What is this obsession within the Premier League…does it matter?

I was at the Manchester City v Newcastle match earlier this season, shaking my head at the Newcastle fans’ ridiculous chants of “where were you when you were s**t?”, whilst crowing about empty seats – all this from a club that used to pull in 15,000 crowds and had 10,000 empty seats just the previous week. Isn’t it ironic – don’t you think?

But then the thought occurred to me. Why the obsession with full houses and attendances anyway?

There are huge swathes of fans who wear their club’s attendances as a badge of honour, or report with glee when rivals’ attendances dip a couple of thousand. Manchester City fans will point out the attendances when we were in the third tier of English football, Manchester United fans will point out they had the highest attendances in the old days too, those dedicated Newcastle fans pack out St James Park every week, and so on.

Of course loyalty is an individual trait, and fullness of ground depends also on capacity and catchment areas and pricing structures and the traditional wealth of the fans that would attend, the opponents and so on….and global recessions of course.

You could argue that the more home fans there, the more support for the team, which aids results (though anomalies historically have shown the odd team to suffer badly under the pressure of playing in front of their own). For the owners of a club, every seat brings extra revenue, but for a premiership team, the odd thousand here and there makes up a very small percentage of total revenue.

Attendances in the old days used to vary wildly, week by week. Most games didn’t sell out. A team would get 15,000 one week, then 50,000 the next. On September 8th 1948, Manchester City v Birmingham City drew a crowd of 26,841. Three days later, 64,502 watched the Manchester derby. A dip into the archives reveals some startling attendances, and results. And games on Christmas day too (up to 1976 in Scotland, though weather prevented that last set of fixtures. It was 1959 in England, with just two games played).

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Martin Samuel wrote a couple of months ago about how “Chelsea should have exploded in Abramovich’s time, making a move to bigger premises essential”.

Samuel continued: “He (Abramovich) has done everything right. He has invested substantially in players of good quality, who have in turn delivered success. He has encouraged entertaining football, and 44 goals in 11 games this season suggest an ambition fulfilled there, too.

He even froze ticket prices for four years prior to this season, equating to a net deduction of 15 per cent, with inflation considered. So what is Chelsea’s problem? Strangely, there isn’t one. They are simply proof of how incredibly hard it is to grow a club organically beyond its traditional size.

Arsenal moved from Highbury, where the capacity at closure was 38,419, to a new stadium at Ashburton Grove holding 60,355, and filled it instantly. Yet Arsenal have long been established as the biggest club in London and at the time of leaving Highbury had a 20,000-strong waiting list for season tickets, closed for some time. This, in part, prompted their move. The board knew that, in essence, Arsenal were a club with a following of 60,000; it was just that 22,000 of them couldn’t fit inside the stadium.

Chelsea continue to look at plans to expand, but without the enthusiasm that exists elsewhere. Their big leap came between 1989 and 2003 when the average gate rose from 15,957 to 39,770. They hit the 41,000-mark the following year and have remained there since. “

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So, success brings crowds, which is logical, but there’s only so far it can help the figures. Cost is hugely important to restricting growth in attendances in recent years – just look at the Bundesliga attendances to see what can be achieved with a sensible pricing policy.

But success of course makes the casual supporter more likely to attend, and the inevitable glory hunter contingent to emerge from the woodwork. Arsenal had an average of 24,403 fans in 1992-93, but the average had risen to 38,053 by the 1997-8 season. Manchester United had an average at the end of the 1980s of 36,474, which had risen to 55,168 just 8-9 years later. From 1992-98 Everton found 15,000 new fans on average, Wimbledon doubled their attendances, as did Chelsea.

This does not tell the whole story – the 1990’s of course followed the 1980’s, and the 1980’s was a low-point in match day attendances. Poor facilities, hooliganism, and tragedy went hand in hand to put people off in their droves. The ugly spectre of Thatcher and ID cards are the abiding images for many of that period. The only way was up once Sky got involved, and football was polished, preened and placed on a pedestal.

I’ve heard it said many a time that teams like Wigan don’t deserve to be in the Premiership, as the people of the town can’t be bothered going to watch them anyway – this to me is drivel – you don’t earn premiership survival by the size of your crowd. Wigan deserve to be there as they got fairly promoted, and pick up enough points each season to stay there – end of. They have fans that attend matches regularly like any other club, just less than many of their rivals. They might not add as much as others to Sky Sports’ super-duper best league in the world viewpoint of the Premier League, but that doesn’t relinquish their right to be there.

The question is, what will happen now to crowds? There is some evidence that gaps are beginning to appear in the premiership more and more – but the brand is strong, and even though many clubs continue to raise prices above the rate of inflation, the crowds will continue to come, in the lower leagues too.

A report a year ago of English football crowds suggested they were on course for a 50-year high if ticket sales in that season were maintained across the nation’s four professional divisions. An initial forecast by sportingintelligence was that total gates in 09/10 would be in the region of 30.4m people. That would be higher than at any time since the 1959-60 season, when 32,538,611 fans streamed through the turnstiles. Burnley won the top division that year (then the First Division), while the runners-up, Wolverhampton Wanderers, lifted the FA Cup. Aston Villa won the Second Division (now the Championship), while Southampton won the Third Division (now League One, where the Saints again reside). Walsall won the Fourth Division.

Between then and the 09/10 campaign, only one season in English football has seen total crowds go above 30 million, and that was in 1967-68, when 30,107,298 people paid to see Football League matches. Other reports had suggested this rise would not happen, as fans were increasingly being put off by increasing costs on match-day – ticket prices, refreshments and all the other costs that attending a match entails. Many interviewed even suggested watching lower league football instead as a cheaper alternative.

Attendance figures continue to suggest that these fears are unfounded however. Many a time over the last 15 years I have considered not renewing my season ticket and picking my games, but I never do (and probably never will). And as if to prove that fans continue to attend in droves, last year’s attendance figures for the three football leagues did indeed hit a new 50 year high. To put the growth of the Football League in context: total crowds in those three divisions alone last season were higher than all four divisions in England combined at the game’s low point in 1985-86, when just 16.49m people came through the turnstiles. For now, the future is still bright.

Howard Hockin

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