Where are the missing thousands?

There seems to be a general concern around attendances at professional football at the moment. Last night’s Football League Show spent much of the (invariably puerile) viewer interaction sections putting forward various theories as to why nobody was going to football any more. The best of these was a Charlton “supporter” who suggested that it was because the meat pies cost £4.00. If there was any “tongue in cheek” quality to the text message, it was lost in the deadpan delivery of the always-credulous Lizzie Greenwood-Fotherington-Smythe.

One of these sections included a reference to the ongoing protest which is affecting attendances at Middlesbrough. As I only spend about eight hours a day reading about Boro, I think I can be excused not being aware of this particular co-ordinated boycott, which I can only assume is suffering from the lack of a press officer. But “where are the missing 15,000?” is a common question around the Riverside this season, and one that seems to prompt many to suggest ticket price reductions, family incentives or (rather more radically) playing better football and winning more matches.

Will any or all of these things work? David, let’s look at the evidence. Here’s a graph of average attendances over the last decade.

Average attendances 2001-2010

The first and most obvious thing to say is that attendances dropped off dramatically with relegation from the Premier League. That’s not necessarily as much of an obvious progression as you might think – the (lower capacity) ground was sold out for practically every league game in Boro’s last spell in the second division, in 1997/98. That, however, was at the height of the post Euro ’96 football love-in, when £5 million ex-Arsenal players were still a talismanic novelty and, crucially, season tickets were absolutely required to get in.

This time round, that bubble has long since burst, and an undercurrent of disillusionment has combined with financial reality in a town which has been described as one of UK’s least resilient to economic shocks.

But both these things have been around for longer than the big crowd decline. The much-hyped “credit crunch” began in September 2007, although the effects on the general public have been relatively slow to materialise, thanks in part to the natural lag in cause and effect, and in part to Government support which is now apparently being spectacularly withdrawn. And the Boro grumble, suspended during the “Riverside Revolution” era, has in all honesty been at least audible since the last eighteen months of Bryan Robson’s tenure.

This makes it difficult to ascribe the empty seats to anything else other than the quality of the competition. A 30% reduction from one season to the next, as happened over the last two full seasons, has to be down to the major variable between the two, which is the division in which the team is playing. The equivalent drop so far this year, in the wake of the appalling play and results endured in the intervening twelve months or so, is only 13%, which adds weight to the theory.

Further justification is perhaps available in the form of the FA Cup. The graph above also shows average Cup attendances in seasons where Boro have had home games in that competition. These have proved much more variable, and in most cases well below the league average. 2006-07 and 2007-08 seem to provide exceptions, but both include fifth round matches and quarter-finals, the earlier against Manchester United, and the early matches in the 2007-08 run were played away from home, which boosted the overall average.

Even the 2005-06 average was skewed by the third round replay against Nuneaton, where not only was about a quarter of the 26,000 crowd from the West Midlands, but also the ticket prices were reduced beyond the minimum allowable by the FA. A more representative figure is the 14,131 who turned up for the fourth round replay, against Nuneaton’s big brothers from Coventry, three weeks later. Similar numbers saw the visits of Hull City in the following year’s third round and West Ham in the (televised) fifth round replay in 2009.

It’s not necessarily the actual opposition that makes the difference, either. The ground was only half full for the fourth round victory in 2002, which, although it was against Manchester United, was early in the competition and followed a deeply uninspiring few performances in the league. And earlier this year a combination of early round and wintry weather led to the somewhat sparse appearance of the crowd against Abu Dhabi’s finest.

Boro v Man City, 2 January 2010

There’s a whole other article to be written about the two UEFA Cup campaigns; suffice it to say that the attendances for AS Roma – that’s AS Roma – and a quarter final – that’s a European quarter final – against Basel were only 25,000 each.

My conclusion from all of this is simply that Boro’s central support is in the low teens of thousands. I’d be willing to bet that most of those who were at the games against Manchester United in 2002, Hull in 2006, and Manchester City in 2010, were also there against Millwall yesterday. The “rest”, the so-called missing thousands, are people who started going regularly when a season ticket was the only means of entry in the mid-nineties, and have gradually got out of the habit. A lot were helped on their way by relegation, but will be back in March if it looks like there’s a chance of promotion, or in the later stages of an FA Cup run.

What can be done about it? It’s the winning matches option, I’m afraid. At its absolute barest, 25,000 people paying £10 each generates the same revenue as 10,000 paying £25, and creates less profit because of the extra cost incurred in servicing the higher crowd. Reduced price ticket deals should be concentrated on younger supporters who will provide the revenue streams…errr, fans…of the future without needing to keep Cleveland Constabulary in overtime, and apart from that it’s all about consistent performance on the pitch.

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