Whatever the outcome of Newcastle United’s bid for their first championship in nearly 70 years, there is little doubt that the performance of Kevin Keegan’s team over the past three seasons has done wonders for the city’s morale. But can a successful football team bring any more tangible benefits to the community?
Sir John Hall, developer of the Gateshead Metro Centre and chairman of United, has argued that sport can play an important role in regenerating the region. Newcastle United have gone beyond football to incorporate rugby union and ice hockey clubs, and are likely to add rugby league next year.
Ian Stone, lecturer in economics at Northumbria University, says: “The fact that Sir John Hall talks in these terms differentiates him from other football club chairmen.”
Most evidence is located in the no man’s land between anecdote and apocrypha. Sunderland’s shipyards were alleged to have seen spectacular advances in productivity during their 1973 FA Cup run. But it did not do them much good - 20 years of shipbuilding was disappearing and the yard’s land was occupied by new buildings for Sunderland University.
Newcastle too has its anecdotes. “It is said that both the pubs and the shops benefit from people going on the spree after a good win by United,” says Dr Stone.
Against this, as John Goddard of Newcastle University points out, is the undoubted fact that the best team in British history - Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s - could do nothing whatsoever to reverse the city’s decline.
As with a university, it is possible to run a multiplier analysis of the money spent in activities associated with the club. United have invested hugely in turning their St James’ Park stadium - once labelled “a slum among the palaces” because of its proximity to the city’s Georgian terraces - into a state-of-the-art 36,000-seat stadium.
But Dr Stone notes a number of provisos. Money spent may not necessarily stay in the region. Middlesbrough lost their British Steel sponsorship when it was revealed that imported German steel was used in constructing their new stadium. Nor should too much be made of the sales of club scarves, shirts and other merchandise. “Few of those goods are manufactured in the region, so most of the income ends up elsewhere,” says Dr Stone.
And he questions whether those sales make much difference overall: “It is likely that there is a displacement effect. That money might have gone to other businesses in the city.”
But benefits can go beyond multiplier measures. A visit to a Newcastle United match is credited with having helped persuade the South Korean firm Samsung to invest in the region. Dr Stone adds that a successful team can create interest among potential students. Then there is the story of an academic whose doubts over accepting a promotion to a job in a southern university focused on the impossibility of a 500-mile round-trip every other weekend for matches at St James’ Park.
Professor Goddard argues that the club’s success helps spread the city’s fame beyond Britain. “You can make a strong case that Newcastle needs a European rather than a regional identity. Leeds is probably the real capital of the north-east now, and Newcastle has to sell itself to a wider market,” he says.
Dr Stone makes much the same point: “Football does make a difference. How many places in Spain can most people name, apart from Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao?”