Are fans starting to vote with their feet?

It’s clear that in such fiscally uncertain times as these, disposable income is at a premium. With Premier League clubs threatening to lose touch with the common man on the street and price hikes the de rigour, are fans starting to stray away from the terraces in favour of the cheaper comforts of home?

Sunderland remain the prime example, with former Chairman Niall Quinn’s vociferous opposition to fans choosing to watch the club’s games on TV as opposed to at the ground notable by it’s acerbic tone last February.

Quinn stated: “My belief is a significant number of these people are taking the easy option of spending their money in the pub watching their team as opposed to supporting their team and helping to create a better atmosphere at the stadium. Our attendances are down for a couple of reasons and the economic uncertainty right now is a factor.”

The ground capacity of the Stadium of Light is 49,000, yet the club’s average attendance this season is 37,890. This average was boosted somewhat by the crowd that gathered for the Tyne-Wear Derby against Newcastle on the second game of this season that saw 47, 751 turn out to see Newcastle’s 1-0 win.

Since then, Sunderland have had a further three Premier League home games against Chelsea (36,699), Stoke (32,296) and West Brom (34,815). With three out of the club’s four home games this season drawing crowds of 12,000 or more under capacity, it’s clear that there’s certainly something amiss.

Does Quinn’s assertion that economic uncertainty is a motivating factor hold up when you compare attendances across the rest of the Premier League?

Over at Aston Villa, the club boast a stadium capacity of 43,786 at Villa Park yet the average attendance this season has been just 32, 022. The clubs home games this season have seen Villa Park awash with empty seats after the Blackburn (32,319), Wolves (30,776) and Newcastle (34,248) games.

While economic uncertainty is certainly a factor in small attendances, there’s certainly a correlation between the two aforementioned clubs over the perceived underachievement of their team on the pitch and the fans displeasure at the management at the helm.

Alex McLeish is a deeply popular individual around Villa Park, and while, for now at least, they appear to be holding back, it’s clear that it’s a marriage doomed to divorce from the start. At Sunderland, Steve Bruce’s problems have been well documented as he begins to resemble a clueless manager clutching at straws in an attempt to halt a slide that runs right back to February last season.

Blackburn’s attendance under the tumultuous reign of beleaguered boss Steve Kean has seen attendances in freefall. Everton are coming up way shorter than usual and Wigan’s average attendance, as ever, struggles to maintain the interest normally associated with Premier League matches.

The spread of disaffection is not solely confined to the middle and the north of England, though, as newly promoted London-based outfit QPR are also struggling to sell-out their home ground Loftus Road.

QPR’s former owner Bernie Ecclestone attempted to cash in on the club’s promotion to the Premier League be dealing a 40% hike on ticket prices to fans earlier in the summer. The most expensive season ticket rose £300 on last season to £999. The cheapest adult season ticket came in at £549, compared with £379 at nearby Fulham. It even prompted the resignation of Vic-Chairman Amit Bhatia after he stated his disapproval at increased ticket prices.

New owner Tony Fernandes, in an attempt to appease the club’s fan base, has promised to cut ticket prices by 25%, which when consider that they had already been raised in real terms by 57%, it is still a significant hike.

Loftus Road’s capacity is 19,148, yet they average an attendance of just 16,038. Since Fernandes’s takeover, while it is still early days, the attendance rose by just 496 people the home game against Aston Villa after he came to the helm from the previous home fixture against Newcastle.

The greatest example of the fans displeasure at the astronomical nature of ticket prices at the club came when just 4,755 turned out for QPR’s  lacklustre 2-0 home defeat to Rochdale in the Carling Cup second round last month.

It’s worth noting, though, that the slump has not affected some of the larger clubs in the league – the likes of Man Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs, as you would expect, are all still doing well with concerns to attendance figures as they buck the trend.

The gulf in class on the pitch has rendered the Premier League uncompetitive at times. This, of course, is a big turn-off for fans. There appear to be a lot of deeply average teams in the league this season and the relegation battle could comprise of up to as many as ten teams – hardly something to motivate a fan to continue paying top whack.

The monetary factor coupled with the regression of certain sides to perform to their capabilities has meant that there is a real sense of apathy about the current campaign. For most sides, languishing in mid-table is nothing to get excited about. When it’s just as easy, as Niall Quinn testified to, to watch the game from the comfort of your own home at a fraction of the price. While this continues to be the case, Premier League grounds will continue to bear the mark of tough financial times.

The Premier League is often said to be the most entertaining league in the world, but with the price of survival far outweighing the strength of most club’s ambition at the moment, supporters are wisely preferring to save their pennies. Football is part of the entertainment business and if clubs continue to strangle and squeeze every last penny they can out of their fans, then attendances will continue to fall up and down the country.

You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1
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