In 2011, my small high school basketball team reached in the Salford Under-16 Cup Final. We knew it wasn’t the gold medal game of the Olympics, but we were pretty excited anyway. Nobody moreso than me. Getting to leave class thirty minutes early was always an added bonus too, and usually how we convinced some of the football team to make up our numbers when we were short on players. The game was to be held at a neutral high school nearby. This was a relief. I had played previously at the opposition’s homecourt. I hit the ceiling with a 3 point shot and slipped in a puddle from a leaking roof. Again, not exactly the Olympics. However, for many of the players on our team, it was the biggest game of their lives. They knew this as there were sixteen people in attendance – easily a record for any game played that season, or indeed any season prior. In fact the game was so significant that not one, but two of my geography teachers were in the crowd.
In 2018, 12,637 fans poured out to watch the Kentucky State High School Basketball Finals between Covington Catholic and Scott County High School. A game which Covington emeged victorious by a score of 73-55. This is roughly 800 times the attendance of that fateful game played in Salford in 2011. Obviously, there are many factors as to why attendance is so much higher. Firstly, basketball has always been more popular in the United States than in the United Kingdom, there’s no denying it. Secondly, Kentucky is obviously much larger than Salford, in fact it’s a larger area than the whole of Scotland, and only slightly smaller than England. Thirdly, the final score in our game in 2011 was 43-35 (we lost, by the way). Judging by the numbers alone, you can make a pretty safe assumption that the quality of basketball played was higher in Kentucky in 2018, therefore more appealing as a spectator sport (although my mum was on the edge of her seat if I remember correctly).
However, the size of the area alone can not be the only reason for such attendance figures. Switching gears for a minute and looking at the professional game might be helpful. The Philadelphia 76ers currently sit 4th place in the NBA Eastern Conference. Philadelphia has a population of 1,580,863 people. This season they draw an average of 20,399 spectators to home games. Around 1.2% of the city’s population. The highest number in the entire NBA. In comparison, Manchester United Football Club currently occupy the 4th spot of the English Premier League, yet last season they recorded an average attendance of 75,102. The population of Manchester is estimated at around 530,000 people. Therefore around 14% of the population of the city are in attendance week in, week out. Of course, Manchester United is a major international brand as well as a football club, so tourism plays a huge part in these numbers, but they are staggering nonetheless. It’s also important to keep in mind that Manchester is home to two major football teams, as Manchester City also play 19 home games per year, therefore theoretically dividing the sporting fanbase. Although in these cases, schedules are usually designed to ensure the two teams aren’t both competing at home simultaneously. Thus ensuring seats are always sold, and also providing some protection to the already suffering Manchester public transport system.
However, perhaps it is unfair to compare football with basketball, as the latter is restricted to being played inside indoor arenas, whilst the other is held in outdoor stadiums. So let’s compare then Manchester United with the Philadelphia Eagles, the NFL team which won the Superbowl in 2018. The Eagles racked up an average attendance of 69,696. A massive increase on the crowds drawn by the city’s basketball team. Yet, once again, these numbers prove that sports fans based in the United Kingdom are more than willing to attend games. In fact, the numbers become more impressive when you consider that the Eagles played just 8 home games last year, compared to the 19 home games played in the English Premier League, not counting the several competitions Manchester United were also competing in concurrently. In fact, Manchester United season ticket holders are obligated to purchase tickets to all cup ties. Expensive business!
On the surface, you can make a case that fans of the professional teams in UK are more devoted to their clubs, based solely on the fact that these numbers are consistently higher across the board when comparing the top divisions of the respective sports. But we know that this is not an accurate representation of sports culture in the United States. So, why is it that high school and university sports in the US can draw 1000 times the fans than the UK, yet Britain usually triumphs when it comes to the pros?
Looking closer, it is clear that there’s some significant reasons as to why this may be. Firstly, size matters. As the two Geography teachers at my high school would have confirmed, the United States is larger than the United Kingdom. Much larger. 20 teams play in the English Premier League. 19 in England and 1 in Wales. England and Wales combined is 58,355 square miles. Therefore, mathematically there is 1 team per 2917mi². The NFL is home to 32 teams all within mainland USA, excluding Alaska and Hawaii. Thus 1 team per 92,470mi². When you look at these numbers, it is undeniable that professional football in the UK is significantly more accessible than football in the US. The natural result: fans of sports are forced to watch games played more locally.
Another massive factor in play is ticket prices. The average Premier League ticket will set you back £31. Across the Atlantic, the average ticket price to see the Arizona Cardinals, the worst performing team in the NFL this year, was $83 (around £65). When you consider that American fans are paying essentially double, the picture starts to become clearer.
Finally, the level of skill which can be found in American high schools and universities is simply much higher than that of the UK. This also guarantees US fans a chance to watch borderline pro athletes playing at a much higher level than would be found in a British institution. Unfortunately, the education system in the United Kingdom is not designed to accomodate our most popular sports at the highest levels to the same degree as the States. That is not to say that UK universities do not care about sports, or certainly not to disparage athletes who study and compete simultaneously – a tremendous feat. I graduated from The University of Edinburgh in 2018, a school which has produced Olympic gold-winning athletes of the highest quality and continues to do so. However, overseas, the most promising American Football players will compete at university level before turning professional and playing in the NFL. On the contrary, the strongest soccer players here in England will have likely sacrificed university to play in academies – a cut-throat business which leaves countless young players without professional contracts nor higher education.
Ultimately, whilst it is sometimes disheartening that British student sports do not attract significant public interest in the same way as they do in the States, it seems that the accessibility of professional sports at the highest level may be overwhelming. This is even not taking into account the ferociously competive second, and indeed third tiers of English football which are even more fan-friendly. It is a beautiful thing to be able to watch live sports at the highest level, but perhaps it is also the reason why little to no spectator or media interest is given to sports at school or university. Conversely, sports in American institutions are ran as a business, attracting huge crowds and catering to the masses by offering an affordable product which is conveniently located. There is also a certain addiction to watching a player grow before your eyes from promising high-school star before, to MVP of the Superbowl all within a few years. The unfortunate reality is that until there becomes an incentive to watch student sports in Britain, and proper funding is given, the media will continue to ignore it and generational talent may pass us by unnoticed. Or perhaps it already has.