The growing calls for the Premier Soccer League (PSL) to lift the ban on spectators at football matches, which was enacted as a Covid-19 health and safety measure in 2020, seem to have fallen on deaf ears for the time being.
In early January, the PSL stated that it would lift the spectator ban only when the government allows stadiums to operate at full capacity again.
The current match attendance limit prescribed by the department of sports, arts and culture allows for a maximum of 2 000 people at a stadium on match day across all sporting codes. But PSL chairperson Irvin Khoza said this would continue to leave supporters out in the cold, because the league was constrained owing to its responsibility towards its partners.
Meanwhile, in January the National Football Supporters’ Association (Nafsa) – which is calling for stadiums to be reopened at a minimum capacity of 50% – picketed with other stakeholders in front of the department’s offices in Pretoria, with other stakeholders, to promote its call for the lifting of spectator restrictions across all sporting codes.
The question is: Does the PSL need to operate at 100% capacity to go back to business as usual before Covid-19? The overall match attendance figures do not really suggest that.
PSL attendance figures
Between 2015 and 2019, the five seasons preceding the Covid ban, 2015-16 had the highest average match attendance at 31%, according to data published by football statistics website Transfermarkt.
This means that the home teams, which are responsible for the match logistics, were unlikely to have been able to make a profit or break even purely from gate takings even before the Covid-19 restrictions.
Although stadium sizes vary, the match attendance figures appear to be low across the board.
This excludes the usually highly attended Soweto Derby between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, which usually manages to attract well over 70 000 spectators to the FNB stadium, which has a capacity of 94 700.
The cost of hosting a single match at a PSL-approved stadium under Covid-19 restrictions ranges from R300 000 to R500 000 a match, depending on the team and the size of the stadium, according to sports researcher Nqobile Ndlovu, the director of CashN Sport.
The match-attendance figures between the 2014-15 and 2018-19 seasons indicate that the football clubs themselves have not been negatively affected by the spectator limitations, because the latter effectively reduce the cost of hosting a match.
“Revenue is a very difficult point for clubs in the PSL as most teams rely on the owner’s personal pockets to keep afloat. Therefore, Covid-19 and the subsequent stadium bans are a blessing in disguise because teams have not had to fork out extra money owing to fans being at stadiums,” Ndlovu said.
The PSL has not responded to requests for comment. This story will be updated to reflect the league’s response, when or if it does so.
The English Premier League (EPL) is, arguably, one of the best-run leagues in the world, with high and steady match attendance figures. Between the 2014-15 and 2018-19 seasons, the league recorded its lowest overall match attendance percentage during the 2016-17 season, at 88.5%. The league did not record an overall match attendance percentage of less than 85% during this time.
UK-based football journalist Joe Crann, who has also extensive experience as a football reporter in South Africa, said more people in England have a higher expendable income to pay to go to football games. Additionally, because there is more history to English clubs in general, this enables people to support football clubs in their localities.
“In England, people from Sheffield support Sheffield Wednesday or Sheffield United for the most part — you don’t ‘pick’ a team,” Crann said.
This is unlike in the PSL, in which the bulk of football supporters have been absorbed by the big three clubs: Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns. Additionally, of all the PSL’s 18 founding member clubs, only six can be found in the current makeup of the league.
“The mere fact that the league has lost so many teams over time plays a very big role. Football fans generally don’t change the teams that they support. So, if the league has lost so many teams since it was established, where do people think all of those fans went?” askedNdlovu.
Crann noted that with heritage playing a big role in football, the manner in which football clubs “chop and change” in South Africa is a factor in how fans treat the game.
“When you can never be sure whether your team will be sold, renamed and relocated, you [would] rather pick a team that you can have faith in. It’s part of the reason why so many fans opt for Chiefs, Pirates and Sundowns, even if they’re not from Gauteng,” Crann said.
In the EPL, attendance figures appear to be high throughout the league. At least half of the home stadiums in the EPL are owned by the football clubs themselves, which allows teams to offer spectators a more varied experience beyond just the football.
“Supporters of these teams have a reason to go to stadiums in leagues such as those because of the additional perks associated with attending matches. Stadiums in Europe are experience venues where you can, for instance, go to a restaurant or a spa while there, and they are conducive for an overall family experience,” Ndlovu said.
Football clubs in the PSL, he notes, are not able to offer their supporters these experiences, because none of them own any of their home stadiums and would have to cover additional costs to do so, which might not be in their best interests.
As a comparison, the China Super League (CSL), which is less established than the EPL and has existed for a much shorter time than the PSL also seems to be able to pull in a higher number of spectators at its stadiums than the PSL.
Between 2015 and 2019, the CSL recorded its lowest overall match attendance in 2015 at 54%; its highest overall match attendance was 61% in 2016.
Why are PSL figures so low?
There are several socioeconomic factors that affected PSL supporters’ decision to not attend live matches in the past, according to Nafsa acting chief executive Siyabulela Loyilane.
These, she said, range from a lack of access to transport, the additional costs associated with attending matches and the lack of availability of stadiums in the communities in which football is popular.
Football in South Africa still shows the effects of apartheid spatial planning when it comes to the location of teams and their home stadiums in relation to where their fans live, but even Orlando Stadium (Orlando Pirates’ home ground), which is well-placed in the community, has relatively low match attendance figures, Ndlovu noted.
The team’s highest overall match attendance was 40% in the 2018-19 season, and not one of its matches was sold out.
Despite the comparatively low attendance figures, Nafsa is of the view that stadiums should reopen because many other industries, such as informal traders, events and hospitality companies, and entertainers, depend on their functioning.
“Our stadiums are very big, so that’s why, most of the time, the crowds would be swallowed by the stadium. [The] government came up with a figure currently limiting match attendance to 2 000 people and we haven’t been able to engage them and find out what the rationale for such a figure is. We believe that a minimum of 50% capacity will allow for Covid-safe measures such as social distancing measures to be implemented,” Loyilane told The Outlier.
She said that, with the way things are going, there is a real danger of stadiums becoming white elephants.
Ndlovu, however, said that given clubs have managed to make money in other ways, such as selling broadcasting rights, competition revenue, grants from the league and as individual sponsorships, they are unlikely to look towards gate takings, which have been dismal, as part of their revenue strategies.
“If it were up to the clubs and they could play their matches at any facility that they don’t have to rent from the municipalities and they could pay far less than they currently are, they would. But they can’t do that because there are minimum standards that they must uphold which are set by Fifa,” Ndlovu said.
The decline in South Africans’ appetite for football seems to have spilled over to television as well. The usually highly anticipated Soweto Derby viewership ratings have been dropping over the past five years. Ratings have declined further during the pandemic, even though television has become the main avenue for live football.
KickOff Magazine reported that the Soweto Derby in March 2021 had 7.4-million viewers compared with 11.2-million viewers in November 2019, with the SABC accounting for the bulk of these numbers.
This decline, Ndlovu said, is likely because of the inferior quality of the football being played in South Africa at the moment and a lack of rigorous marketing efforts from teams.
Loyilane said matches not being available on the widely accessible public broadcaster, SABC, is also a big factor.
DStv, which is owned by subscription-based video entertainment company Multichoice, is the current PSL broadcast rights holder and the league’s headline sponsor.
This article was originally published on The Outlier.