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Editor’s View: World Cup need not be own goal for Theatreland

England team after winning the penalty shoot-out in the match against Columbia. Photo: Shutterstock England team after winning the penalty shoot-out in the World Cup last-16 match against Colombia. Photo: Shutterstock
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This evening, we’ll know if the England football team has reached its first Fifa World Cup final in 52 years.

But, whether it’s coming home or not, theatres will be more worried about football fans staying at home, or going to the pub.

Looking back through historic West End data, the World Cup tends to have a noticeable (negative) effect on theatregoing in the capital (there isn’t equivalent data for outside London).

In 2006, there was a dip of 15% on the previous year. In 2010, there was a dip of between 9% and 13%. Again, in 2014, attendances were down with the worst week notching a 12% dip on 2013.

Notably, England didn’t do particularly well at any of these events. With some, the timing of the football didn’t even clash that badly with theatre opening times.

Anecdotally, the worst effect a footballing event has ever had on theatre attendance was Euro 1996, which was the last time England did even passably well at a tournament. I can’t find any data for 1966, but I suspect it was not a vintage summer for Theatreland.

So, what is good for football fans is probably bad (in the short term) for theatre.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Could theatre do more to tap into World Cup mania?

With few exceptions, the approach seems to be to ignore the World Cup and hope it goes away. Some theatres have completely admitted defeat and cancelled performances.

Conversely, I was impressed to see Hull theatre company Middle Child has moved the start time of its show to accommodate the semi-final. It is even screening the match at its venue. This approach was mirrored by Justin Timberlake, who is playing at the O2 and organised for the venue to open its doors early and screen the match prior to his gig.

There are many reasons why these approaches might not work for all theatres, but there are other ways to capitalise. Hamilton was the only West End musical cast to record a singalong of Three Lions (“It’s coming home…”). Meanwhile, surely Mamma Mia! could have done something more to capitalise on the England vs Sweden match than publicise it was going to make an interval announcement about the score. And why is The Lion King not doing something linked to Three Lions?

Theatre mustn’t exist in a bubble. It should look to these kinds of global events as ways to reach the widest possible audience and remind them that – when the football is over – theatre will still be there.

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