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Old 24th September 2005, 10:41   #1
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Default Marriage to the beautiful game tested by love affair with cricket

Marriage to the beautiful game tested by love affair with cricket
Telegraph 24/09/2005
This season has seen football supporters stay away while the Ashes stole the limelight. With so much money at stake, should football business interests start to worry, asks Andrew Cave

Howzat! As cricket fans savour England's rare moment of summer glory, football is worrying that "Freddie" Flintoff and his team mates could knock it off its pedestal as the country's favourite sport.

While the Ashes drew record TV audiences, football is already in the doldrums. Even though the new season has barely started, Premiership attendances are already down on this point last year.

Last weekend alone, there were almost 62,000 empty seats across the nine Premiership matches played. The FA Premier League is so concerned that it has set up a working party to study the problem.

Some pundits blame a paucity of goals and over-defensive strategies by teams such as Chelsea, which won the Premiership last year breaking records for the fewest goals conceded. Others point to the fact that some clubs are now charging £70 for tickets, while television scheduling of live matches is playing havoc with supporters' travel plans.

Media experts worry that the football bubble may have burst because the nation is saturated with too much of the so-called beautiful game.

It's not just a sporting problem. Football is big business. Research by Deloitte, the business advisory firm, shows that total income at the world's top 20 football clubs is set to break through the £2billion mark this year.

Ten of those clubs are British, with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal all in the world's top six. On their own, the 20 Premiership clubs have combined revenues of £1.3billion a season. And some business interests are betting heavily on a continued resurgence of interest in football.

Earlier this year, United fetched £790m in a takeover by American football entrepreneur Malcolm Glazer, who wants to increase the club's earnings from its estimated 75m fans worldwide. Asia alone is reckoned to account for 40m of that total.

Now that football's brief flirtation with the stock market is all but over (Man United and Chelsea have delisted and takeover rumours surround Aston Villa and Newcastle), it is the media sector that has most to lose from a dramatic fall from grace for Britain's favourite spectator sport.

British Sky Broadcasting's success in getting subscriber levels to 7.8m has had much to do with its heavy investment in football. The satellite broadcaster has held the rights to screen FA Premier League games since 1992 and paid £1.02bn for the three-year contract that began last season.

With more than 5m of Sky's subscribers signing up for at least one Sky Sports channel, the strategy seems to have paid off. However, under that three-year deal, the number of live televised games, including those available on a pay-per-view basis, has shot up from 106 to 138 a season.

Minister for Sport Richard Caborn believes that there is "clear evidence" that too much football on television is undermining attendances. Other commentators are concerned at the timing, rather than the number, of games being shown live.

Prof Derek Fraser, chairman of the Independent Football Commission, believes that the biggest problem is the changes in match scheduling brought about by the latest TV deal.

As many as four Premiership games a weekend are now being staged at times other than the traditional Saturday 3pm kick-off and Fraser believes this dissuades supporters from travelling to away matches.

The Premier League is remaining bullish. "It is far too early to draw any firm conclusions but the Premier League remains one of the best-supported leagues in Europe," said a spokesman earlier this week.

Sky is also unworried. It points out that the television figures for this year's Carling Cup Final hit a new record for any tie in the competition. This season's fall in Premiership attendances, moreover, follows an increase during the 2003-04 season. Overall, Premiership attendances are up 68pc since the FA Premier League began in 1992-93.

Over the past five years, average attendances in the Premiership have risen by 4,300 a game.

There was also a 26pc increase in the number of people watching live Premiership games on Sky last season, compared with 2003-04. Average reach per game is also up so far this season, though Sky won't give details.

Sky rejects the notion that football's increasing popularity among coach potatoes is connected to a fall in people actually going to the games.

Neither do Sky or the Premier League bear responsibility for the recent increase in the number of live games.

The pressure for more games to be televised came instead from the European Commission, which insisted on it as part of the latest TV deal gaining regulatory clearance.

And, just to confuse matters, in the Football League, which Sky also televises, viewing figures are up and attendances down by only about 100 fans per game.

A Sky spokesman declined to comment on this week's controversy about attendances. He said: "Sky believes that football remains as popular as ever, both amongst fans who watch games live and on television and amongst players at all levels."

Some pundits believe this week's commotion has been caused by an unrealistic snapshot of attendances at an early stage of the season. "It is a bit like the first cuckoo of Spring," says one.

Paul Rawnsley, sports business consultant at Deloitte, adds: "There has been a bit of a bandwagon this week about Premiership attendances but it needs to be put into context.

"In terms of revenue generated, it is still well ahead of any other football league in the world.

"And, although average attendances in the top German league have recently overtaken the Premiership, England's top league is still well ahead of its counterparts in Spain, Italy and France."

Rawnsley believes the problem of falling attendances is being exaggerated and that football's governing bodies will come up with new marketing schemes to kick the issue into touch.

The Football League showed the way forward this week with a new scheme that will allow children into games for free. The tendering process for the next Premiership television deal, which should get under way next summer, may also reflect the concern about attendances.

Above all, the cricket comparisons seem overdone.

Deloitte reckons that Britain's new appetite for live cricket could be worth more than £100m a year, following the heroics of the Ashes victory.

However, that pales in comparison with the current football television deal. And last year's total first-class British cricket attendance figure of 1.1m is eclipsed by the 67,000-a-game full houses that Man United's Old Trafford game attracts for its 19 Premiership matches each season.

Cricket's new popularity may also take a hit if England fail to follow up the Ashes victory with decent performances on this winter's tours of Pakistan and India.

"Cricket is not the new football," says Rawnsley. "It is a great sport and it is going to do better in terms of television deals and revenue generation, but cricket is very far behind football.

"Premiership football attendances may be down but that does not mean that football is going to be replaced by cricket in the nation's affections.

"We do not see the bubble bursting. It is early in the season.

"The figures are there: you cannot argue with them, but there is not a crisis."
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