Keeping a Leg Up: A Striking Look at How Big Soccer Clubs Rise and Thrive

Khalid KhanCorrespondent IAugust 18, 2009

If a critical look is taken at European soccer leagues, notably the bigger ones, then a handful of clubs can be seen retaining a fierce stranglehold on the domestic and European competitions. This is not a recent phenomenon and has taken some time to develop into its form as seen today.

Where and how have these big clubs emerged? Where are they concentrated geographically? Where do they draw their financial and fan support from? How do they preserve their position at the top?

Wealthy, Populous, and Large Countries

Wealth will mean that citizens will have more money to spend on leisure, entertainment, and sports. Big populations will have more spenders, and large landmass means many large cities to call home for clubs.

Large Population Centers

This perhaps is the foremost criterion that gives a club opportunity and space to grow and become big, as a large fanbase means huge stadia can be built to accommodate them, thus bringing in and securing sizable sums in revenue for the club.

Mega-cities tend to have large economies and consequently a large middle class from whom most of the support for the clubs comes. Therefore it is no surprise that many of the top European soccer clubs, including a multitude of small and medium-sized, are found in big cities.

London has Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Fulham, and West Ham United as its representatives in Premier League. Manchester has Manchester United and Manchester City.

Spanish capital Madrid boasts Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, and Getafe in La Liga. The city of Barcelona has its namesake Barcelona and Espanyol. Valencia, too, has its namesake Valencia and Levante.

Italian city Milan has Inter Milan and AC Milan. Turin has Juventus and Torino. Rome has Lazio and Roma.

In Turkey, Istanbul boasts Besiktas, Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray, and İstanbul B.B., and Ankara has Ankara S.A.Ş., Gençlerbirliği S.K., and Hacettepe S.K.

French Ligue 1 is amongst the top five in Europe but has not produced any big clubs that are dominant domestically and/or in UEFA competitions. This makes Ligue 1 highly competitive but means that in Europe, they fail to go far against big clubs.

The same goes for Bundesliga to some extent, where the only German giant, Bayern Munich, comes from the city of Munich. Besides Bayern Munich, other German clubs keep changing at the top of Bundesliga table every year and fail to stay there long enough and to make it their own to dominate the league consistently.

But there are exceptions, as some big clubs can be found in small cities and towns with small populations. The city of Liverpool has Everton and its namesake Liverpool FC.

Villarreal CF is based in Villarreal, a town of only 49,000 inhabitants, which is not big enough to support a big club when there are La Liga clubs with seating capacity far higher than its total population.

Germany also has many substantially affluent clubs in relatively small population centers but that have a large following in and around their immediate surroundings. Current Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg come from a small city. Hoffenheim, the surprise title challengers of last season, originally come from a small town of just three thousand.

Large Stadia

As illustrated previously, a large population enables a club to build/own stadia with massive seating capacities so gate money forms a vital part of total revenue, as large as one-third.

Keeping ticket prices at reasonably affordable level helps fill stadia, as is the case in Bundesliga. However, where ticket prices are high, only games against big opponents see the stadia filled to capacity or near capacity.

Bundesliga clubs benefited heavily from the 2006 FIFA World Cup. At the moment, more than half the teams in Bundesliga have stadia of seating capacity 50,000 or higher, generating sizable income. Because of lower ticket prices, Bundesliga also has the world’s highest spectator attendance figure for a soccer league.

There are clubs that can become even bigger and richer by building new and large stadia when staying in older, smaller ones has stifled their growth to a certain extent. Examples can be Juventus, Liverpool, and Chelsea.

Having your own stadium has its own immense benefits as well, apart from the fact that the club gets to keep all the income. Modern metropolitan facilities like shopping malls, offices, restaurants, hospitality, residential apartments, high-end shops, and stadium naming rights bring in substantial income.

Bayern Munich earned €41.6 million in the 2007-2008 season from these services, which goes to show how important and lucrative that aspect of owning a stadium has become.

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Rich History

This plays a significant part in attracting new fans and keeping old fans faithful to the club. Top players are also lured by the rich history of the club, which in turn draws more fans to the club.

Colonial Language and Legacy

Countries that once were under European colonial occupation are much easier to penetrate and be influenced by their former masters because of historical connection. Usage of colonial language and cultural heritage in former colonies also makes them more receptive/predisposed to be impacted.

England and Spain are most noteworthy in that these countries once occupied huge territories around the world and have left a lasting legacy of language, culture, and political connection; that is where their soccer leagues tend to be most popular abroad.

Foreign Tours and Aggressive Marketing Campaigns

To enhance their fan following and TV rights income, every year soccer clubs go on tours of historical and/or potential markets, which also benefits the league as a whole.

Premier League leads others in aggressive marketing, with success, power, and riches to showcase for it.

Merchandising, TV Broadcasting Rights, and Sponsorship Fees

Big clubs attract/buy big stars, which generates interest in their games, raises income from TV rights, increases sale of merchandise, and spurs a rise in sponsorship fees. Shirt sponsorships also rake in millions of Euros.

Foreign Ownerships

Though not universally applicable, it is one way to rise fast and secure a place there. It is particularly prevalent in the Premier League, where half the clubs are in foreign hands.

At the same time, contrary to common perception, not all foreign owners are glory- and prestige-seeking money-wielding predators; most are shrewd businessmen looking for safe investment opportunities with potential for income and growth.

But a disconnect between profit seekers and fans leaves a bad taste because owners are more concerned with profits, and that creates huge pressure on the club to perform and win. Some don’t want to steadily build a team and so covet success NOW/TODAY without having to wait.

Foreign owners can/and do pump lot of money in for buying big players, which at times leads to hyperinflation, making things difficult for other clubs, many of them small, taking them into financial quagmire while trying to play catch-up.


However one may look at it, big clubs have self-sustaining circular processes, including big populations, large stadia, and sponsorship incomes, helping them along their way to stay at the top.

It is a world where big is getting bigger, rich is getting richer, fittest is surviving, and the smaller and weaker pretender is just filling the numbers in return for leftovers.

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