Your Support is…….?
On Tuesday night in May thousands of paying supporters of Arsneal football club decided not to attend a late season game with already relegated Sunderland. In the hours since, social media has been arguing amongst itself about the relevance of this problem and the reasons why. Taking the emotive question of ‘support’ and your duty to provide vocal backing to a team the fact remains that possibly up to 25,000 people decided not to go to a football match for which they had already paid.
Arsenal fans (quite rightly) complain that their season ticket prices are amongst the highest in Europe (and therefore the world). The club of course have been able to persist with their high ticket prices due to incredible demand. Rafa Benitez or not, United couldn’t get away with a cheapest season ticket of £1,035 because there simply aren’t enough fans in the area able to pay such eye watering sums. I’ve heard Arsenal fans saying this is protest but who lost out last night? How much self-damage do they do by paying but not going? What message did they hope to send? There’s apathy and there’s self-harm.
Paying the club year on year and not going to select games isn’t new from Arsenal fans. Figures released by the Met Police Force in 2014 show that Arsneal have been exaggerating attendances for years or simply counting season ticket holders who don’t attend. An Arsenal fan site got hold of the figures for last season. Arsenal’s crowd versus West Brom in April last season was 44,878. To put that into context it’s a lower crowd than ANY Newcastle United home league fixtures this season, in the second division. Despite Wenger’s growing unpopularity, there was no boycott or protest at the time. Arsenal won the game two nil and finished second in the league.
There’s the strong belief from many rival supporters that Arsenal fans are fickle. A cup final to look forwards to. Two trophies in two years. A chance of the top four. I’d say that of the 92 football league clubs, ONLY Arsenal’s fans would be disappointed at their current predicament to see the non-attendance that has arisen. Possibly Manchester City.
To try and rationalise the decision I have looked back at my own non-attendance. The only game as a season ticket holder I didn’t attend was the 1 3 defeat to Swansea City in 2014. United were desperate to give the disgracefully unqualified John Carver the job and I believed that a couple of positive results by the end of the season and he’d have been in. After a string of non-[performances which had lead to two wins in fifteen games and at the time seven straight defeats (one goal scored) I realised that I wanted United to lose. A horrible feeling. The club might not have come back from the mass walkaway had Carver been granted to match Sunderland’s campaign this season. So I looked for a way out and did some baby-sitting instead for my niece. I had to go back for the last game of the season as we stayed up by beating Allardyce’s West Ham.
Maybe I’m as bad as those Arsenal fans last night or who stayed at home against West Brom last year. Sunderland fans find themselves in this position. For many of Sunderland’s home games this season there have been nowhere near as many people in the ground as the club have claimed. As brilliant a man I believe David Moyes to be, I can’t question any Sunderland fan for not turning up at recent home games if they’re so desperate to be rid of the manager. A strong end to the season for Moyes would surely strengthen his hand to remain manager. I don’t blame any Sunderland fan for staying away against Swansea.
So you’ve Sunderland and Arsenal. United by apathy but living in two very different worlds. Arsenal are bored of seeing their side beat the also-rans. Sunderland fans are just bored. Why does any of this matter? Why can’t football clubs just admit that fans don’t come? Why do so many football fans care about which fans go to games?
The answer to both questions is important and very similar. Reputation is everything in football. To the people running clubs who are selling a product and to the fans. Arsenal need all of their sponsors to believe that the Emirates is sold out every single game. ‘Advertise at the match to 60,000’ sounds much better to ‘advertise to ‘43k…probably less if it’s near the end of the season’.
Sunderland’s go further in my opinion. Sunderland’s modus operandi is being shit and still attracting massive crowds (sound like another club you know?). Pundits talk about it. Fans use it as a badge of honour. Sunderland’s accounts every year show a club whose match day income is less than Hull and Bournemouth’s. The figures don’t add up.
Sunderland tell us that 38,000 people attended their game on Saturday with Swansea. Swansea brought an allocation of 3,000 meaning that Sunderland believe they had 35,000 ticket holders at that game. Considering the apathy around the club I find it hard to believe they sold even 1,000 tickets for that fixture. Surely anyone wanting to go the game would have had ample freebies from the 10-15,000 season ticket holders that didn’t turn up. Sunderland announced gate receipts of £10.4 million last season with an average attendance of 43,071. This season it stands at 41,287 (they only get close to sell outs against NUFC so there’s your drop).
