In April 1967, in an era when sports rights-holders were apt to worry about the impact of television on attendance figures, Football League chairmen in England took less than half an hour to turn down a BBC live television proposal worth a then highly respectable £781,000.
Europe’s incipient coronavirus crisis is set to demonstrate just how comprehensively times have changed in the intervening 53 years.
Back then, in the year Jock Stein’s Celtic earned their eternal ‘Lions of Lisbon’ sobriquet, turnstile takings provided a significant proportion of any top football club’s income.
Now, with some of Europe’s Big Five leagues poised to go ‘behind closed doors’, and Tuesday night’s Valencia versus Atalanta Champions League second leg having already done so, we may be about to learn how economically insignificant live audiences have become to our very biggest clubs.
The good news in the short term is that this means that a period of playing in empty stadia for say three or four weeks, while dreadful for atmospherics, would have a surprisingly small impact on the top teams’ revenue figures.
Take for example Liverpool, the European champions. The Merseysiders last week published accounts for the year to 31 May 2019 showing turnover of £533 million. Only £84.2 million of this was classified as “match day”. That is the equivalent of exactly 15.8%.
This is actually somewhat higher than the overall average for the English top flight. This was calculated at 14% in the latest Deloitte Annual Review of Football Finance, which analysed figures from the 2017-18 season.
The main explanation, unsurprisingly, is the colossal value that the league’s broadcasting rights contracts have attained in recent times, spurred by a) technological advances and b) the genuinely worldwide popularity of the product.
But the situation is not so very different in any of the other four big West European markets. In Spain, the corresponding figure is somewhat higher at 17%, the same level as it is in Germany, where broadcasting rights values are lower, but so are ticket prices.
In both Italy and France Deloitte calculates that the proportion of revenue generated by matchday income is lower than the Premier League, at 12% and 11% respectively.
With league seasons something like three-quarters complete, only a fraction of these sums would be lost even if the danger of infection were eventually deemed so serious as to force all remaining games to be played in empty stadia – just as long as broadcast income is unimpacted.
The season-ticket system, indeed, might result in losses being even smaller; reimbursement policies for the affected games would probably vary from club to club, and some might feel justified in offering no rebate at all.
As so often in recent times, the situation engendered by this sort of shutdown would be far more serious for non-first-division clubs and indeed for top-flight clubs in smaller national markets. Their TV deals are far, far smaller. As a consequence, missing income from absent matchday attendances would leave proportionately a much bigger hole.
This is not to say that even the big clubs can afford simply to shrug off the foregone income and carry on regardless. Certainly in England, with income from TV rights having stagnated for teams who do not make it into the two big UEFA club competitions, more clubs are dropping back into the red after a broadly profitable couple of years. With wage costs rising, half of the Premier League clubs who have to date published financial results for 2018-19 have posted losses, some very hefty.
But intuitively you might have expected the financial impact of playing matches in empty stadia potentially for a lengthy period to be much, much worse.
The dwindling commercial significance of the live fan, and the massive importance to club finances of broadcast income have been a factor in some unpopular recent developments in the game – the growing tendency to stagger kick-off times to name but one.
But these linked phenomena may at least help clubs to emerge from the coronavirus crisis if not unscathed, then with a surprisingly modest financial hit. The Big Boys, anyway.
Of course, if the situation became so grave that it was decided there was no alternative but for top-flight games to be abandoned completely, jeopardising broadcast revenue – and, as things stand, remember, Italy’s Serie A has been suspended until April 3 – well that would be a different, more serious proposition altogether.
David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen’s Twitter feed can be accessed at www.twitter.com/dodo938.