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Does Football Stadium Capacity Matter?

Teams from the 10th tier of English football enter the FA Cup and may, though it is highly unlikely, make it through several qualifying rounds and two rounds “proper” to play at Old Trafford in the Third Round. A side from the lower reaches of the National League System (the six tiers beneath the Football League) may have, at best, a very basic ground, with standing facilities on two sides and perhaps two very small covered, seated areas. At the other end of the spectrum, the top Premier League grounds have ultra-modern stadia capable of seating 50,000+ fans in great comfort.

Old Trafford may be, as fans disgruntled with the owners are keen to point out, far from the most modern facility in the top flight. Indeed, it is in need of major renovations and certainly to fix a leaking roof at the very least, but it does remain the largest ground in the Premier League. With a capacity of around 75,000 (exact figures vary as small changes are frequently made and they depend on policing issues too), it is not far shy of seven times the size of Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium. With a capacity of fewer than 12,000, it is the smallest in the English top division and would not look out of place in League Two.

In fact, at least five, possibly six, League Two grounds can hold more fans. But even so, as a general rule, football stadium capacity drops as you move down the football pyramid. But does capacity matter? There are a few different angles to look at in this regard but most of all we mean matter with regards to any minimum or maximum requirements. However, we will also look at the financial impact of a larger stadium and, perhaps more interestingly, whether or not it affects results.

Is There a Maximum Stadium Capacity?

Barcelona's Camp NouImage: Camp Nou in Barcelona by misima, Bigstock Photo

Let’s deal with the easy part first: as far as we are aware there are no rules regarding the maximum capacity of a football stadium. The largest in the world is purportedly North Korea’s national stadium in Pyongyang but for obvious reasons that is not all that easy to verify. It has been claimed at different times that it holds 200,000 or 150,000 but many believe the capacity is more like 115,000.

That means that the largest stadium in the world is almost certainly the Narendra Modhi Stadium in Ahmedabad, India. As you might imagine, this is a cricket stadium though, as is the Melbourne Cricket Ground (would you believe it?), although at least the MCG has been used several times to host football. The largest true football stadium about which we can have any real certainty over the capacity, and which sees regular football, is, therefore, Barcelona’s Nou Camp.

This has a capacity of 99,354, according to most sources (and at the time of writing) and when it is full the atmosphere is really something. But what about the other end of the spectrum, and the issue of a minimum capacity requirement? As you would expect, there are minimum standards of facilities teams in different divisions but does this include the actual capacity?

What Are The Minimum Stadium Requirements?

Yellow Requirements Folder

The Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) are, in their own words “the UK Government’s advisor on safety at sports grounds”. They have different roles but as a regulator, they “issue licences to the 90 Premier League and English Football League clubs”, as well as other key stadia such as Wembley and Principality Stadium in Wales. Interestingly, however, the SGSA do not have a statutory role when it comes to games played at the grounds of non-league teams, for example in the FA Cup.

They do, though, set out some minimum capacity requirements for non-league clubs who get promoted to League 2. These include:

Capacity must be at least 4,000
Must have the potential to increase to 5,000
Must have at least 500 seats with the ability to increase that to 1,000
The 5,000/1,000 increased minimums must be met by 1st May of their first season in League 2
By 1st May in the third season in the Football League (any division) they must have a capacity of 5,000 or more of which at least 2,000 must be seated

In addition to this, there are minimum requirements in relation to the nature, quality and safety of the terraces. There are other rules relating to things like floodlights, with differing qualities needed in the three tiers of the Football League (Championship, League 1, League 2).

However, when it comes to capacity, there are no further requirements in terms of the minimum. And that includes for a side to play in the Premier League. As such, though for various reasons it would almost certainly never happen, we could see a side with a stadium that held just 5,000 people play in the Premier League.

The only requirement with regards to capacity in the top flight is that at least 3,000 seats, or 10% of the capacity (whichever is smaller), must be made available to away fans. Around the world, there are different regulations, with some top-tier competitions being far stricter. In La Liga, for example, teams must be able to host at least 15,000 fans, although they are typically given time to improve facilities if needed.

