“I’ve played here as an opposition and a home player”, Jon Walters explained after Stoke City’s defeat of Besiktas at the Britannia Stadium in this season’s Europa League, “The fans really get behind us…that cliché about them being the twelfth man is true”.
Lauded as the ‘lifeblood of the game’, fans are undoubtedly fundamental to football functioning. To put it in crude commercial terms, the sport wouldn’t exist in the same capacity without the demand of its customers. Whilst it would be foolish, therefore, to disregard the significance of the growing worldwide audience, it is interesting to consider the impact that football’s globalisation has had on traditional fandom: namely, can attendees at any match really make a difference in the age of billionaire oligarchs and global fan bases?
In short: yes, supporters are important, but not to the extent we often think. Players and managers talk of the crowd as a weapon, an attribute of value equal to that of a striker’s pace. However, it is unimaginable that a few thousand middle-age Potters enthusiasts can regularly affect the performance levels of highly skilled athletes through vehement warbling. Indeed, there is no evidence to suggest that home advantage – arguably the greatest enigma in the world of sport – is affected by the size or bombast of the people in attendance. In English football, home teams win around 60 per cent of the points available; this figure has remained consistent for decades, regardless of the division or attendance level in question.
Interestingly, it appears that football fans do exert influence over the referee. A study from the University of Wolverhampton found that officials watching a Premier League match with background noise, were more uncertain in their decision making, awarding sixteen per cent fewer fouls against the home team, than those watching in silence. Thus it is tempting to conclude that spectators can swing the result. Whilst this is true to an extent, it is risky to exaggerate their impact: the same investigation shows, for example, that referees were no more likely to penalise the away team whether they could hear the boisterous home crowd or not. Business wise, fans in attendance remain imperative. Prior to TV deals and stadium sponsorship, matchday revenue accounted for nearly all club income; this generally remains to be the case the further down the football pyramid you travel. However, even at the top of the game, payments garnered from home games continues to be vital. Real Madrid, who top the 2011 Deloitte Football Money League, collected thirty per cent of their earnings from contests at the Bernabéu in the 09/10 season, whilst at Manchester United, the highest ranked English club, Match Day proceeds accounted for thirty-five per cent of total returns.
Despite not making the top twenty clubs overall, Glaswegian giants Rangers and Celtic were present in the top twenty Match Day revenue-generating clubs thanks to their impressive attendances, which frequently exceed 45,000. Arsenal earned £91 million from 09/10 matches at the Emirates, almost seventy per cent higher than five years ago, when the Gunners played their home games at the comparatively paltry Highbury. This is why clubs continue to convert large, modern arenas; if finances could be extracted from other sources alone, relocation, which often involves planning difficulties and initial high costs, would be deemed unnecessary.
Liverpool’s desire to build a 60,000 all-seater ground in Stanley Park shows that even a club of European-Cup-winning stature with supporter groups worldwide, requires a steady stream of income on a Saturday afternoon. Indeed, Liverpool obtained just £42 million from this source in the 09/10 campaign, a staggering £50 million less than Arsenal and even further off Manchester United’s £98 million accumulation. Stadium emigration has been mooted by Manchester City and Chelsea in recent months, a sign that matchday revenue is vital even to those teams bankrolled by billionaire owners.
It appears therefore that the importance of football fans today is quantifiable in pounds rather than goals. Home support may aid a side, but the actions of the crowd are unlikely to consistently effect results; conversely, loyal followers who continue to pay extortionate admission fees still contribute massively to the running of their club. As Stoke City continue their European adventure, they will hope to retain their disciples’ loyal backing. Deep down, however, it is probably their cash they crave the most. Maybe Jon Walters was right, just not quite in the way he meant it.