The Eclipse Of The FA Cup – How Inequality Has Reduced Interest In One Of Football”s Oldest Competitions

Football fans are losing interest in the FA Cup. And according to new research by Stefan Szymanski of Imperial College Management School, published in the latest issue of the Economic Journal, the reason is the growing inequality of income between divisions and the lack of support for any kind of redistribution. Inequality has reduced interest in inter-divisional matches because ''giantkilling'' is now so rare, while intra-divisional matches are more interesting in the context of the League. And while prize money might save the FA Cup, it would have to be very large to make a difference.

Szymanski notes that while most Premier League matches are packed to capacity, and attendance has grown strongly at Football League matches over the past decade, FA Cup attendance is not keeping up:


  • Last season, 36,754 went to see Newcastle play Tottenham in the League, but only 33,415 attended the FA Cup third round replay between these clubs. Chelsea against Leicester had 14% fewer spectators at the FA Cup match than at the equivalent League match, while Aston Villa against Leeds had 11% fewer- even though both of these were fifth round ties.
  • In 1988, 92% of all FA Cup matches involving teams from the same division had higher attendance than at the equivalent League match. By 2000, the figure was only 30%.
  • The trend is also evident in the Football League. In 1992/93, all First Division ties had higher attendance than the equivalent League match, but in the last two seasons, this has been true for only 25% of matches. In 1992/93, two-thirds of Second Division matches had higher attendance than the equivalent League fixtures, while over the last two seasons, only 10% of FA Cup matches have had higher attendance.
  • Giantkilling – defined as a team beating an opponent two or more divisions senior – has gone from being a rarity – four instances per season on average – during the 1970s and 80s, to being almost unheard of in the 1990s – two instances per season on average.

Szymanski attributes this startling decline of interest in the FA Cup to the relative imbalance of the competition. The most striking feature of the distribution of income in football over the last quarter of a century has been the growth of inequality between rather than within the divisions. This growth of inequality has reduced interest in inter-divisional matches while intra-divisional matches are more interesting in the context of the League.

This leads to the conclusion that the real victim of the growth of inequality in English football has been the FA Cup. Szymanski points out that doing anything to save the FA Cup is likely to run up against the difficulty of redistributing money evenly among all 92 clubs plus the non-League participants. Large clubs will not share, either because they need their resources to compete in Europe, stay in the Premier League, or mount a serious challenge to reach it in the first place.

The FA announced recently that it was considering the introduction of prize money. This would be a positive step, Szymanski concludes, although the size of the prize would have to be very large in order to make a difference.

''Income Inequality, Competitive Balance and the Attractiveness of Team Sports: Some Evidence and a Natural Experiment from English Soccer'' by Stefan Szymanski is published in the February 2001 issue of the Economic Journal. Szymanski is at Imperial College Management School in London.