Here is a first article from Richard Mullen. He tackles the thorny subject of attendances.
The recent game against Coventry was the last kick up the backside I needed to do something that I’d been thinking about for a while. A blog, my first as it happens, about the recent decline in attendances at St Andrews. The attendance versus Coventry was 16,669 of which bcfc.com said 5,604 were visiting fans. So only 11,065 Blues fans turned up for a local derby in the FA Cup where tickets were from £15.
A lot has been said recently about falling gates and Blues fans have taken a lot of stick over their attendances, obviously the Villa game stands out, but our away following which was once large has at times been paltry. At Man City, the home fans were singing ‘you must’ve come in a taxi’ and someone told me that a reporter on 5Live thought there had been an accident on the M6 and we were all late!
Before I go on, I’m not one to judge why people can’t make it to every game as I can’t claim to have been at every match since 1975 including every Anglo Italian Cup match. And I appreciate that some people have to make more effort to see 5 games a season than some do to see 40 odd; I just felt I wanted to get something out of my system and look at the reasons why attendances are on the slide. Some are obvious, but others haven’t really been talked about on forums and phone ins that I’ve heard.
Back in the early 70’s, average crowds at St Andrews were well over 30,000. In the 1972/73 season with Francis, Hatton, Latchford, Burns etc, average attendance was 36,663. I was born in 1971 so obviously don’t remember this era, but it seemed the football was all attacking and tickets were cheap. After a couple more seasons of 30,000 plus averages, attendances slowly drifted off during our yo-yo seasons into the eighties.
The last time we were in the top flight before Sky invented football, the 85/86 season, our average was 10,899 and our last game against Arsenal had a crowd of a scarcely believable 6,234. I guess crowd trouble kept lots of people away during this era, especially families, but the low crowds continued during the dark days of the late eighties when the club was left to rot. Anyone that can remember those days can’t be surprised fans stayed away, what with rivers of urine flowing down the Kop and bits of roof falling down during games in the Tilton.
How we loved it then when Sullivan, Brady and later the Gold brothers rode into town. Money was spent on the team and the stadium was done up. Whether it was their money that did the stadium or a football grant or a share issue, the stadium was a better, more hospitable place to go. Attendances slowly grew and we eventually consolidated ourselves as a decent championship team after dipping our toes into the third tier too often. Next stop was the Premier League.
The promotion season of 2001/02 had an average of 21,283. It started off with 19,091 v Millwall and ended with 28,282 against the same team in the play off semi final. Success brings in the fans and everyone wanted to be in the promised land.
The first year in the Premier League was unreal, there were full houses, everyone was singing and it was an intimidating atmosphere. It was a novelty. More of the same followed in the second season and to a lesser extent in the third, but by the fourth season, things had changed. Attendances slipped from 29,000 in the first three years to an average of 27,386 in the 2005/06 season. Rover had closed, the novelty of the Premier League had worn off and tickets prices were high. During a Premier League season, a club like Blues will only win about 8-10 games and for some, seeing us playing backs to the wall football is not for them. A lot of people had had enough during this season. I remember paying £521 for a season ticket and £260 for my son, then, during the season, deals were done to entice fans in, kids for £5 etc. All well and good to try and get fans in, but it alienated some season ticket holders who felt they weren’t being looked after. Money wasn’t spent during that January window and Portsmouth stayed up at our expense.
So it was back to the Coca-Cola with Season Tickets kept at the same price; we were getting 4 extra games after all! There were lots of non renewals and an average of 22k for a promotion season. We had a 26k average for the 07/08 relegation season, 19k average for 08/09 promotion season, 25k last year and 25k so far this year.
The jury might be out for some on the intentions of the new board, but this season they have listened to fans and reduced prices for season tickets and match day tickets. Gone are the days of £48 tickets during the days of Sullivan/Gold/Brady when the pound signs were flashing in their eyes. My season ticket was £161 cheaper this year than 5 years ago. But some people have got out of the habit of going or claim McLeish’s football is too negative.
I think there’s a stigma in this country when it comes to attendances, some fans seem to get more excited if they are higher in the average attendance table than the actual league table. I get more texts from Villa fans if we have a low gate, than if we lose.
I feel that lately Blues have taken a bit of stick over their attendances, culminating in the Villa game, which to me, was a low crowd due to an extenuating set of circumstances – partial ground closure, previous trouble, early kick off, on tv etc.
Obviously the recession has played a big part. The West Midlands is highly dependant on manufacturing and the unemployment in the area is higher than the national average. West Brom, Wolves and even Villa have seen a fall in crowds this season. Even Liverpool and Man Utd have seen empty seats this season, unthinkable a few years ago.
Another reason for lower attendances which I don’t think gets mentioned much, is all of the games being available to watch online or in the pub. I know people who think I’m barmy spending money watching Blues when I could be watching the game spending the same money on beer. Gone are the days of a backstreet pub with a dodgy satellite and closed curtains showing the football at 3pm on a Saturday. Pubs on Broad Street advertise which games are on weeks in advance; even the pub I drink in before the game shows the game live that I’m about to go to! I know someone who goes to a pub by West Ham’s ground which shows all their games; it’s rammed at 3pm on a Saturday, all wearing West Ham shirts whilst there are many empty seats at Upton Park.
Most people know where to look to see the game online. I remember a few years ago there was talk of each club having its own tv channel where you pay a subscription to watch all the games. It was said that it would have a real effect on attendances, but I think this has happened anyway, with people able to watch online for free.
But I don’t think its all doom and gloom. The reason I did a brief history of the attendances since the 70’s was to show that our current average of 25k is the highest it’s been since those days of Francis and Co, apart from the early years in the Premiership when everyone wanted to be a part of it. There are still plenty of Blues fans who will turn up for the odd big game, from the Wembley & Cardiff finals, to the more recent Villa & West Ham cup games. The problem is, I think, we will always compare the regular attendances & atmosphere to that first season in the Premier League. West Brom are a similar size club to us and that reflects in their attendances too.
We all probably know someone who is always banging on about Blues but only goes once in a blue moon. I had one sitting behind me at the West Ham second leg who spent the whole first half slating Stephen Carr of all people! The club have had requests from people wanting to buy half season tickets so that they guarantee their Wembley ticket. If those people can afford it, those are the ones who would bump up the gates if they attended.
I’ll end this where it started, with the Coventry game. It was our fifth home game since Christmas, some people hadn’t been paid since well before Christmas, it was freezing cold, against a side from a lower division and we were always likely to put out a scratch side. Plus, when you make a commitment to buy a season ticket, it can be hard to find the extra money for cup games, especially with an expensive weekend coming up at the end of February. Maybe we should be happy with crowds of 25,000 during these austere times; it makes full houses like the West Ham semi feel all the more special.