Fans Are Coming Back….

The big news story in the British Football press right now (besides the loss of one of the most popular figures in the world game) is the return of fans to English stadia. For the first time since early March 2020, up and down the country the top 4 tiers of English league Football will conduct competitive matches in front of a live audience. You might have stumbled across this blog post months or perhaps years down the line and think “what’s all the fuss about?” But right now, the possibility of getting back in to watch the boys seems very exciting. Last week I stumbled across the following image and got an idea for the post you are now reading:

Football clubs letting fans back in
Original image by Playmaker.

That right there is a list of the 44 professional English Football clubs that have been given the go ahead to open up their terraces to faithful patrons as of the 2nd of December. And it certainly is a diverse list – both in terms of colour and in terms of spread across the English Football landscape. But are there any trends or conclusions to take away from a slightly deeper delve into its contents?

The first point that jumps out at you is the fact that most clubs mentioned are not Premier League giants. That prompts the question; what does the split look like per league? Of the clubs on the list, 10 are Premier League teams, 9 ply their trade in the Championship, 12 currently compete in League One and a further 13 are undertaking campaigns in League Two. The split per league breaks down as follows:

Fans returning to stadiums
Share of English professional Football clubs allowing fans back into their stadia split by division.

As clear as day, the Championship is massively underrepresented with only just over 1 in 5 teams letting fans back in this week. The Premier League comes next with 22.7%, followed by the two lowest divisions of professional English Football. 27.3% of clubs welcoming spectators back into their grounds this week will do so in League One, and almost 30% of League Two sides are scheduled to do so. However, the varying league sizes does skew this view a bit. If we break down the data of white-listed clubs relative to the league size in which they compete, it looks something like this:

Letting fans back into the stadiums
Percentage of Football clubs per division allowing fans to return to their stadia.

The overview corrects itself to a degree here. In the Premier League, League One and League Two, around half of the teams competing in the current season will be allowed to admit fans as of this week (in the case of the Premier League and League One, the share is exactly half. In the case of League Two, the figure stands at 54.2%). The lower volume of clubs competing in the Premier League compared to the 3rd and 4th tiers of English professional club Football means that one would naturally expect fewer Premier League clubs to have made the list of 44.

But the Championship is still lagging. The 4th most popular Football league in Europe as judged by average match attendances will be waiting a while before it can enjoy an equitable portion of the spectators this season. That may way be the result of the incidental geographic division between Tier 2 and Tier 3 regions as defined by the government. Football clubs located inside areas that remain in Tier 3 cannot open their gates for fans in the immediate future, whereas clubs operating inside Tier 2 zones may admit a maximum of 2,000 fans for each match.

And? So what? Well, microbes don’t exactly have an interest in playing fair. When you take a look at the geographic distribution of the fortunate 44 Football clubs in question, a clear pattern emerges. Below is a map that shows the stadium location of all 92 English Football league clubs, with white markers representing the lucky 44 and the grey icons indicating teams that must wait a little while longer:

Football league stadiums map
Map of the 92 English Football league clubs showing which clubs will let fans into their stadiums this week.

It is worth repeating; this virus is not going to play by anybody’s rules. Nor should we expect it to. It behaves on its own accord, but quite clearly right now it is viewed as a lesser threat in specific areas in England and Wales. London, the M4 corridor, East Anglia, the South Coast and the West Country (excluding Bristol) are all regions where threat of further spread of the virus is considered lower – perhaps a surprise given the high population density of certainly the capital. Ditto Merseyside – Liverpool’s two big clubs plus Tranmere Rovers will soon be playing in front of adoring fans. Lastly, some remoter towns and cities such as Harrogate, Barrow-In-Furness, Shrewsbury and Carlisle and will celebrate live Football once again – probably thanks to their nature of being more isolated and therefore at a distance from concentrated centres of confirmed Covid cases (we should acknowledge Harrogate and Crewe as particular anomalies here).

The notable absences are the clubs from England’s traditional Football strongholds. The West Midlands, the North West (bar Merseyside), Yorkshire and the North East all remain designated Tier 3 regions. A more in depth analysis is needed to confirm this, but conventional wisdom suggests that the giant “yesteryear” clubs of these regions are the ones that take up room in the Championship (for example Birmingham City, Sheffield Wednesday, Preston North End and Middlesbrough), whereas a division like League Two contains a far greater share of clubs representing London’s satellite towns and cities – such as Crawley, Southend, Gillingham and Stevenage. This perhaps explains why fewer Championship clubs are featured on the list of clubs that will be permitted to admit fans as of this week. But it’s just a thought; anecdotes are always worth less than statistics.

Government guidelines dictate that Football clubs operating in Tier 2 zones are permitted to admit a maximum of 2,000 fans into open-air venues for sporting events – and this is where it gets a bit nonsensical. Not that the government is wrong to be precise in the measures it is taking, but because of the simple fact that 2,000 fans means very different things to Arsenal and to Leyton Orient for sake of an example. The following graph shows the average share of total stadium capacity of the white-listed clubs that 2,000 tickets (assuming each club sells its maximum allocation per game) represents per division:

Let fans back in
Share of total stadium capacity that 2,000 tickets represents for all corresponding Football clubs per division.

Let’s assume that all white-listed Football clubs sell out their 2,000 ticket allocation each game. The Premier League clubs in question will be operating at an average of 4.6% capacity, while the afflicted teams in the two divisions directly beneath it will see attendances averaging 11.5% and 11.8% of total capacity respectively. Yet in the case of League Two, that figures jumps up to an uncomfortable 22.5%. In other words; at upcoming Forest Green Rovers, Harrogate Town and Barrow AFC games, 1 in every 5 seats will be occupied. That makes it almost impossible to social distance.

While this is nobody’s fault and our health ministers are working tirelessly to accommodate economic and commercial needs as much as possible without needlessly putting more lives at risk, this seems like a miss step. Mega clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur that employ scores of people can accommodate thousands more individuals than they are being allowed to. Limiting their capacity to the same absolute level as Shrewsbury Town doesn’t seem logical from a moral or a commercial point of view.


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