Why European soccer is good for airlines
At one time if a soccer fan wanted to travel to a game taking place abroad he (or sometimes she) would take an affinity group charter flight if there was one. More usually these days as airfares have fallen in real terms owing to the influence of LCCs, supporters can follow their team even if it is a foreign one, taking several trips every year on scheduled airlines to watch league matches.
One of the best examples is Scandinavia, where the level of support for British clubs has reached such a level that scheduled flights are being put on for entire seasons just to cater to this demand.
Can such trends spread to long-haul travel? In some cases it already has.
- Scheduled flights have been initiated almost solely to cater to demand for regular sporting events, i.e. football league matches
- The demand from Scandinavia to the UK, in particular, continues to grow
- Passenger journeys are primarily for sport but can be combined with shopping or even business
- With the advent of long-haul low-cost long-distance support travel is likely to increase
Three sport-specific routes between Scandinavia and Manchester
Hot on the heels of the commencement of a three-times-weekly service between Aarhus in Denmark and Manchester, UK, SAS launched twice-weekly Stavanger-Manchester service, operated by Boeing 737 equipment, effective 08-Nov-2019.
As with the Aarhus service, introduction of the route is aimed to meet demands of "great interest in English football" and "trips to the British Isles". Unlike the Aarhus route though, the Stavanger one will operate year-round (Aarhus is suspended in the football close season), probably because of the business traffic which exists on the route.
SAS says it “has steadily expanded its direct services to Manchester in line with the increase in demand for trips to the British Isles and the interest in English football in particular.”
SAS also flies to Manchester from Oslo and Bergen. The author travelled on a Sunday morning SAS flight from Oslo to Manchester and about one-third of the passengers on a full flight were travelling to attend the Manchester United – Chelsea match that afternoon, probably returning on the flight the next morning. A short trip, for 90 minutes of sport and some shopping at price levels vastly below those of the home country.
Now the County Mayor of Trøndelag in Norway, Tore O Sandvik, has requested both SAS and Norwegian to establish a Trondheim-Manchester service. Mr Sandvik said there is potential for the route due to the county's growing food scene, the 1000th anniversary of the battle of Stiklestad (one of the most famous in Norway) in 2030 and… football trips to the UK.
Widerøe also operates between Bergen and Liverpool at least partly for the same reasons. A new Sunday flight has been added for the winter season particularly for football supporters, essentially those that support Liverpool although "Manchester is only a short train ride away".
One airport can be the entry point for several major clubs
As the airline says, “there is tremendous interest in English football” in Scandinavia and that is why it is creating additional opportunities “for more Norwegians to be able to travel to see their favourite teams in action, in a way that is fast and convenient.” It isn’t just Manchester United of course although that team is the main attraction. Manchester City are the current Premier League champions while Liverpool, only 35 miles (55 km) from the airport, are European champions.
Even Leeds, 55 miles (88 km) away remain a big draw even though they haven’t been in the Premier League since 2004. These clubs have legions of supporters in Norway and United’s appeal has increased even further since the appointment of Ole Gunner Solskjaer, once a valued player with the club (and the one who scored the winning goal as a substitute in the 1999 European Champions Final), and latterly manager of Molde in Norway, as United’s Manager. (For how long, though, is anyone’s guess).
Even smaller clubs attract foreign support
This raises the wider question of the value of travelling soccer supporters to airlines, and at all levels. Take a club like Oldham Athletic, for example, about 20 miles from Manchester Airport. A founding member of the Premier League but latterly relegated three divisions to League 2, it once employed a Norwegian full-back, the international Gunnar Halle, and his presence alone prompted a contingent of Norwegians to travel to ‘home’ Oldham matches every other weekend.
And there is an inexplicable connection in Oldham to Eintracht Frankfurt, a Bundesliga (top league) team, which has resulted in small groups of Frankfurt supporters visiting Boundary Park from time to time, even today.
It is a phenomenon that is unlikely to be restricted to the UK but at the same time, the level of demand for the Premier League is such, worldwide, that it, and the UK, will be the dominant players in this regard.
Some countries have less attractive clubs internationally…
It is difficult to envisage a great attraction outside of Germany for the Bundesliga, for example except perhaps for Bayern Munich, or outside of France for Ligue 1, except for Paris St Germain as long as they can hold on to players like Neymar and Kylian Mbappé and possibly Olympique Lyonnais because Lyon is a city tailor-made for a weekend visit.
The Milan, Turin and Rome teams in Italy are in cities that ooze style and sophistication but their teams lack an international cachet.
…but others are perfect for combining a football visit with other purposes
That isn’t the case in Madrid and Barcelona of course and their main clubs – Real Madrid and FC Barcelona – are renowned the world over while both cities are attractive destinations in their own right.
Many people may be tempted to time a leisure, or even business, visit to these cities to coincide with ‘El Clásico’, the name given to any game between Barcelona and Real Madrid, which is regarded as one of the biggest fixtures in the world in any sport…if they can get tickets.
A global super league could boost this travel requirement further
Looking at it from an intercontinental perspective, would fans cross oceans principally to watch regular league, or cup, games? The answer is probably yes, although evidently not so frequently because of the costs, the need to get visas, and so on. They might be obliged to if a global ‘super league’ is formed.
Was this a part of the planning behind Jet Airways’ Mumbai – Manchester service for example? Again, almost certainly yes, along with standard leisure, business, VFR and transfer considerations.
The Indian Middle Class is, according to a recent study, 28% of India’s population, of which about 3% is ‘upper middle class.’ That means over 40 million people have the means to attend a UK soccer match, perhaps once or twice a year. United claims almost 700 million fans worldwide or almost one in 10 of the world’s population, and the largest number is in India, (where the second and third favourite teams are…Barcelona and Real Madrid).
It will be interesting to see if Emirates Airline's Dubai-Barcelona-Mexico City service, which had been held up by legal arguments but is now operational, will prompt Mexican interest in travelling to Barcelona mainly for football reasons, even if only as a stopover, as fifth freedom traffic is permitted on the route.