Is there reason for concern in football?

In an era of modern stadia, 3D television and soaring petrol prices, attendances in English football are stuttering as fans are becoming more suited to walking up to the pub than using public transport or driving to their preferred ground. Away fans are also finding that it is getting tougher and tougher to continuously follow their side around the country due to the FA, clubs and television rights.

It seems that smaller Premier League clubs are far too hasty about moving into large, modern stadiums without thinking it through in the long run. Wigan Athletic may share their ground with a well supported Rugby League team but there aren’t 25,000 people that want to go and watch a Wigan Athletic home game. In their five home games this season the Latics are averaging 17,000 which is just 68% of the capacity, and there are usually 4,000 away fans from better supported clubs filling one end.

Another relatively new stadium, the Reebok Stadium in Bolton is another victim of the ‘eyes too big for your belly’ syndrome. Fairing slightly better than their North West rivals Wigan with their percentage, just 81% of their ground is filled on average for a home game, still depressing as empty seats are becoming far too common in the majority of Premier League grounds.

The English attendances are still far superior to Italy and Spain with the lowly clubs in Italy averaging anywhere between 25% and 40% and in Spain between 40% – 60%, a tough reality check for foreign supporters but television rights and cost are equally high abroad. The attendance drop all around Europe is a worry for clubs and supporters alike.

Television rights are a constant area of discussion in football and more and more games are being shown live, rearranging kick off times making it harder and harder for fans to make it to the games. With a game at 12.45pm on a Saturday followed by a 5.30pm game the same day both on television, with two games on Sunday and another on Monday night, travel and cost are becoming a major issue for supporters getting to their ground around work and family commitments.

The League currently sells only 138 of its 380 live games per season to Sky and ESPN because it tries to restrict disruption to the traditional 3pm Saturday kick-offs. However, the fear is more televised games shown at 3pm would impact on attendances at clubs across the Premier and Football Leagues.

But all 380 of the League’s live games are already sold to overseas broadcasters and if all matches, including those at 3pm on a Saturday, are allowed to be shown in the UK, then a tradition already under threat is likely to be damaged further.

The prices of tickets are also soaring and as a follower of my club home and away I have felt the pinch of ticket prices; but now West Ham are a Championship side the prices have fallen for me. That may be the only positive aspect of Championship football but it does make it bearable. I purchased a ticket for Reading away yesterday for £18 and a train ticket of £11 which means I have spent under £30 on an away game in the Championship compared to a visit to Chelsea and Tottenham that cost around £50 just for the ticket or a journey up to the north that has a train ticket of over £40 on its own.

Following West Ham has given me a clear indication of how finances are negatively affecting attendances and atmosphere’s around the country; as there were 5,000 away supporters at Hull last Saturday as part of a moderately small crowd and there will be 7,400 Hammers travelling to Coventry next weekend, a staggering support but showing the lack of interest from the home end by giving away such a large portion of the ground. This could be due to the lack of Coventry support but the fact that the club knows it is a chance to make some money off the back of West Ham to pay off a stadium that is far to big and expensive for it’s tenants.

That with the price of petrol now-days and the cost of following your side around the country is extortionate. So, if your side are on Sky or ESPN you can’t say that you are not tempted to wander down to the pub to save the travel, cost and in my case disappointment.

The more games on Sky, the more empty seats that will feature in the Premier League and the FA and television companies must think about that before the average football supporter is priced out of following their club. The 3D football has not really taken off in England and that could be a good thing for football clubs but pubs are still packed out while the big games are on the television with empty seats in the ground.

There are of course some exceptions to the rule but the majority of attendances have fallen with prices rising and the amount of games of Sky and ESPN have made it possible to watch the majority of games without leaving your front room. Perhaps there should be less games on television but that would then harm the fans who genuinely cant get to the ground and so there must be a happy medium that we; the supporters; and the big wigs can find.

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