When it comes to UEFA, European football’s governing body has four categories of stadia, ranked 1 to 4, with 4 being the elite end of the spectrum. A Category 1 ground must have at least 200 seats, rising to 1,500, 4,500 and then 8,000 in Category 4. There are many other criteria, most not relevant here, but including things like the floodlights, turnstiles, VIP facilities, media facilities and so on.

Only stadia that meet all Category 4 requirements can be used in any UEFA competitions (such as the Champions League, the Europa League, the Nations League or the Euros) including the playoffs of Champions League qualifying. Whilst there are no strict rules with regards to hosting showpiece events such as the finals of some of these competitions, generally speaking, there are unwritten rules that only larger stadia (capacity over 60,000) will be used for huge games such as the Champions League final.

What About the World Cup?

Every tournament and competition organiser can write their own rules and requirements with regards to things like the minimum capacity of grounds. When it comes to the biggest of them all, the World Cup, FIFA has fairly specific minimum capacities for different stages of the competition. These are as follows:

Chart That Shows the World Cup Minimum Stadium Capacities

Does Stadium Capacity Matter Financially?

Businesswoman Working on Charts

Aside from asking whether capacity matters from a rules, safety or regulatory point of view, one might well ask how much impact they have on a club’s finances. This has changed a lot over the years, chiefly because of the huge growth in the value of the TV rights for elite competitions such as the Champions League and the Premier League. Sponsorship has also increased massively. Where a local company may have once been a club’s main, or virtually only sponsor, commercial behemoths like Man United now have a dizzying array of “corporate partners”.

They have over 50 official sponsors and this means they “boast” things like an “Official office equipment” partner and an “Official Global Lubricant Partner and Fuel Retail Partner”, not to mention the all-important “Official Coffee Partner of Manchester United for UK, Ireland and Germany” and “Official Blockchain and Training Kit Partner of Manchester United”.

All of this extra income from a club’s share of TV money and from their many varied, and often slightly odd, sponsorship deals, means that gate receipts form a smaller portion of a club’s overall income. However, whilst some have suggested that gate receipts are almost insignificant these days, we would argue that is far from the truth.

It is hard to draw wholly accurate comparisons because whilst some clubs detail their gate receipts, others group a variety of income streams together under the umbrella of “match day income” or similar. In addition, how a club’s stadium capacity is split can make a big difference to their earning potential, with boxes, suites and other luxury packages very lucrative compared to most season tickets. So, whilst overall capacity has an impact on all of these figures, we cannot necessarily make like-for-like comparisons between different Premier League sides with the information that is made publicly available.

That said, we can certainly get a general idea of things. Let’s take a look at the published accounts of three different Premier League clubs, noting that they do not always produce accounts at the same time and that figures in recent years have been impacted by global health issues.

Club
Period
Total Revenue
Match Day Revenue (%)

Arsenal
Year to May 2020
£344m
£75m (22%)

Manchester United
Year Ending 30 June 2020
£509m
£90m (18%)

Everton
12 Months of 2020
£186m
£12m (6%)

Note that figures have been rounded where appropriate, Everton’s matchday revenue is labelled as ‘gate receipts’

As we can see, with Man United raking in £90m and Arsenal £75m (that latter figure accounting for over a fifth of total turnover), it would be wrong to call income from ticket sales insignificant. On the figures we have here, United and Arsenal are making tens of millions of pounds more than Everton each and every season thanks in large part to the greater capacity of their stadia.

As said, these figures are complicated for various reasons but even doing some very crude estimates we can see what a difference capacity makes. For the sake of simplicity let us ignore the fact that bigger clubs tend to play in Europe and have more success in the domestic cups, and so will usually play more home games. Let us also ignore the fact that they tend to have more high-value corporate and VIP facilities and, due to their success, can typically charge more for tickets.

Based on 19 home games in the Premier League and a conservative income of £35 per person, we can see what turnover the three clubs above, plus Bournemouth, might be expected to generate from ticket sales.

