You hear a lot said about both higher attendance and lower ticket prices in the Bundesliga (BL) compared to the English Premier League (EPL). The problem is that much of this is based on anecdotal or partial evidence. So here I take a look at the most general data I can find and see what is going on. I think this picture is quite different from the one that is normally painted.
I’m going to look at the 15 seasons from 1996/97 to 2010/11. Attendance data is relatively easy over any period, but price data is more tricky. You see prices paid for particular games or particular seats/standing spaces in a given stadium, but it’s obviously dangerous to make inferences from partial data. The fact that clubs increasingly charge different prices for different games and different seats makes it hard to get the full picture. More on this below, but first, attendance.
Many observers like to point out that average attendance per game is higher in Germany- but from an economic perspective this cannot be the right measure of popularity. Imagine a baker that was open 5 days a week and sold 100 loaves every day. Now compare a baker that sold 80 loaves per day but was open 7 days a week. Which baker is more popular? Clearly the seven day baker sells more if we consider any time period of a week or longer (e.g. an entire year). If you were a business owner you might worry about the profitability of being open 7 days a week, but that’s not our concern. So it goes with the BL and EPL. The BL has 18 teams and the season consists of 306 games; the EPL has 20 teams and a season of 380 games. The total attendance figures for the two leagues are as follows:
The table shows that both leagues currently have very similar attendance levels while attendance has grown faster in the BL- 2.9% per year compared to 1.6%. If these rates of growth were to continue it would still take 50 years for BL attendance to be double that of the EPL. For the time being, however, the two are obviously rather similar in their attractiveness to fans, judged simply by attendance numbers. [Would the BL attract more fans if they expanded the League to 20 teams? Who can say? It would mark a change in tradition since they would probably have to do away with their midwinter break.]
It’s also worth commenting on the pattern of change over the last 15 years. Both the EPL and BL play to sell out crowds for most games. The pattern of attendance growth largely reflects increasing capacity. In England the 1990s was a period of large capacity increases as clubs invested- initially because of the Taylor Report requirements and with some public funding, but mostly in the latter years because of the football boom in England and privately funded. Capacity in the BL grows significantly in 2000s largely because of the investment for the 2006 World Cup- some of which was publicly funded. It would be interesting to make a comparison of the size of public investment in stadium capacity in each country. This is not simple, since the infrastructure around the stadium is often as important as the stadium itself.
But clearly attendance is only half of the story. It is said that BL fans are paying far less for their tickets than EPL fans. The Guardian had a nice blog the other day, complete with spreadsheet, comparing prices across European leagues. It included the following observation
“The average price for the cheapest ticket in the Bundesliga is £10.33 and the average cost of the lowest price adult season ticket is £207.22, compared to £28.30 and £467.95 respectively in the English Premier League.”
From this you might gain the impression that ticket prices are two to three times higher in the EPL. But clearly this depends on exactly how many people get to pay these prices, as well as how much everyone else pays. It’s a standard business ploy to advertise a small number of very low prices in order to give the impression that the typical price is low, when in reality most people may be asked to pay a much higher price. In terms of how the clubs treat the fans as a whole, the best guide must be the average price paid (some analysts might argue for the median price, which might give a better idea of the typical price paid- but we just don’t have that data).
We can get an approximation for the average price paid from the Deloitte’s Match day Income (MDI), which they have published for the EPL and BL from 1996/97 to 2010/11. Comparing MDI is complicated because of the exchange rate, not least the move from the DM to the Euro in 1999. To make comparisons Deloitte express everything in euros and have made different exchange rate assumptions in different seasons. So I converted the Deloitte data for the EPL back into sterling using their assumptions, and then converted the BL data into sterling using the relevant DM or euro exchange rate on June 30 in each year.
Whichever way you cut it, (a) MDI is higher in the EPL than in the BL but (b) has grown far faster in the BL than EPL over the last 15 years. Clearly if you express the change in sterling the relative increase is even greater – which simply tells you that you need to be very careful about exchange rates. In any case, this is all preliminary to our real interest which is in the average revenue (MDI) per fan. Now, I’m going to divide total MDI by league attendance – had I the time I could figure out total attendance by adding in Cup games – domestic and European – but since I haven’t, how will this bias my results? Total attendance must be higher, so the figures will overstate average prices. There is also a bias in that English clubs play more games on average- because in addition to the FA Cup they also play the League Cup and I’m guessing more fans attend the FA Cup than the DFB Pokal. It probably doesn’t make much of a difference, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the estimates are slightly biased against the EPL.
Of course, MDI includes more than ticket prices- it may include programme sales, food and beverage, and possibly some merchandising, although normally one would expect that this is quoted
separately. I’m guessing the percentage of MDI from these sources will not be very different comparing the BL to the EPL, so this is not likely to bias in the results.
