Football Fan Fact-Finding: The Economics of Sporting Success

The Wikipedia page titled ‘Sports Economics’ is less than 500 words long.

You could read the entire thing in less time than it takes to watch the highlights from your team’s latest match. Or, incidentally, in less time than it takes you to read this article.

Sports economics is – as the name suggests – the use of economic concepts to:

  • understand sporting teams, leagues and environments;
  • identify strengths and weaknesses in how sport is received by society; and
  • develop strategies to engage with the key ‘buyers’ in the sports marketplace, i.e., fans.


By contrast, the ‘Sports Analytics’ Wikipedia page[1] is about seven times as long. Sports analytics – using data and statistical analysis to predict the performance of teams and individuals – is the side of sport with which people may be more familiar. It is prominent in player performance assessment, training programs, sports gambling, and team construction.

Sports economics is obviously less glamorous than sports analytics – I would be surprised to see a Moneyball equivalent about a sports economist attracting more fans to a game. However, I would argue that sports economics is more important because, without it, sports as we know it would not exist.

This concept has been of interest to me in recent months off the back of the wildly successful 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The aggregate attendance was 1.98m, and the average crowd was nearly 50% larger than at the 2019 edition[2]. 64% of Australia’s population were estimated to have watched at least part of the Matildas’ semi-final against England[3].

As a fan of Australia’s domestic football leagues, the A-Leagues, I was optimistic that fan engagement might soar there, too. Yet, while there have been instances of increased crowd attendance – particularly at A-League Women’s (ALW) matches – the uptick has been below what some hoped.

This is where sports economics has the potential to play a role

I have conducted research (using publicly available information) in three areas to demonstrate where the ALW (as well as ALM and other Australian sporting leagues) might identify strategies to improve attendance. These three areas are discussed below.

Analysing attendance of domestic league matches

Using data (mainly from, supplemented where necessary), I have analysed how A-Leagues crowd sizes change throughout the season, and in response to certain conditions around the matches being played.

The data used encompasses the past five completed seasons. Putting on our ‘sports economist’ hats, three features stand out:

  1. Scheduling: Popularity by day and time varies as you might expect – with Saturday afternoon/evening matches being the best attended. Interestingly, women’s matches in double headers are more than twice as well-attended as those in standalone fixtures, while crowd sizes at men’s games are largely unaffected. This might suggest that leagues could schedule more double headers to encourage attendance at women’s games, without sacrificing the attendance of men’s games.
  2. Season progression: Crowds in the early stages of the season are typically higher, before dropping mid-season, which suggests that leagues should work with fans to build a habit of attendance (e.g., through special offers/discounts to returning fans).
  3. Match location: Fans appear to prefer venues that are close by and accessible via public transport. When ALW matches are played at venues where the men also play, crowds are typically higher.


Researching the successes of foreign domestic leagues

I have researched the strategies used by the Women’s Super League (WSL), the women’s equivalent of the EPL. Sports marketing agency Two Circles produced a report[4] from which I drew the points below.

Arsenal’s women’s team have succeeded in attracting larger crowds in recent years through their ‘Big Games’ strategy – holding one-off, heavily-marketed matches in large stadiums (with at least 20k capacity). To start the 2022/23 season, the average attendance at eight ‘Big Games’ (across four WSL clubs) was 35k fans.

Arsenal’s average crowds excluding ‘Big Games’ increased by 99% compared to the previous season, which suggests a flow-on effect to other matches as well.

Reflecting on the Women’s World Cup

There are three key lessons that can be learned from the success of the World Cup itself.

  1. New fans may not engage with the sport in the same way as ‘traditional’ fans. Of the 29.2m 2023 Women’s World Cup viewers in the UK, 11.5m had not watched the 2022 Men’s World Cup[5], despite the fact that the men’s tournament was in a more accessible time zone. These new fans may have different demands and expectations of fan experience.
  2. Traditional marketing approaches may miss ‘micro-communities’. A vast majority of attendees at the World Cup were locals (with only 55k overseas visitors), and many of these people supported other countries. Organisers engaged with local communities through social media pages, community leaders, and foreign-language newspapers. This tailored approach was clearly a success with fans who may not engage with traditional means of marketing.
  3. Social media is a game-changer. The highest level of social media engagement was on Instagram and TikTok, which are typically more personal and attract younger audiences. The popularity of the Matildas documentary and of videos such as the Matildas lip-syncing to Taylor Swift music shows how fans are as interested in the players as the football itself. Sporting leagues should lean into social media to maintain these fans.


Is there a place for actuaries in sports economics?

I am sure that sporting leagues are aware of many observations made above. So what can actuaries do to contribute to this space? We are well-positioned to be leaders in the sports economics space due to a combination of our proficiency in data analytics, financial acumen and communication skills.

Sport brings meaning and joy to so many people in society and, by leaning into the area of sports economics, actuaries can help to spread its reach even further.

Author note

I would like to thank Thy Cao and Catherine Xie for their contribution to the ideas and research behind this article.







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