Sunderland want us to believe they have around 35,000 season ticket holders. If Sunderland didn’t sell a single match ticket to any other fan, or host any away fans – their 35,000 season ticket holders would be paying £297 per season ticket. The cheapest adult Sunderland season ticket last season was £370. The figures don’t add up.
If 40,000 away fans come per season (2,000 per game on average) and they were paying an average of £35 per ticket, then that would bring in £1.4 million to the club. The average price of Sunderland’s supposed 35,000 season ticket holders are paying goes down to about £250. Which they don’t.
From my basic analysis Sunderland either invent their attendances to serve similar purposes as Arsenal or they are committing the much accused crime of giving thousands of free tickets away per game and including these tickets in the attendance figures, whether the ticket is used or not. Why are they doing this? Why are they creating an image that their fans are more fickle than they are? Why is no one in the media really talking about?
Sunderland fans, like us, take pride in the passion there is for football in the area. If there aren’t actually 41,000 people on average turning up per game, what does that do to a fan base and it’s view of itself. Many Sunderland fans might not care for attendances or local interest in the football club, but plenty do. I’ve already read season several claims on social media that Sunderland’s away end was sold out last night. I’ve read one match report describing it as a ‘great achievement.’ Watching the game on television Sunderland took the smallest possible allocation and sold about half of it. That makes sense! Why would any fan travel 600 miles, pay at least £100 for the day to watch what they watch when already relegated. I wouldn’t. We can’t have that though – the myth has to continue. Sunderland fans travel in massive numbers despite being already relegated and on the TV. The Emirates was sold out again. Except neither are true.
Closer to home United put out a crowd of 44,000 against Man City in April last year. It was accurate. It was a poor crowd. Rafa Benitez was in charge. We were fighting relegation. It was televised, Man City brought about 500 and it was expensive. It was still a poor crowd for NUFC. I’ve seen gaps in Level 7 for sold out games which raises the question of exactly who is buying these cheap family season tickets and to what end, but I don’t believe United have the same problem as Arsenal (supposed apathy of season ticket holders) and Sunderland (invented attendances).
The ideal of a football fan (to many) is sticking by your side through thick and thin and supporting your side as much as you can. I certainly haven’t just described many who go St James’ regularly there so it doesn’t really fit anymore. The anger on social media at Arsenal fans seems to be mixed between that they’ve not turned up after buying a ticket or that they’re simply a very good football team that wins nearly all of their home league games and it’s still not enough to compel fans to attend one way or the other.
Either way clubs are more than happy lying to fans about attendances when it’s so embarrassingly clear there are less people at the ground than they say there is. Maybe Arsenal and Sunderland are embarrassed about the lack of interest in their product. Maybe they need sponsors and other interested financial parties to believe that a combined 94,000 people witnessed the side’s two last home games when in truth it’ll be more like half that number.
This is something that isn’t going to go away as more and more clubs see attendances fall. Stoke and Southampton have near identical average attendances this season compared to last yet every time I see each team play I’m aware of the amount of empty seats dotted around stadiums. Watford and Bournemouth the same. All four of the clubs have seen huge declines in cup attendances. Man City claim to have an average attendance of less 1,000 under capacity. It’s plainly not true judging by the empty blue sets evident at every home game and some low away followings. I could go on.
For so many clubs to be putting out all important attendance statistics that simply don’t reflect the number of people that go and watch their games suggests two things to me. Times may be changing regarding the popularity of the Premier League. Maybe that’s premature but after a 25 year attendance boom since Italia 90’ have football crowds already been in decline and clubs trying to hide it? The current arms race to build newer and bigger stadiums suggests not. A more lucrative than ever TV package suggests not either.
As United fans we’ve seen pretty full second division grounds based purely on our away followings and the fact we were as massive draw. However most second division grounds are rarely over 70% full. The cost of football is showing no sign of slowing down bar the admirable £30 cap on away tickets (it’s still too high) but we still paid ridiculous prices several times this season.
Maybe, just maybe, clubs having to invent boosted attendances or use ridiculous reach-arounds (like ‘tickets sold’ or hoying out 10,000 free tickets and adding them to your attendance figure) is a sign that the tide is turning and the game at the top level may no longer enjoy the catastrophic growth they’ve enjoyed for so long. Either way Premier League sides have a problem. They have to pretend people actually come to their games, or people pay to come and even that can’t compel fans to turn up. There aren’t simple solutions to either, for most clubs.