Broadcast in 188 countries, the Premier League, England’s elite football competition, is a prominent part of “Brand Britain” – and a key export of great value to the economy. A study by EY last year found that the Premier League contributes £7.6bn annually to UK GDP. In the 2016/17 season, the league generated over £3bn in tax revenue, with clubs supporting almost 100,000 jobs, according to EY’s report.
In the North of England, home to many of the Premier League’s most high-profile clubs, football is integral to growth in a number of other sectors. One of these is tourism. According to the latest data from VisitBritain, in the 2014/15 season, more than 800,000 international tourists went to a football match during their stay in this country, spending around £684m. This was 15 per cent higher – an increase of £87m – than in 2009/10, when the research was previously conducted. Over a third – 33 per cent – of all football-driven tourism in Britain in the 2014/15 season took place in the North of England.
While the overall global average spending on an international visit to Britain in 2014/15 was £636 per person, visits including the attendance of a football match had an average spend of £855. And it is not just leisure visitors that enjoyed watching football. Of the 800,000 total, nearly 40,000 people were in Britain on business when they went to a match.
One in every ten visits to the North West – home to clubs such as Liverpool, Everton, Manchester City, and Manchester United – included a match-day experience. Patricia Yates, director of VisitBritain, says that football is a “huge pull” for British tourism. As some of England’s most prominent and popular clubs are based in the North, she adds, football goes a long way towards “driving regional economic growth”, by encouraging people to “explore different parts of Britain, and not just concentrating on London.”
Looking ahead to VisitBritain’s next football tourism study, due to be published after the end of the 2019/20 season, Yates “can only expect that it [the value of football to northern economies] will have continued to grow.” Football tourists, who will “no doubt stay in hotels and visit restaurants and bars”, she notes, play a massive part in “driving prosperity across the low and shoulder seasons… They are important for supporting local economies all year round, especially in the North.”
As well as attracting visitors to a given city or town, Kieran Maguire, a chartered accountant and lecturer in football finance at the University of Liverpool, says football clubs are more crucial than many people realise in “sustaining” several “post-industrial” areas in the North. Manchester and Liverpool are both home to two Premier League clubs each that support “thousands” of jobs, stretching “well beyond” the core playing and coaching staff.
“The employment that football creates and supports,” Maguire explains, “isn’t limited to the clubs in isolation. You’ve got local media, hospitality, transport, security… all sorts of jobs that depend on the existence and maintenance of a team in the area. In places like Liverpool, a football club can be a sort of diamond in the rough. Where there may not be as many jobs [as there are in London], Liverpool [Football Club] is one of the main employers and creates enough further demand for more jobs in other fields. There’s a massive media interest in the North West, because of the huge clubs that you’ve got there. At Manchester City, there’s even a graduate programme, which can play a massive part in attracting talent to the area.”
For Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford, football in the Northern Powerhouse has some “more intangible benefits” linked to public health and wellbeing. He says: “There’s a social element to football. The image and associated reputation that comes with it [having a successful football team] is really good for northern cities. Football is a core part of brand Manchester, which is a key driver for tourism, just as music and comedy have been in the past.”
Maguire agrees, adding that football clubs, particularly in the North, should be viewed as “community assets”. He continues: “As well as being a premium entertainment product, football is a reason to get you out of the house and an opportunity to see your friends. Football clubs can play important roles in supporting friendships, relationships, and people’s mental health. And this is true at all levels of the pyramid, not just in the Premier League.” Even without the profile boost and broadcast-related riches of the top flight, the likes of Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Blackburn Rovers and other such clubs are no less a part of their cities’ or towns’ social and economic fabric.
Protecting and supporting football clubs should be a point of consensus for government and the game’s authorities alike. While it is impossible to guarantee success for every club – “You can’t create multiple Liverpools or Manchester Cities,” Maguire jokes – there should be a sense of duty when it comes to ensuring that clubs are at least run responsibly and sustainably, for the sake of the communities in which they are based.
For Chadwick, access is one key issue. “Transport needs to be part of football’s 21st-century blueprint.” Given the amount of travel involved in following a club’s fixtures home and away, he suggests, more reliable and affordable rail travel seems a good place to start.
The ownership conversation, of course, is complex. Football clubs are private businesses after all, but, Maguire points out, setting a more “stringent” code of conduct for owners, one that is designed by government and football authorities together, could help to ensure that “situations like Bury [where the club was expelled from the Football League in December last year after gross financial mismanagement] never happen again.” Several other clubs in the North, including Blackpool, Blackburn, Bolton, Leeds, Sunderland, and Newcastle, have experienced financial difficulties and a loss of assets, thanks to rogue ownership.
Football is, the former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi said, the “most important of all the unimportant things in life.” But given the sport’s economic and cultural capital, politicians need to recognise the value of football and respond accordingly, with investment and protection of community hubs.“The North,” Chadwick reiterates, “is at the heart of all that is powerful and compelling in football, and policymakers need to start engaging with this reality.”