Competitive balance and its (un)importance for fans in European football

Football Perspectives and competitive balance (CB) consists of three dimensions: a short-term (the uncertainty of outcome of a specific game), a mid-term (the uncertainty of outcome of a sub-competition like the championship race) and a long-term dimension (the domination (or not) of a league by a few teams over time). Maintaining a certain degree of CB is the main reason why regulations (like salary caps in the North American Major Leagues) and redistribution schemes (like the redistribution of media revenues in European football) are common practices in professional sports leagues around the world – though their effectiveness is sometimes questionable (Peeters 2011).

Do fans want to see close contests?

In general, it seems to be important to maintain a certain degree of CB within a sports league, since the uncertainty of outcome hypothesis (Rottenberg 1956) suggests that increasingly imbalanced sports competitions have the potential to negatively influence fan interest and, consequently, stadium attendance and TV viewership figures. However, studies of European professional football seldom prove that more tickets are sold or TV audiences increase when both teams have fairly equal chances of winning (Szymanski 2001, Di Domizio 2013). Moreover, recent studies show that spectators even prefer to see the home team play either an inferior team with a win being more probable (Buraimo and Simmons 2008), or an away team being the favourite. The latter can be explained by spectators preferring to see a strong brand like FC Bayern Munich (Pawlowski and Anders 2012) or a game where they perceive a fair chance of seeing an upset (Coates et al. 2012). Furthermore, over the long term, season-aggregate attendances have actually increased in some leagues (e.g. Germany and England), even as European football leagues have become more dominated by a small number of teams over the last decade (Flores et al. 2010, Pawlowski et al. 2010).

At first glance, these findings suggest that CB is of minor importance for football fans in Europe. This would clearly challenge the relevance and necessity of introducing (more) regulations in football with the aim of achieving more balanced competitions. However, so far, the only thing we really know is that CB is of minor importance for football fans at present (or was of minor importance in the past). Significantly, it remains an open question whether (increasingly imbalanced) football competitions might be at risk of moving into territory where fans’ interest will fall off in the future. Clearly, finding an answer to this question is of great importance for national league organizers as well as for UEFA. To do so, we first need to better understand the fans’ view on and perception of CB – an issue already noted by Andrew Zimbalist (2002) more than a decade ago.

Our research approach

Our approach in this research project offers a subsequent examination of the relationship between perceived CB by the fans in three European football leagues and the fans’ intention to go to the stadium or watch a match on TV. The data used was collected with a written survey among football fans in Germany (n=1,203), Denmark (n=267, in collaboration with Oliver Budzinski) and the Netherlands (n=219, in collaboration with Gerco van Dalfsen). To control for possible heterogeneity between fans of different teams, interviews were conducted in cities with different types of first division teams – those whose level of performance analysis in football over the prior decade could be described as “consistently good”, “consistently bad” or “volatile”.

Are some leagues close to a tipping point?

The results show that football fans think of CB in different dimensions and that their perception of the level of balance indeed varies across these short- mid- and long-term dimensions and also across leagues. Significantly, around 70% of fans mentioned that they do care about CB. However, while football fans perceive the German Bundesliga and the Dutch Eredivisie to be fairly balanced at the moment, the Danish Superligaen is not perceived to be balanced at all. Moreover, the level of suspense in Denmark is rather close to a tipping where fans’ interest might fall off. This is confirmed in our second paper (Pawlowski and Budzinski 2013), as Danish fans are willing to pay more than 160% of the value that fans in Germany and the Netherlands are willing to pay (5 euros compared to 3 euros) to increase the current level of CB in the league.

Ongoing research (jointly with Oliver Budzinski) reveals that these results are specifically driven by the championship race being perceived as relatively less exciting in Denmark, which can be explained by the league size and the specific competition format in the Superligaen. Due to the size of the country, the league in Denmark is rather small with only 12 participating teams. In order to play a similar number of games per season as the ‘big leagues’ (teams in the German Bundesliga and the Dutch Eredivisie play 34 regular season games each), league organizers decided to let each team play against each other three times, adding up to 33 games per season. However, increasing the number of games between small and big market teams fosters the dominance of the big market teams (like FC Copenhagen).


In general, league managers might consider competition formats or measures which ensure a certain degree of CB in the league. However, there is no urgent need to arbitrarily implement measures to equalize the distribution of player talents between the clubs. For instance, measures to improve CB in the Bundesliga would not have any significant effect on consumer demand since we are not close to any tipping point at present. In particular, league managers should be wary of measures to improve CB if such measures have incidental negative effects such as reducing the inflow of international talent.

Author’s note: This article summarises the major findings of two papers (Pawlowski 2013, Pawlowski and Budzinski 2013). The author gratefully acknowledges that this research benefited from a UEFA Research Grant.