An Impossible Boxing Day: Why European Football Stops at Christmas
26 Dec 2020   ·   

European football fans ask themselves this question every single Christmas. Why aren’t there matches on? A holiday period to share with family and friends, and more free time, seems like the perfect opportunity to attract fans to the stadium, and entice television audiences. Basketball does not stop, and on the other side of the ocean, the NBA presents a spectacular schedule of games. And yet only the English Premier League, of all European leagues, plays during the Christmas holidays.

There is clearly a cultural and traditional reason. On 26th December it is Boxing Day in the UK, a holiday date related to gifts, meetings, and shopping, which has been celebrated for more than a hundred years. Football managed to establish its place on this day as the UK sport par excellence, making it a tradition for the top four English leagues, Premier League, Championship, League 1, and League 2 play each other on that day.  As fans are used to expecting these competitions, they attend with absolute loyalty: last year in 2019, with no capacity restrictions, the British stadiums had 97% of their stands filled.

The managers of the other European football leagues have always been interested in Boxing Day, asking themselves if they could move their players’ winter break to other dates, and achieve a similar success to the UK Boxing Day. The most serious attempt to imitate it was made by Italy’s Serie A in 2018. Their management explained that they were inspired by the English model, and by a previous test carried out the year before with the second-tier teams, which had been successful. However, contrary to what was hoped, the meetings did not arouse the interest or the attendance that was expected from on public holidays. The stadiums received less affluence than in a regular league match, the television audience was poor, and the players’ performance was improvable.  Three months later, Serie A announced that it was resuming the traditional two-week Christmas holiday break.

The report to the Italian Football Federation left no doubt about why Boxing Day football did not get the positive results expected, highlighting the cultural differences compared to the UK. While English fans have a long Christmas football tradition, Italians are used to meeting friends and family for Christmas, they are not used to having football as part of their fun. Trips to family homes, which are very common, also make fans be away from the stadiums they tend to go. As any marketing specialist would explain, there is nothing harder, nor more expensive, than varying a human behaviour. And making non-English Europeans include football into their Christmas priorities certainly is one. The Premier League also has something the Serie A did not, which is full control over television rights for its domestic market, and an audience that has been historically high in Boxing Day. On the contrary, European measurement agencies have noted that Christmas time is a period in which the audience drops in all stations and channels, without exception.

In the Italian report there was also another issue that English team coaches have often complained about. Preventing players from having a Christmas break has a negative impact on their performance. Italians played poorly on the field. Louis Van Gaal, in his period as the Manchester United coach, was very critical of the number of Christmas competitions during Boxing Day. It was impossible for the English team to win because the players were exhausted by the end of the season. Here you can learn more on how the winter break reduces the number of player injuries. If we take into account the information from the article, players have almost doubled the number of games they play in the recent decades, then the break is almost compulsory. And if it were to be played at Christmas, it would be essential to program the two-week holidays, before those dates or after them. Most medical studies state that, without a break in the middle of the competition, injury risks would increase fourfold.

Therefore, not only is it difficult, but it can also be counterproductive, for the athletes’ health and poor economic results, having football at Christmas when it has not been the tradition to have matches on. In 2020 we will see a unique variation in the Spanish LaLiga and in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, which have agreed to meet during the Christmas period due to coronavirus delays. It is not therefore an attempt, such as the historic Serie A, to imitate Boxing Day. Nor will the audience data allow any conclusions to be drawn, as attendance in stadiums is still forbidden in both countries. Nevertheless, what will be interesting is analysing the injury and performance statistics related to the break their players are offered. European Boxing Day is a very difficult challenge, if not impossible.

Martín Sacristán


Building the future of the sports industry