1. Environmental
August 10, 2016updated 15 Jul 2021 3:40pm

Building a fanbase: which football team is winning the housebuilding league?

By Barney Stringer

There are plenty of reasons to welcome new housing in our neighbourhood. It’s a fundamental human need, and one we’re uncomfortably short of.

But here’s one reason you may not have considered – more homes could be just what your local football club needs to gain an edge over its rivals.

So which football clubs have the fastest growing local population and future fanbase?

OK, so this is a silly-season joke, but it’s one with a grain of truth. On matchday, around 2.6 per cent of the population of England and Wales are at a football match. That means that, to fill one extra seat in a stadium, you need to build around 17 new homes in the local area.

Of course not everyone supports their local team, least of all people moving into a new area. But over generations even football loyalties can change, and a nearby club will always have a draw. Milton Keynes’ Stadium MK now gets crowds of up to 27,000 in what was a small village only 50 years ago.

The top clubs’ finances rely on international audiences and TV rights – but matchday fans, their loyalty and their spending, are also important. Outside the Premier League it is essential.

So, accept for a moment that in football “demographics is destiny”, and let’s look at the current winners and losers in the housebuilding league.

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The map above shows the 92 teams in the top four tiers English football, plus a few more who have been there in recent years. The country is divided up to show their nearest “catchment”. Reality of course is nothing like as neat – few in north Devon would see Swansea as their nearest club – but, well, lines have to go somewhere.

Let’s look at the Premier League first. The table below uses 2011 Census data and the change since 2001. Swansea tops the first column, for local population – it’s the nearest club for nearly a million people (though it’s helped in this analysis by the omission of the Welsh leagues), with Crystal Palace not far behind. At the other extreme, Burnley has only a quarter that number.

Looking at growth, London’s swelling population has helped Arsenal gain the most new locals – 89,000 new residents, which on average equates to 2,300 new season ticket holders. (I’ve used the location of the Emirates here, not taking account of the move from Highbury.)

Leicester too has been propelled on its way by an additional 83,000 new locals. And the 90,000 new homes Leicestershire projects it needs over the next 25 years equate to an extra 5,300 new season tickets sold. Everton, by contrast, is the only club in the Premier League to have lost locals.

Looking beyond the top division, recently-relegated Newcastle can console themselves having the highest local population in English Football (although that’s partly because Berwick Rangers is missing from the analysis, as they play in the Scottish Leagues). More worryingly, the North East’s relatively low population growth is doing little to help Newcastle return to the top flight.

Cardiff can, in this respect at least, claim bragging rights over Swansea, and has a higher population growth rate too: the city’s 40,000 planned new homes over 10 years should mean 2,350 new season tickets.

Seven of the top ten fastest-growing football catchments are in London, with Millwall and Brentford topping the list. Both have gained over a hundred thousand new locals, and the next London Plan may need to boost them further with new housing growth targets.

At the bottom, Hartlepool’s local territory is squeezed between Middlesbrough, Darlington and Sunderland, although Everton’s back yard has still lost the most people – 3,700 fewer residents equates to 95 empty seats.

So could different local attitudes to housebuilding affect the long-term future of any big football rivalries? Manchester United and City both have fast growth, but City has added most locals, thanks to its proximity to the fast-growing city centre. Liverpool’s local population was still larger than either at the time of the Census, although slower growth means it may already have fallen behind Manchester United.

On the south coast, Southampton, Bournemouth and Portsmouth have quite evenly matched local catchments, although faster growth has seen Pompey just pull ahead. In the Second City Derby, Birmingham City has a clear and growing lead over Aston Villa (at least in terms of demographics).

In London, Arsenal and Tottenham are very closely matched for population. Islington’s growth means Arsenal is edging ahead, although the 20,000 homes planned for the Upper Lea Valley Opportunity Area could help fill over a thousand of the seats in the Tottenham’s new stadium.

The analysis here isn’t serious – but the difficulties overcoming opposition to new housing really is. One of the biggest barriers is people’s natural suspicion of change, and of new people coming to their neighbourhood. We need to overcome that fear, and persuade people that people are a good thing, by showing them the benefits.

A bigger fanbase for their local club is just the start: many other local facilities and services benefit from more people, not to mention businesses that rely on the local labour market. From struggling local shops to infrequent bus services and underfunded council services, the best way to keep communities sustainable will often be new housing and new neighbours.

Barney Stringer is a director at regeneration consultancy Quod. This article was originally posted on his blog.

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