Man United (capacity 74,310) – £49.4m
Arsenal (capacity 60,704) – £40.4m
Everton (capacity 39,414) ( – £26.2m
Bournemouth (11,307 capacity) – £7.5m

We must reiterate that these are crude calculations but even so, it is clear that when it comes to a club’s finances, stadium capacity definitely matters.

Does Capacity Influence the Referee or Results?

Football Linesman Indicating CornerMuch as football is increasingly a business rather than a sport, and success means growing turnover and cutting costs, rather than trophies in the cabinet, for fans at least, results come on the pitch, rather than being declared to investors. But can stadium capacity affect results on the pitch?

Over the past few years we have seen far too many matches played behind closed doors with no fans there. And we saw some truly strange results. The 2020/21 season was the most affected, with most games played behind closed doors. Across all four tiers of English football the away win percentage jumped dramatically.

The away win percentage in the Premier League hit an all-time high of 40.3%. The home side won just 37.9% of games so home advantage wasn’t just reduced, it was eradicated … and then some. For reference, the away team won fewer than 30% of games in 2016/17 and 2017/8, 33.7% in 2018/19 and 30.5% in 2019/20.

These results really made fans, pundits and, most of all, stats geeks, wonder what impact the crowd has. Does a large crowd intimidate the opposition? Or do they simply spur the home team on? Or is it more down to influencing the referee?

Interestingly, yet predictably, this impact in 2020/21 was greatest in the Premier League. We know that home advantage exists and it is safe to assume that fans play their part in that, as opposed to it being down to familiarity or lack of travel. So it would make sense that playing in front of 70,000 of your own fans would be more beneficial than a home support of 10,000.

But can we really be sure, beyond looking at results, that the home crowd is the decisive factor? More importantly, can we quantify what sort of a difference the size of the crowd makes? Well, perhaps a little surprisingly, there have been a number of studies done on this general area, across a range of sports. These have looked at different issues, including how the crowd impact refereeing decisions, how they influence players and also the size and density (in terms of how full the stadia were) of the crowd.

The only thing we are really interested in here relates to stadium capacity. One feature looking at this cited several studies linking the crowd to refereeing decisions. These included Nevill, Balmer & Williams, 2002, as well as Dohmen, 2008, and Agnew & Carron, 1994. Whilst they did not, that we are aware of, specifically look at the impact of the size of the crowd, logic and experience and anecdotal evidence would certainly make it seem likely that a larger crowd would have a bigger impact on the ref.

We do not want to delve too deep into scientific studies but there are so many that have looked at this issue. However, one interesting study by Zeller & Jurkovac in 1988 found that home advantage was greater in baseball for teams that played in domed stadia, rather than open-air ones. They believed this was down to crowd noise, claiming that because “the domed stadium holds the noise in the stadium, teams that play under domes win more games”. Once again, stadium capacity was not specifically part of this study but it would make sense that a football ground with more fans would generate more noise than one with a smaller capacity.

Capacity Matters

Football In Front Of Bright Tunnel

The most relevant study of all was published in 2007. Ryan Boyko, a Harvard Research Assistant, believed that subconscious bias on the part of the referee was a big factor in the advantage of playing at home. This is widely accepted and backed up by various other studies, some of which we have mentioned.

However, Boyko and his team looked in far more detail at results, refereeing performances and stadium capacity. After studying well over 5,000 Premier League games they concluded that “for every 10,000-person increase in crowd size, home advantage increased by approximately 0.086 goals”. That might seem like very little but if we consider that there is a difference of around 60,000 fans between the capacity of Old Trafford and Bournemouth’s Vitality it equates to United being around half a goal per game better off than the south coast side.

Boyko’s research has been questioned after more recent analysis was unable to replicate his findings. However, there are many reasons to believe that there is at least some truth in the general notion. As such, as well as bringing a club more money, it certainly seems likely that a stadium with a bigger capacity (assuming it is full!) will also bring them more points too.

Author: Tyler Parker