Welcome to Soccernomics 101
Soccernomics: the study of the relationship between human wants and the allocation of scarce resources in soccer, the world's most popular and globalized sport.
If you follow us, great. If you don't, that's fine, too. But you should probably read more. And where better to study this embryonic subject -- yet to be offered at any Ivy League institution -- than in the darkened dungeons of Castle Limey. This week, you'll find your heroic authors sitting with shotguns and torches in hand, staring at the six-month supply of beans, lentils and freeze-dried NASA rations that we've accumulated. We'd mention the tinfoil hats, but they're kinda embarrassing.
The reasoning is thus: The United Kingdom is fast overtaking the U.S. as the economically developed country most exposed to a protracted recession. Meanwhile, the English Premier League is the richest, most commercially successful globalized soccer league in the world in terms of viewership, sponsorship, advertising, players' wages and ticket prices. Yet this growing success has come during a period of sustained economic growth in the U.K., one that's ending abruptly.
All this has grave implications on the EPL, its soccer clubs and fans. The British economy -- one more focused on finance and real estate (the two sectors at the heart of the global downturn) than any other major economic power -- is suffering on almost every available economic indicator. At the fan level, consumers' disposable income is falling due to the weakening British Pound, which makes imports more expensive. That's set against the backdrop of rising inflation, mortgage and debt-repayment rates, as well as increasing unemployment.
At this rate, the world's fifth-largest economy will soon be reliant on the meager wages of a certain SI.com soccer column to keep it afloat. But what of the impact on the EPL's clubs? It's is largely dependent on the following key attributes:
Recent success: Prize money from winning trophies and finishing position in the EPL is welcomed by clubs, particularly following a lucrative Champions League run. But in reality, that's dwarfed by the other commercial income streams that can be bred from success.
Commercial appeal: Jersey and merchandising sales and more increasingly lucrative sponsorship and broadcasting deals across expanding markets are the avenues upon which clubs strive to maximize future streams of revenue. Having a global presence may also cushion a club from a domestic downturn in spending.
Type of ownership: Whether they're Russian oligarchs or successful local sporting-goods shop owners, there's a vast difference in the level of investment owners willingly put into their respective clubs knowing that a return on their investment won't happen. The long-term future of a club (and the short-term, to some degree) may be influenced by the strength of an owner's relationship with the club. Uncertainty at Liverpool over the relationship of American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett continues to threaten Liverpool's success on the pitch.
Stadium capacity: The combination of 60,000-plus guaranteed paying fans and a healthy number of well-heeled corporate customers have seen proverbial cash cows Old Trafford and Emirates Stadium consistently add revenue to Manchester United and Arsenal's bottom lines. Arsenal's match-day revenues doubled to $180 million during its first season at the Emirates. Liverpool has begun work on its new stadium in an attempt to compete. Newcastle, Sunderland and Manchester City are around the 50,000 mark, while Chelsea, Everton and Tottenham are desperate to step up from their 40,000ish-capacity stadiums but are constrained by the setting of their present locations.
So how will the clubs cope with the impending financial mire we're said to be moving into? EPL clubs are sitting in a spectrum of circumstances:
The capital investors: Arsenal has invested heavily in North London real estate in the shape of its shiny new Emirates Stadium. The return on its $850 million investment primarily hinges on the income from corporate hospitality and through profiting from the huge amount of residential property the club is developing in the area. With increasingly prudent firms likely to reduce corporate-entertainment budgets and the downturn in the U.K. property market, Arsenal's investment is likely to become an ever-increasing burden.
Last weekend, manager Arsčne Wenger revealed the annual payments of $48 million to pay for the Emirates, which means, "The strategy of the club is to sell every year and buy less expensive players." Arsenal will rely ever more heavily on Wenger's golden touch when it comes to transfer dealings to maintain its presence at the top end of the EPL.
The people's clubs: The likes of Wigan, Blackburn and Middlesbrough are all clubs with highly localized supporter bases. All three sit at the bottom end of the average attendance table, with crowds averaging around 75 percent of capacity last season. Having struggled to fill their stadiums when their fans had higher levels of disposable income, and with their supporter base at the lower end of the average U.K. income scale, the reduction in disposable income the country is facing means they're even less likely to go to watch soccer. This effect will be further compounded by a reduction in the number of away fans through the turnstiles, put off by the inflation-busting increases in gas prices.
Debt-hungry giants: Man. United and Liverpool are both owned by high-profile Americans, and both highly leveraged by debt. United's accounts for the last financial year revealed it owes a staggering $1.3 billion to financial institutions, while Liverpool owes $700 million -- figures that leave both dangerously exposed to the increasingly volatile risks of the debt markets.
Obliviously foreign: Chelsea's and Manchester City's owners -- said to be worth $22 billion and $3.6 billion, respectively -- continue to freely throw cash on player purchases and contracts. A word of warning for Chelsea fans though: The club's accounts for the last year revealed that if owner Roman Abramovich were to walk away from the club, it would have a mere 18 months to find the $1.1 billion he has listed as being owed.
If, as we predict, EPL attendances fall slightly next season, and more so in 2009-10, clubs will be left with difficult decisions regarding ticket prices. Price elasticity of demand theory may become popular with chairmen calculating how much attendances may rise if prices are dropped.
But what about the fans? What are their choices? The obvious money-saving option is to watch soccer on TV. This would obviously impact club revenue, but a longer-term impact might be on global TV audiences. Will the all-important Asian market still be captivated by the magic and excitement of the EPL if the games are played in stadiums with significant amounts of empty seats? TV contracts are up for renewal for the 2010-11 season.
Another interesting interplay will be between the EPL and the lower leagues. Will some fans choose to watch cheaper lower-league games instead? Probably less than the numbers those clubs will lose due to the continued marketing of the EPL and falling disposable incomes.
And what of the EPL in relation to the European leagues? The EPL's main rival is La Liga and, in Spain, the housing market and economy looks more frail than in the U.K. Ticket prices and wage bills are, however, significantly cheaper, so club revenues may be less exposed to a downturn. EPL clubs may see their dominance in Europe's transfer markets slightly reduced.
Overall, though, the EPL is a strong product, and one that will thrive for the foreseeable future. Total player wages of $1.9 billion in the EPL represents an outflow of money which, if it can be reduced, will plug holes in potentially declining revenue streams. Wages represent 63 percent of clubs' turnover, roughly equal to 62 percent in both Italy and Spain, and have been increasing roughly in line with revenues. What is crucial is that if revenues fall, wages fall, too. Otherwise, the $5 billion in total debt EPL clubs hold may prove a heavy burden to bear.
Letter to America
What are your thoughts on Soccernomics? How will the economic downturn affect the Beautiful Game? E-mail us at the box above, or at email@example.com.