanation for the long-term upward trend is the general rise in attendance at football games which took place at the same time. 1985, the year the graph begins, was a low-point for English football attendances; the net result of years of hooliganism and poor facilities.
Plotting the line of average football league attendances on the same graph we can see how despite fluctuations, over the long-term the attendances of Palace, and whoever there tenants are follow a very similar trajectory. If we calculate the correlation coefficient for Palace’s attendances and the league average we get a moderate-to-strong 0.64 which suggests that the variations in overall league attendances explain 41% of the variation in Palace’s attendances over the period shown.
Ultimately the lesson from the graph is that when it comes to football attendances over a long-term period a rising tide really does lift all boats.