Sunk Costs, Market Structure and Football Clubs
Over the holidays I read Stefan Szymanski’s book “Money and Football – A Soccernomics Guide”. Szymanski also co-authored “Soccernomics” with Simon Kuper. There were various references to economic theory through the book which I will refer to on this blog.
Dominance in a market is often associated with the lack of competition whether it be due to monopoly power, predatory pricing, the scale of investment etc. However this is not the case when it comes to football. Szymanski mentions the fact that there are 27 professional teams withn a 50 mile radius of Manchester Utd. If fans don’t like United, there are plenty of alternatives as there are in Madrid which has 5 professional clubs. In some countries football rivals play in the same stadium:
- In Germany: Bayern Munich and TSV 1860 Munich,
- In Italy: Inter Milan and AC Milan,
- In Switzerland: FC Zurich and FC Grasshopper
- In Brazil: Botafogo, Flamengo and Fluminense
Dominance in markets usually occurs because of the initial investment required to compete in the first place – set-up costs. If you look at the railway industry (which could be said to be a natural monopoly) the cost of putting down new train tracks by the existing ones or a new line would be excessive and the ability to cover these costs would very difficult. Any benefit that may arise from competition would be diminished by the cost of duplication.
Dominance is easy to explain if there are very large set-up costs, which, once spent, cannot be recovered other than by operating in the industry. Economist refers to these costs as Sunk Costs.
Dominance in a market can also occur in markets where there are less sunk costs. Take for instance the soft drinks industry as an example. It remains relatively inexpensive to set-up a production plant to bottle soft drinks but Coca-Cola dominates the world market with 42% market share, followed by Pepsi with 28%. Their dominance is through advertising which makes up the majority of the sunk costs. Advertising is an example of ‘endogenous’ sunk costs which are determined by the firm as opposed to ‘exogenous’ sunk costs which are determined by technological requirements.
In professional football the focus is on player investment rather than advertising, where the big clubs are those that spend heavily on players and win league championships. Teams that win are more likely to attract a larger fan base and greater revenue. Szymanski states that the big difference between football and soft drinks is that the pattern of dominance looks the same in small markets. For instance clubs in the English Division 2 (Division 4 in the old days) still stay in existence mainly because they operate in a different market than the Premiership teams. Of the 88 clubs in the English Football League in 1923, 85 still exist, and most of them still play in the 4 English Divisions. Also those clubs in the lower Division do benefit from intense local loyalty especially through tough times with performance. When clubs get relegated to the Championship from the Premier League, although they lose revenue from TV rights their fan base remains fairly constant. However a lot of these clubs will find it hard breaking into the dominant group – Manchester City, Manchester Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs – unless they receive significant funding from an investor who doesn’t expect to see a financial return or have an exceptional season without high profile players like Leicester City who won the Premiership in 2015/16.
Unlike most business in which loss-making firms shut down or merge into other businesses, football clubs almost always survive. This does not prevent dominance, but unlike most industries, it does mean that the pattern of dominance tends to look the same everywhere. Source: Szymanski