I am using the sterling value only because sterling existed as a currency in every season (unlike the DM and Euro)- but since I have converted at the 30 June exchange rate in each year the figures are comparable (e.g. if you had gone from the UK to Germany to watch a game in 1997 then £11.01 should have been enough to buy an average ticket, assuming you got the 30 June 1997 exchange rate).
We can now compare average cost per fan of going to games in each year using a common currency. I think a lot of people will be surprised when they look at this table.
MDI per fan has been consistently higher in the EPL, but the gap has been narrowing sharply. The first two columns show the average revenue per fan in the BL and EPL – in both countries this has more than doubled, but the rate of increase has been faster in the BL than in EPL. Back in 1997 the average revenue per fan was 64% higher in the EPL than the BL, while by 2011 it was only 45% higher.
These comparisons have been made by converting to a common currency. But a large part of the fluctuations in these prices have been caused by exchange rate movements, so this might be considered misleading. If you live in Germany and earn a living in Euros then the rate of change of prices in Euros will be the relevant consideration.
Changes in prices over time have also reflected the falling value of both sterling and euros. If, for example, you had £11.01 in 1997 and held onto it until 2011 you would discover that it would buy a lot less in the UK- everything has become more expensive. Inflation in the UK eroded about one third of the value of £1 between 1997 and 2011, and so if we want to compare prices in the past to prices today, we really should take account of this. Allowing for inflation in the UK the average price per fan has risen much more slowly- only a 50% increase. However, had you taken your £11.01 in 1997 and converted it to DM, then into Euros in 1999, and held onto it until 2011 then its value would have eroded far less- only by about 20%. That means that the price increases in Germany have less to do with simply keeping up with inflation, and more to do with real price increases.
To illustrate the real growth in ticket prices I have inflated the EPL MDI per fan using the UK Retail Price Index, and the BL MDI per fan in Euros by the German Consumer Price Index.
There are some significant fluctuations from year to year, but comparing 2011 to 1997, MDI per fan has increased in the BL slightly faster in local currency terms over the last 15 years, by 56% compared to 53% in the EPL.
These results are so contrary to the prevailing narrative in the British press that I’m sure lots of people will think that I’ve fixed the numbers in some way or other, so I’m attaching the spreadsheet I made (BL-and-EPL-calculations) which also lists the sources I used (if you can find an error then please contact- no one is infallible- thanks already to Roger Pielke for pointing out some issues). It’s especially important to note that this analysis rests heavily on the accuracy of the Deloitte data.
Also, let’s apply some basic “smell tests” to see if the data makes sense. First note that average prices are still around 50% higher in the EPL, the point is just that the BL is quickly catching up. Second, note that the data can really be divided into two periods- 1997-2004ish and 2004ish-2011. In the first period BL prices barely increased in real terms, while EPL prices went up by around 50% – these were boom years for the EPL when it really established its pre-eminence in Europe. These were also the boom years for the UK economy and incomes were growing rapidly. By contrast the BL was not doing especially well in these years, and the German economy was struggling to rein in welfare spending and stop the outflow of jobs into the surrounding economies like Poland and the Czech Republic.
Since 2004ish the position dramatically reversed. While the EPL has continued to be strong, the source of that strength is increasingly derived from foreign income and foreign investors. The UK economy fell off a cliff in 2008 and real incomes have fallen by about 10% on average since the peak. Faced with this domestic economic meltdown EPL clubs appear to be cutting average prices in real terms, which would make sense if you want to maximize your income. They may be doing this in ways that are not particularly noticeable (e.g. expanding the sections in which lower prices are charged, rather than cutting the headline price, which might smack of desperation). In Germany, by contrast, there has been a football boom associated with the incredibly successful 2006 World Cup and also an economy that has mostly been thriving despite (some might even say because of) the Eurozone crisis. It is in this later period that average BL prices seem to have taken off. Indeed, they seem to have increased by 45% in real terms since 2004.
Two further reality checks. First, there have been numerous fan protests in Germany about rising ticket prices in recent years- involving fans of Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 among others. The slant given in the English press is that this is a positive expression of fan power and proves that BL clubs cannot as easily exploit supporters in the way that EPL clubs can. In the light of the table above, a more plausible explanation might be that fans really are feeling the economic pressure of real ticket price increases that are rapidly bringing the BL into line with the EPL. Second, go to any BL ticket reseller website and look at the prices on offer. Prices in the resale market for attractive games can be quoted in the hundreds of euros. This is hardly surprising given the boom the BL is enjoying. So if you were running a BL club, why would you let this profit go to resellers rather than keep it for the club?
What is the conclusion from all of this? As the old saw goes, “you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’”. In other words, these are just facts, and I hope I have presented them clearly and without any deliberate bias; None of this says whether the BL is better than the EPL (or vice versa) because facts simply can’t do that. But facts presented partially, or incompletely, can sometimes allow an argument to seem more plausible than it really is. I hope the above at least lends some clarity to whatever argument people want to advance.