If you reduce it, they will come

Thu, Jan 14 2016

A 10 team top tier would boost average crowds Credit: Macdara Ferris

A switch to a ten team top tier would boost average League of Ireland Premier Division crowds according to an academic paper published on The Economic and Social Review.


The ‘Conway Report’ on the SSE Airtricity League Consultation published in August 2015 gave recommendations on the future structure of the League of Ireland.   The proposals included having a 10 team top division; the rationale being to have “more games with more at stake for clubs and fans for more of the season.”


A recent academic paper in the Economic and Social Review suggests that if the league was to reduce in size from the current 12 team Premier Division, this would lead to an increase in the average attendance at top flight League of Ireland matches.


Barry Reilly, a professor of Econometrics at the University of Sussex, published his paper ‘The Demand for League of Ireland Football’ last month. He used attendances across three seasons (2012 to 2014 inclusive) to investigate what factors influence the spectator demand to attend matches in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division.


While there is much talk about building better facilities around the league to increase attendances, Reilly’s assertion using statistical analysis is that it is more a case of ‘if you reduce the number of teams, they will come.’


The figures certainly suggest that spectator demand increases with a reduction in the number of teams as that leads to fixtures of higher quality with less imbalance – the current 12 team league leads to an unequal fixture arrangement which sees some teams play 16 home games while others play 17.


Factors that influence the size of crowds include the clubs chances of winning the league, recent team performance, match outcome uncertainty and a number of opportunity cost measures (such as travel distance and kick off time and day of the week). These factors are similar to conclusions drawn from studies of other leagues elsewhere around the globe.


Drawing on data from over 570 matches, Reilly outlined the various influences of these factors on attendances which extratime.ie have summarised below.


You’re hardly going to believe us, we are going to win the league

Higher attendances are associated with home clubs who are at least arithmetically in contention to win the Premier Division. On average, attendances are 30% higher if a team is in with a shout of winning the title, compared with those who are no longer in contention.


An away banker

When the probability of a home win is less than 0.25, the perceived certainty of the result of the match (i.e. the away team winning) adversely affects attendance. If the home team’s odds of winning are that low, which is the case in 20% of Premier Division games, it means the two teams are poorly matched, making it a much less attractive game for fans to attend.


Fixture quality (ranking of opponents)

A one place increase in the average league position of opponents, raises the attendance by 8%.


Derby Day

On average a derby will give a massive 24% boost in attendance. Derby data is used for the Dublin derbies involving Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers, Shelbourne and St. Patrick’s Athletic plus the Louth derby between Dundalk and Drogheda.


Friday Night Lights

All other factors being equal, attendances are 13% higher when the game is played on a Friday night compared with other nights.


Form Guide

On average an additional point won by the home team in the last three games increases the attendance by 2%.


Away Days

A 10% increase in the distance between the stadia of the opponents, leads to a 1% drop in attendance.


Summer Soccer

The more daylight, the less the attendance - a 15 minute increase in daylight, reduces the attendance by 1%.


Note: Bear in mind when reviewing each factor above, the other factors (fixture quality, form, kick off time etc.) are all held constant.


While extratime.ie can talk 4-1-3-2, false nines and UEFA co-efficients all day, we do have to admit that we are not so good with the statistical discussions on endogeneity issues, LSDV fixed effects or asymptotic t-tests but there is no doubt about the level of detailed work put in to developing this paper! There are some factors which the stats suggest have no affect on attendences.


It is surprising to read that matches broadcast on TV do not adversely impact on attendances; 7% of fixtures for the studied period were live on television. A number of clubs have had issues with scheduling of live TV matches, particularly with early kick off times.


This came to a head during last season when Shamrock Rovers took the unusual step of asking for some matches not to be shown on TV due to their view that it lead to reduction in the gate brought about by matches moving from their usual Tallaght kick off of 8pm back to 7.05pm to facilitiate TV. The data suggests however that on average across the league in three seasons studied that live TV games are not a significant issue on attendances.


Adverse weather is noted as statistically unimportant. Of course in this instance summer and winter seasons are not being compared, as all the data is from summer football seasons 2012 to 2014. When the weather is really bad, matches are re-arranged for another day. The wet winter we have had recently has played havoc with the fixtures in the women’s national league - one good reason to stick with the ‘summer’ season for the senior men’s league.


The attendances used in the paper were drawn from extratime.ie figures. The paper's author notes that these are mostly official crowds but would also include estimates from reporters. The FAI figures at the conclusion of the 2015 campaign noted that Premier Division crowds had increased by 10% on the previous season.


Reilly’s paper is a well researched and thorough examination of the attendances in recent years. His conclusion from the data is that the lowering of the number of clubs in the top tier would increase attendances as the match uncertainty factor would increase. By concentrating the player pool within a smaller number of clubs, it would improve the playing standard and give higher average fixture quality.


Conversely the option of increasing the league to a single 16 or 18 team league would see a drop in attendances; this would arise as there would be greater competitive imbalance between top and bottom of the league, with poorer average fixture quality.


The Conway Report recommendation of reducing the number of teams in the top tier will be one for discussion during the year and this paper with its detailed review of attendances from three recent seasons gives a good argument for going with that recommendation.


However, many league clubs will believe they could well miss out on that top tier if such a reduction occurred. In any debate they may look to avoid being like turkeys voting for Christmas and will likely not support the top tier having a couple of clubs sliced off its total numbers.