Paying the penalty

Premiership fans are abandoning the stands, put off by high ticket prices, the growing number of live matches on TV, and the clubs’ preoccupation with the business side of the beautiful game. To tackle the problem, the Premier League has set up a working party. Robert Lester reports

Even the most hardened cynic would have to admit that the FA Premier League has been an unmitigated success since its formation in 1992. But with ticket prices continuing to rise and more games being shown live on television, attendances are steadily falling and there is a growing feeling that football’s bubble may be about to burst.

Total Premiership attendances for this season are projected to be 12.4 million, compared with 12.9 million last season, 13.3 million in the 2003-2004 season and 13.5 million in the 2002-2003 one. Nine of the 17 top-flight teams that featured in the Premiership last term have seen their crowd figures fall.

A host of managers and players have jumped to football’s defence in recent days, but with some of them earning up to four times the UK’s average annual salary every week, it is not surprising that fans are beginning to feel disconnected from the game.

Many football fans detest their club being referred to as a business, and US sports tycoon Malcolm Glazer’s recent takeover of Manchester United was opposed by thousands of supporters. He took on millions of pounds of debt to force the deal through.

Fall from beauty

Several other clubs, including Aston Villa and Newcastle United, are listed on the stock market, and fans are starting to feel manipulated by football, according to Chris Wood, chairman of branding agency Corporate Edge. He believes the sport needs to fix its image problem before it can start to re-engage consumers: “Football used to be positioned as a game for everyone but it isn’t any more – it’s elitist.

“Marketing can only do so much if the product is wrong, and there are a number of things wrong with football at the moment.”

A number of other factors, including a belief that matches are not as exciting as they used to be, and that the title will be a one-horse race with Chelsea romping home, have been blamed for the fall in interest, but is it a temporary blip or a serious long-term problem?

The Football Supporters’ Federation chairman Malcolm Clarke suggests the Premiership has become boring and says ticket prices have risen far beyond the rate of inflation since the Premier League was formed.

“The Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster said &£6 was a reasonable price for a top-flight game in 1990,” he adds. “That would be about &£11 now, allowing for inflation, but tickets in the Premiership cost up to &£45 each.”

There are now 138 live football matches on TV each season, compared with 106 two seasons ago. And BLM Sports Marketing account director Robin Clarke says attendances will only decrease further now mobile operators have started to send football highlights to handsets.

Figures from BARB, supplied by Zenith Optimedia, appear to support the view that more people are choosing to watch football on TV viewing figure for ten matches shown on Sky Sports between the start of the season and September 19 was 1.1 million, compared with an average of 988,000 for 15 matches shown up to September 20, 2004.

A Premier League spokesman admits the increasing number of live televised games is a concern. “There is a balance to be struck with televised games,” he says. “We were comfortable at 106 and reluctantly went to 138 under regulatory pressure. We’ll have to see whether the balance is still right.”

But the spokesman adds that attendances are always down at the start of the season and points out that crowds at clubs with the highest ticket prices, like Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, are up, while teams offering cheaper tickets, such as Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough, have suffered a decline.

Out of their league

Another factor that may have contributed to football’s stuttering start to the season could be the summer success of the England cricket team. Richard Thompson, founder and chairman of sports management company Merlin Elite, which has clients including Premiership footballer James Beattie and Rugby World Cup winner Matt Dawson, says: “Cricket had the summer to itself this year because there was no major international football tournament and that has shifted the balance of power.”

And it can’t help that football’s newest enfant terrible, Wayne Rooney, has been making the headlines for his temperament rather than his goals in recent weeks. Thompson adds: “Sport has become personality-driven. David Beckham made football sexy, but Rooney has done the opposite.”

The Premier League has set up a working party to investigate the dwindling attendance levels. The group, to be headed by Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, will look at issues including more flexible ticket pricing and the provision of free travel to away matches.

Not everyone involved in the game has switched to crisis mode. Karen Earl Sponsorship director of consulting Tim Crow says he does not think current attendance levels are a major problem. “I think football has some issues and the main one at the moment is its general image,” he says. “But that is completely different to saying a few empty seats means football is in decline, because it’s not. Football is a long way ahead of any other sport in this country and I don’t see that changing.”

However, Ben Wells of sponsorship consultancy Redmandarin claims it is “arrogant” to think football does not need to change. “The popularity of football peaked three or four years ago,” he says. “Football is so much more accessible these days that people are a lot pickier about how they watch it.”

Wells maintains it is healthy for football that people are not just following it blindly any more, adding: “The challenge has been thrown down, and clubs need to re-engage the community and their fanbases.”

Fulham is working with sports market customer relationship management (CRM) specialist Venue Solutions to improve its relationship with fans and persuade more people to attend games. The company has developed a CRM management platform for Fulham to help the club profile its fanbase, and is also looking at loyalty schemes to reward fans for their support.

Back to the grassroots

Venue Solutions managing director Dominic Berger says: “Clubs need to get closer to fans to understand why they’re not going to games, and entice them from the living room by offering services they wouldn’t otherwise get.” Venue Solutions is also trying to encourage youngsters to support Fulham from an early age by building a database and running community schemes.

Berger, who built the Premier League website and was previously managing director of Umbro.com, adds: “It’s important to manage the fans of today, but you also have to look for the fans of tomorrow.”

But the issue of the ever-widening gulf between players’ and spectators’ wages will be harder to tackle – and it’s clearly a cause for concern for the future of the game. Joe Palmer, director of sports marketing consultancy Early Doors, says: “Because of the way football has developed over the past few years, it’s difficult to see what the average punter has in common with the leading football clubs. If fans don’t feel an affinity with the club, they’ll be less inclined to become involved.”

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