Football’s Coming Home, But Who Will Benefit?

Men in pub watching a football game

Tomorrow night England plays Croatia in the semi-final of the World Cup. But the game is about more than just football. The team’s success could boost the UK economy, but it will unquestionably be bad news for the country’s sports betting companies.

So, after 28 years, countless disappointments, and a generation conditioned to expect England to go out on penalties, we are in the semi-finals of the World Cup. Tomorrow night England will play Croatia, with the winners facing France or Belgium in next Sunday’s final.

There is a massive “feel-good factor” around the country. The sun is shining and football really could be “coming home.”

And yes, the tills are ringing in the shops. But is it just a short-term “let’s get the beers in and watch the match effect?” Or could England’s success translate into something much more tangible and long-term for the UK economy? Could Gareth Southgate put a smile not just on the faces of football fans, but on the face of the chancellor of the exchequer as well?

Conventional wisdom says ‘yes…’

Alistair Wilson, savings expert at Zurich UK, said, “A Mexican wave of optimism [and you thought Mark Lawrenson talked in clichés] is sweeping the nation, driving increased spending on everything from replica football kits to alcohol to wide screen TVs.”

The UK economy was predicted to see a £1.33bn ($1.76bn) boost from the World Cup, according to figures from the Centre for Retail Research, with that figure expected to rise to £2.72bn ($3.61bn) if the Three Lions beat the Blazers and make it to the final. (Yes, the traditional nickname of the Croatian national side is Vatreni – the Blazers.)

Around 80% of England fans are expected to watch the match at home, with spending on food and drink predicted to reach £1.2bn ($1.6bn). Even the sober-suited denizens of the Bank of England are supporting Harry Kane and Co., with Governor Mark Carney saying that success would give an “unadulterated boost” to the UK economy. And there have certainly been some mild scenes of celebration

…But the cynics say “no”

Surely you cannot base a national economy on sales of beer, crisps, and St George’s flags? No, of course, you cannot, and it is easy to be cynical.

For every person who bounces into work buoyed by an England victory, there will be another who has stayed at home with “a touch of flu, boss” – a.k.a. a savage hangover. People who get seriously drunk on Wednesday night will not be at their most productive on Thursday morning and, even if they are in the office, they won’t be working, but discussing whether Raheem Sterling is really worth his place in the team.

Yes, it will be great if England wins the World Cup, but a week later, sales of beer and crisps will have returned to normal, and the flags will be put away until Euro2020. Retail may well have received a short-term boost in July, but the figures will correct themselves in August.

Perhaps we need some real evidence?

England may not have been 5,000-to-1 to lift the World Cup, as Leicester City was before the 2015/16 Premier League season, but the generation brought up on missed penalties and going out to Germany was certainly not optimistic before the tournament kicked off.

For that Premier League season, Leicester was a rank outsider; the team had only just escaped relegation in the previous season, and many people had them as favorites for the drop. Instead, Leicester defied all expectations and landed a few healthy bets for their fans by winning the title by ten points from Arsenal.

What impact did that have on the city of Leicester, apart from local bookies’ profits? A significant one.

Accountants and management consultants EY undertook a survey, with chief economist Mark Gregory commenting: “The sporting and commercial success of the club in 2015/16 and the projected growth in 2016/17 made a big difference. As the club grows, it attracts more fans, employs more people, engages more local suppliers, invests more in community facilities, attracts more visitors, and increases the region’s global profile.”

According to the study by EY, Leicester’s title-winning season contributed significantly to the local economy.

Total economic output was measured as £193m ($256m), with £78m ($103m) generated in tax revenue and up to 2,500 jobs supported; with £18m ($23.9m) went into the local supply chain. EY estimates that Leicester’s unexpected triumph attracted 120,000 extra visitors to the town, who spent an estimated £6.6m ($8.8m). The team’s subsequent qualification for the Champions League was expected to add another £2m ($2.65m) to the tourism spend.

So the evidence from the bean-counters suggests that a win for England on Sunday would almost certainly be good news for the national economy.

But what about the bookies?

The success of Leicester City hit the local bookmakers hard, but nationally a win for 5,000-to-1 outsiders would have been a great result for sports betting firms. If England wins the World Cup, it is going to be a very different story.

When the tournament kicked off, the bookmakers’ biggest liabilities were on Brazil, the early favorite. But those liabilities disappeared in the quarter-finals when Belgium defeated Brazil 2-1, and now it is the prospect of an England win that has the bookmakers worried.

Before the Sweden game, England was around 6-to-1 to lift the trophy, Nick Barnett, finance director of price comparison site Oddschecker, said: “Current defensive pricing is not putting the England faithful off and, coupled with long-term liabilities, this has left the industry staring at a nine-figure loss.” That means liabilities of at least £100m ($132m).

With England now through to the last four, those liabilities can only have increased. The team is now a best-priced 11-to-4 to win the World Cup as bets continue to pour on Gareth Southgate’s men.

The national feel-good factor may or may not translate into a boost for the economy, but it most certainly is translating into very heavy liabilities for the country’s bookmakers. Add in England captain Harry Kane now being long odds-on to win the Golden Boot award, having been 16-to-1 before a ball was kicked, and those liabilities get bigger by the minute.

Come kick-off tomorrow night, bookmakers’ hearts may be cheering for England. Their heads may be thinking something very different.

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