Sky's money has not had a good effect on Rangers' crowds as Ronnie Esplin discovered
Success may breed success, but in the case of Glasgow Rangers it appears it has ultimately bred apathy. Anything less than winning the three domestic trophies this season will be a failure. When you add to that a massive increase in season ticket prices (for fewer games than usual, since Scottish Cup ties are not included this season), saturation television coverage and the moving of games to anti-social times, then you have a bubble on the verge of bursting.
Anyone watching the Motherwell game on Sky on August 15th will have noticed the empty seats dotted around the ground, which was 5,000 short of capacity. It was Rangers’ lowest home league crowd in years and paradoxically came on the back of their best European performance in a decade, the 2-0 win over Parma.
Although the club refuses to reveal statistics, there are strong rumours that season ticket sales plummeted during the close season. Club sources claim there are up to 10,000 waiting with eager anticipation for a redundancy, emigration or even a death. However, one mischievous fanzine contributor telephoned to enquire about the prospect of buying a season book. “Can you pay today?” he was asked, which presumably will anger those bypassed.
Of course, many of the fans who put their names down on the list date back to the Souness revolution of the late Eighties. Times have changed since then. Ibrox has been expanded, which took up a lot of the slack, and what seemed like value for money at around £200 in the Eighties starts to look a bit pricey at nearer £400 today.
Then there is big, bad Sky television. Only in the past couple of seasons have Sky invested heavily in Scottish football. Unsurprisingly, one or other of the Old Firm features in most of the matches. Rangers will perform regularly this season in the 6.05 Sunday evening slot, a time which is patently unsuitable for their many fans from England and Northern Ireland.
Tickets for sale outside the ground at every home game (except Celtic) invite season ticket holders to give up their books and take their chance on a game by game basis. When people realise they can pick and choose their games, that is exactly what they will do. Season tickets mean people go to those freezing Wednesday night fixtures in winter because they have paid up front. Crowds will decline when Coronation Street and Champions League coverage seem a better prospect than the fourth easy game of the season against Dundee.
Barring an unlikely journey into the latter stages of the Champions League, it is difficult to see how Rangers can arrest this decline in crowds (I won’t even dare suggest they reduce their prices). In many ways they are in a state of limbo: too good for Scotland and not good enough for Europe. The English Premiership is the only solution to the problem but entry would understandably cause a furore among the Nationwide clubs. And besides, Rangers aren’t needed.
It is indeed a strange situation for a club to be in, winning the trophies and losing the crowds.
From WSC 152 October 1999. What was happening this month