Have Covid-19 spectator restrictions affected SA’s football teams negatively? Apparently not

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 2022, the PSL stated that it would only lift the spectator ban once the government allows stadiums to operate at full capacity again. 

The current match attendance limit prescribed by the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC) allows for a maximum of 2, 000 people at a stadium on match day across all sporting codes. But PSL chairperson Dr Irvin Khoza said that this would continue to leave supporters out in the cold as the league was constrained owing to its responsibility towards its partners.

Meanwhile, the National Football Supporters’ Association (Nafsa) – which is calling for stadiums to be reopened at a minimum capacity of 50% – in January, picketed in front of the DSAC offices in Pretoria, with other stakeholders, to intensify its call for the lifting of the spectator restrictions across all sporting codes.

The question though, is does the PSL need to operate at 100% capacity to go back to business as usual prior to Covid-19? The overall match attendance figures do not really suggest that.

Five years of attendance figures at PSL stadiums

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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 Transfermarkt – a football statistics website. 

This means that the home teams, who 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 manages to attract well over 70, 000 spectators to the FNB stadium, which has a capacity of 94,700.

The cost of putting up 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, who is 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, as it effectively reduces 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,” said Ndlovu. 

The PSL has not responded to requests for comment. This story will be updated to reflect the league’s response, if/when it does respond. 

How does the PSL compare with other leagues?

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 has not recorded an overall match attendance percentage of less than 85% during this period. 

UK-based football journalist Joe Crann, who has extensive experience as a football reporter in South Africa, said that more people in England have a higher expendable income to pay to go to football games. Additionally, as 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.”

This is unlike in the PSL where 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?” asked Ndlovu. 

Crann noted that with heritage playing a very big role in football, the manner in which football clubs “chop and change” in South Africa plays a role 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,” said Crann.

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,” said Ndlovu.

Football clubs in the PSL, he said, are not able to offer their supporters these experiences as none of them own any of their home stadiums and would have to cover additional costs to offer these experiences, 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 been in existence 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% and its highest overall match attendance was 61% in 2016. 

Why are PSL figures so low?

There are several socioeconomic factors which affected PSL supporters’ decision to not attend live matches in the past, according to Nafsa acting CEO Siyabulela Loyilane. 

These, she said, range from a lack of access to transportation, the additional costs associated with attending matches and the lack of availability of stadiums in the communities where 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 within 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 were 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. 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 coming up with 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 since clubs have managed to make money in other ways, such as selling broadcasting rights, through competition revenue, monthly grants from the league as well 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,” said Ndlovu.

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 last five years. Ratings have declined further during the pandemic even though television has become the main avenue for live football, as supporters cannot access matches at stadiums. 

Football publication 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 that 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.

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