THE SHRINKING CITIES

When your local factories, offices and shops start to close, maybe you should worry for your football club.

In a recent post on the economic geography of football for The Two Unfortunates, I examined how a region’s economic wealth can have a large impact on the wellbeing of the game. Clubs feed off the prosperity or otherwise of their hinterlands and the role of government and business in a local economy has far reaching effects. Firms that cluster together can achieve mutual benefits as the amenities required for the successful running of a soccer club tend to be in plentiful supply. These include transport infrastructure, hotels, supermarkets and manufacturing suppliers, but the most important commodity of all is the fans.

So the trend of recent years for many major cities to experience a decline in population is a strong cause for concern. Put simply, a dwindling supporter base will inevitably lead to less coming through the gate and if some have so far managed to avoid suffering the real sharp end of this trend, the portents for long term viability cannot be good.

The most acute examples of shrinking cities are in the United States of course. The most famous example is Detroit, ravaged by a 61% decline in its population since 1950 - and if the estimated number of inhabitants at 700,000 still seems high, a recent visit left me wondering how these figures are reached. Elsewhere, smaller communities like Flint have experienced a severe loss of population (as depicted in the Michael Moore movie, Roger and Me) and the situation is repeated all over the States, from Baltimore to Cleveland; from Pittsburgh to Newark.

If the brand of radical free market capitalism favoured in the US proffers the most extreme cases, round ball heartlands elsewhere have been far from immune. Take Glasgow, once the fourth largest city in Europe after London, Paris and Berlin – down from almost 1.1 million people in the 1950s to 580,690 today. Take also Liverpool: 470,000 now; over 800,000 in 1931. Leipzig: 518,000 now; 625,000 in 1950. Gelsenkirchen: 267,000 now; 390,000 in 1959. Saint Etienne: 178,500 now; 225,000 in 1973. Donetsk: 982,000 now; 1,020,800 in 1979.

The reasons for such shrinkage are legion and complex, with a combination of factors producing such drastic results. Suburbanization has seen a flocking to the urban perimeter; at its most insidious connected to the phenomenon of “white flight”; at its most innocent, folks searching for a higher standard of living. The collapse of traditional industries has also had a dramatic impact, with factories, mills and mines closing; leaving a jobless vacuum behind and leaving little alternative for folks but to hunt for a livelihood elsewhere. More recently, the enterprises that replaced the traditional heavy manufacturing have suffered their own wastage – services have become more automated and the uncoupling of office work from office space has led to a move away from urban areas; a process that is ongoing.

Outward migration has often been to the very largest cities – partially protected from the ravages of recession by their cultural amenities and diverse economies but also thanks to government funding. These would include the Champions League hotbeds of London, Madrid and Barcelona, but on a smaller scale, Cardiff is perhaps the best UK example – a city region that has sucked greedily on the tit of public funding, while North Wales and the Valleys are left trapped in amber. Nor can other political factors be ignored – a change of regime can lead to an outflux of funding and population – post-transition, East German cities experienced a flood of numbers to the former West and the opening up of the inner borders of the European Union in 2004 saw a massive rise in the movement of peoples.

On first glance, some football clubs have ridden out the problem well. Two of the cities that have witnessed severe population decreases, Donetsk and Gelsenkirchen hosted matches in the final stages of this year’s Champions League after all. However, the variable that throws a spanner in the economic models has been that common warping factor – the Sugar Daddy (or Sugar Consortium). In the case of the Ukrainians Shakhtar, Rinat Akhmetov’s millions have staved off decline, allowing an influx of South American talent and creating a club that sticks out in its ravaged locale like a sore thumb. Russian monies have also been instrumental in allowing Gelsenkirchen’s Schalke to thrive. Oil company Gazprom became the club’s main sponsor in 2006 and the promise was an influx of 125,000 euro over a five year period. Both clubs continue to be well supported but without these artificial injections of money, neither would be competing as they do now.

For more typical scenarios can be found in the other cities mentioned above. Liverpool may be flush with Fenway greenbacks now, but their desperate decline since their last Championship in 1990 can perhaps be traced to the city’s inability to ride out the hard times. As perpetual rival Manchester continues to enjoy the fruits of government-sponsored city centre regeneration, Merseyside has been left behind, Capital of Culture notwithstanding. Ditto Rangers and Celtic who, despite impressive gates, have been forced to become a kind of half way house between the Premier League and the Championship where the latter league’s most prominent talents such as Gary Hooper and Kris Commons can test their abilities before perhaps making the ultimate step up. Forty years ago or so, both Old Firm clubs were collecting European silverware and despite Rangers’ near miss against Zenit St. Petersburg, it’s hard to imagine them truly challenging now.

Seventies darlings and surely one of the hippest football clubs of all time, Saint Etienne provide perhaps the clearest example of how economic blight can effect footballing good health. While the Stéphanois were collecting trophies under the guidance of the maestro Michel Platini in the 1970s, the city was at the centre of a protracted sequence of deindustrialization. Its twelve largest firms, including the mechanical engineering giant Creusot-Loire, found it impossible to cope with the aftermath of oil shocks and crises, with 25,000 jobs disappearing between 1975 and 2001 – a full 45% of all employment positions in the urban area. Saint Etienne found it impossible to continue competing seriously into the Eighties and the Rhône region’s bigger metropolis Lyon, the destination for many of the jobless, was eventually to benefit both on and off the pitch.

But all is not necessarily lost. The rich owner model has helped provide Schalke and Shakhtar with a little more oxygen, but there are only so many oligarchs to go round and most clubs will have to adjust to these new realities the hard way. Having once thrust up the white flag and left the abandoned quarters to the poor and disenfranchised, many municipal authorities are beginning to develop new attitudes. There is talk of “post-architecture” – how existing cityscapes can be adapted and re-used rather than forgotten about amid the rush to the suburbs and more fashionable neighbours. Hence, we have a Portland Timbers moving into their new city centre park – an arena of which they can be proud.

Communities, of which football is a major part, can begin to influence how a city and a football club can get back on its knees – not via the quick fix provided by wealthy benefactors, but via fan involvement and grassroots rebuilding. The accent should be on sustainability and slow growth, while taking care to live within one’s means. It will be a long road back and fans will have to forego “living the dream” but the retreat of the Corporation can provide opportunities for more genuine stakeholders to grasp the nettle.

Rob writes (as Lanterne Rouge) for the two unfortunates, one of the best football blogs on t'internet.  Go see.

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