UK Attendance Growth: Why Sport is Prospering

    Live sport in the UK is in rude health.

    Despite there being 250 times more media available at our fingertips now compared to 1985 – and dwindling concentration spans, which for the average human have fallen by 50% since 20001 – live sport continues to cut through like nothing else.

    But in a world of on-demand TV and e-sports, why have live sports experiences become such a major contributor to the UK leisure industry? How have they managed to grow at such pace?

    As Gareth explains, for a complex set of reasons – geo-political, technological, social – the youngest generation is financially worse off in real terms than the generation that preceded it.

    When it comes to owning physical possessions, this appears to be having the impact you would expect. A third of Millennials, for instance, will never own a house2. But when it comes to experiences – and in particular live sport – the poorer financial position of ‘Generation Rent’ is proving less significant. The data bears this out: our analysis shows the proportion of ticket-buyers for UK sport aged 16 to 24 has increased from 15% in 2012 to 23% in 2018.

    Proportion of Ticket-Buyers for Sports Events Aged 16-24

    A primary driver for this growth is the expansion of the sporting event beyond the spectacle on the pitch. Sport is re-inventing its attendance products to deliver experiences that service the increasing demand for the ‘festival feeling’.

    Specifically, this might mean re-invigorated food and beverage options at the event, ‘Instagrammable’ installations and activations, or genuine box-office entertainment bolted-on before or after the game.

    Stadia, Stars and Service

    Sports event-owners can only deliver great experiences by making investments – specifically in their venues, the talent on show, and the service their attendees can enjoy.

    Football, which accounts for two-thirds of the UK live sports audience, is a case in point.

    When Spurs’ new stadium opens in 2019, eight of the 20 Premier League teams will play in stadia that have been built since the turn of the millennium. Coupled with an upturn in the rate of re-developments to existing stadia, the quality of the facilities and experiences has risen – as has the previously much-lauded safety record at games, which over the last decade has improved more than any decade since the professionalisation of the sport.

    These stadia represent much more than a larger supply of tickets and bigger hospitality areas, they have enabled clubs to introduce better customer journeys before, during and after the game. We have completed around a million match day experience surveys since 2011, revealing a longitudinal rise in customer satisfaction with experience drivers such as atmosphere, catering, food and beverage, signage and access to the ground.

    Few other countries can boast such sporting stardust on their doorstep.

    Investment has been made, too, into the stars of the game. Manchester City (11), Manchester United (nine) and Tottenham (nine) had the most players represented in the quarter-finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, ahead of Paris Saint-Germain (eight) and Barcelona (seven). The UK is where a large proportion of the sport’s big stars want to ply their trade; it’s where the quality of sport is high, where they are paid well, and where they can play in front of packed houses. Similar comparisons can be made with all the top-ten attended sports in the UK. Few other countries can boast such sporting stardust on their doorstep.

    And though better venues and world-class talent help attract new audiences to live sport – all the while the top-tiers of UK football have continued to diversify the types of service and experiences offered at their events, bringing previously under-penetrated demographics into the ground. UK football is catered towards a much broader range of society than ever before – and though there is still work to be done, family stands are now commonplace, as is premium economy hospitality that attracts a far more middle-class audience. Singing stands, meanwhile, are assigned for the hardcore fans and ‘purists’.

    Rights-holders making the right investments are reaping the rewards. Net Promoter Scores (NPS) – the primary metric of the willingness of customers or fans to recommend an organisation’s products, services or events to others – correlate closely with prudent investments in stadia, stars and service. Our longitudinal study proves rights-holders achieving a higher NPS at their live events benefit from higher customer retention and higher customer lifetime value.

    Wider Impact

    Investment in live sports experiences delivers returns above and beyond a rights-holder’s event day revenue stream; it is a catalyst for value creation across all revenue lines.

    In particular, high occupancy for event-day businesses directly correlates with above-market growth rates in sponsorship and media rights. Sponsorship and media will be the primary financial fuel for the next era of sport’s commercial growth – and the fundamental value-driver for these rights is the depth and breadth of relationships between the rights-holder and fan. Full houses are the most visual indicator of the health of this relationship. Empty seats weaken the broadcast product, and positive fans’ perceptions of the event; stadium occupancy is the catalyst for value creation.

    The Future

    Growth for sports attendances in the UK shows no sign of waning. Our attendance-modelling predicts attendances will exceed 77m in 2019 alone. The Golden Decade will become a Golden Era.

    On the demand side of the market, innovative rights-holders who host regular events are creating a market of sports-hungry, live-experiencing-hunting UK citizens from various backgrounds. Major one-off events – showcasing different types of sports, teams and stars than UK sports fans are used to – are topping that up. Though they might not realise it, a rising tide is lifting all boats.

    We predict sport will also benefit from changes in the experience economy. Having your weekly supermarket shop automatically re-order according to your purchase history and what’s in your fridge, and then deliver to your doorstep at a time that’s convenient, could free up a family of two hours a week. When the rising middle-classes have a world where robots and automation do all the menial tasks they’ve traditionally spent significant time doing, they will have more time to seek out new experiences.

    Though they might not realise it, a rising tide is lifting all boats.

    Meanwhile, the supply side of the market is well positioned for growth too. In October, UK Sport revealed the list of major international events it will bid for over the next two decades – including the FIFA World Cup, the starts of cycling’s three Grand Tours, and the World Athletics Championship. UK Sport knows the market is attractive for major international federations looking to award their events, helping them to be commercially successful, with large crowds that will give a first-class level of support for their sport.

    Add into the mix sports that are saturated domestically and looking to expand into new markets – the UK will attract those in the way that the NFL and NBA has come to the UK before others. Smaller sports properties seeking private funding to grow aggressively will also play a role: the UK market is where they can prosper at the start of their journey.

    But whether we’re talking about a UK-based sports property, an international sports property looking to host regular events in the UK, or a major one-off event landing in the UK in the next few years – all face the same challenge. There is space for all, and they will all help the market grow, but they ultimately need to ensure they’re investing in experiences and products that customers want.

    From our experience helping our clients grow their event day businesses, we know the rights-holders who continue to invest in this area through a fan-first approach will be the ones who will prosper most.


    1. Microsoft
    2. Resolution Foundation, April 2018
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