16 March ~ While attendances have dropped recently across football, the situation is completely different to that 25 years ago – as explained in WSC 3. Then a sport "kept alive by sponsorship and TV money" and "fat cats behind glass screens" was only a grim vision of the future, not a reality
I don't know one single person who used to go to football regularly, but doesn't go anymore. Not one. Just who are the so-called Missing Millions? Where do they live? What do they look like? Do they make cups of tea and catch buses like the rest of us? I mean, even allowing for natural wastage, people dying off and not being replaced, there must still be so many of them walking around that the chances of meeting one, even every day, must be pretty high. If I had my way they'd all be forced to war flashing red lights on their heads, so that we'd know exactly who they are.
Because suddenly you're some kind of weirdo or social misfit if you go to watch football. Instead of it being the normal thing to do on a Saturday afternoon, it's now something you're supposed to feel ashamed of, as if you were going of to torture some kittens, or indulging in some unmentionable sexual perversion for a few hours. Last season, my club had the chance to the top of the First Division for the first time in almost 20 years. TOP OF THE LEAGUE! 12,000 people turned up. Twelve thousand. OK, so it was raining and Leicester aren't exactly the number one draw in the league. But a few years ago, thirty thousand people would have killed to be in on that game. At least that's what I always used to think, but maybe it was never quite like that. What if all those people who used pack the grounds were really thinking: "God, I wish I was at home taking advantage of a wider range of leisure activities"? Well, we'll never know. All I can say is, it doesn't seem to have been too much of a wrench for them to give up the game.
It's a vicious circle. Going to "important" matches that are played out in front of vast, empty terraces makes you wonder how "important" they really are. We need the confirmation that other people take it all just as seriously. After all, what is the point of football? Essentially, it's a source of entertainment, but it also has significance through making people feel part of a group with the same hopes and dreams, without getting too "sociological" about it all. Its not just winning and losing. Who cares what happens in an empty stadium? Checking on the size of the crowd means more than just wanting football and football clubs to prosper in an abstract sort of way – it's necessary simply to sustain the belief that football is worth something. It's not something you can justify in rational terms, for God's sake, that the outcome of 22 people kicking a lump of leather around a park should matter. We constantly need reassurance that somehow it does matter to other people as well. That's why the attendance slump is so depressing, and there's no reason why it should suddenly reverse itself.
Browsing through old annuals turns up some truly crushing statistics. Just to pick some from 10 years ago, season 1975-1976:
Cardiff City v Hereford – 35,549
Crystal Palace v Millwall – 34,893
Bolton v Sunderland – 42,680
(Return fixture was 51,983)
Birmingham City v Stoke – 37,166
Not a typical sample of course, but enough to make you stop and think. The question remains: WHERE ARE ALL THOSE PEOPLE NOW? and what has changed to make them stop going? No doubt the figures can be theoretically explained in terms of social changes, violence, economic depression etc etc, but these aren't concepts that deal with individual decisions not to go. These are thousands of individuals who are staying away, not some faceless mass. Are they living next door to you? If so, see if they can give you a rational explanation.
Having said all that, the clubs are hardly making the right moves to bring them back. Most of them seem to take the attitude that a small number of people paying large amounts of money is preferable to a lot paying a small amount. They're easier to control, maybe. This thinking produces executive boxes and benefits for those who buy expensive seats, but rapidly emptying terraces. (In the lower divisions, stringent economics may soon mean that clubs will be able to survive with no spectators at all. No doubt this will be seen as a great success.) Special discounts for families also seem part of an attempt to attract a totally new audience to football, far removed from the almost exclusively male working-class crowds of the past. This is no bad thing in itself, but unfortunately it seems to be at the expense of rejecting the mass of people who have sustained professional football ever since it began. We should be trying to widen the base of people who go to football, not getting rid of one audience and trying to attract a new one from scratch.
Creating incentives for all sections of society to come to football means more than Open Days and Family Sections. It means, first and foremost, decent facilities for everyone, not just drinks cabinets for the rich. It means questioning the attitude that says "our supporters are the best in the world", without thinking about why, for example, those supporters are almost exclusively white, male and under 40. It means giving people specific incentives to come to the ground, like concessions for the unemployed (as well as OAPs and juniors) and more than bus shelter-type accommodation for the disabled. Above all, it it's not just caring, but being seen to care about who comes to the game, and why. All much easier said than done, of course, although a little extra government assistance would go a long way, but it's attitudes which need changing more than financial structures. Watford's achievements aren't necessarily ones that can be repeated in exactly the same form in other places, but they do show the scale of what can be done.
A game kept alive by sponsorship and TV money, watched only by fat cats behind glass screens is meaningless, but that's where we're going, fast. It's got to be realised that the people who watch are much more than just a source of income, they're the whole point of football. Surprise, surprise we seem to have come round to the role of those boring old Chairman and directors yet again. Sorry if you're fed up up hearing about them, but if they're responsible there's not much to be gained from pointing the finger elsewhere. Of course there's blood-sucking TV as well, but who does the negotiating with them? Maybe if a few Chairmen stood on a sparsely-filled terrace on a wet Tuesday night in November, just once, then maybe at least they'd understand the scale of the problem. No, too much to ask, I know, I know.