Attendant danger

Empty plastic seats are a common feature in top-flight football in 2010. Adam Bate wonders why one region isn’t reacting to success

On the face of it these are heady days for West Midlands football. West Bromwich Albion’s promotion from the Championship has resulted in the region’s four biggest clubs all enjoying top-flight status for the first time since the 1983-84 season. Wolves have just achieved their highest league finish for 30 years while Birmingham’s ninth place last time out was their best effort in over half a century.

As for Aston Villa, you have to go back before the Second World War to find the last time they stayed in the top six for three years running. However, the start of the current campaign has seen attendances dwindling at all four grounds and begging the question – why are the fans staying away from West Midlands football?

A quick look at the attendances reveals the depth of the problem. Villa’s home games against both Everton and Bolton saw numbers down well over 3,000 on the corresponding fixtures last year. Despite increased investment in the team, Birmingham’s gates have also tumbled this time out with 1,800 fewer fans at this season’s match with Blackburn Rovers.

Meanwhile, Albion’s derby game against Blues saw them register their lowest ever attendance in the Premier League, a meagre 23,062. Wolves have failed to sell out for their first few matches too – a particularly worrying statistic given that the club recently announced plans for ground improvements that will increase the capacity by a further 8,000 seats.

So where have the supporters gone? The reasons are both simple and complex. For starters, it is difficult to look past the obvious issue of pricing. The West Midlands was among the most heavily hit regions by the recession and unemployment rates remain significantly higher than the national average. Against this backdrop, some of the clubs’ Premier League pricing does appear to be ill-conceived.

At Molineux, the cheapest price of an adult season-ticket for new supporters is £522. Staggeringly, this means Wolves are the sixth most expensive club in the country at which to become a new season-ticket holder – in a city with some of the worst unemployment problems in the UK. Albion’s cheapest season-ticket may seem a bargain in comparison at a quid shy of £400 but the reality is that this still places them among the top ten most expensive in the Premier League.

Of course, in fairness to Wolves, they have focused on more generous “Early Bird” offers to existing supporters. However, this merely accentuates the problem across the region that, while core support remains strong, the pricing levels are proving prohibitive for the more casual fan. This culture of rewarding the existing fanbase is commendable but is clearly impacting on gates through the lack of “walk-up” support.

In days gone by, attendances could fluctuate wildly with the fortunes of the side, such was the excitement a sprinkling of success could bring. These near spontaneous acts of support appear to be a thing of the past and a glance at some of the matchday prices reveals why. An adult ticket at The Hawthorns will set you back at least £40 for the Category A/A+ games that account for 12 of the 19 league fixtures. It would seem you are either in or you are out – and in the current climate fans are dropping out faster than they are being replaced.

Maybe there’s more to this than just money, however. Perhaps the more worrying trend is the increasing apathy towards the Premier League “product” itself. When Villa just managed to survive relegation under Graham Taylor in the 1988-89 season they were able to climb a remarkable 15 places the following year. Indeed, Taylor’s side were only denied the title by an Indian summer for the great Liverpool side of the 1980s. Over 20 years on and the challenge of climbing just one place in the league must feel like a mountain for the Holte End faithful. Martin O’Neill certainly seemed to see it that way.

As for fans of the other three clubs, what can be the extent of their hopes and dreams? Even the arrival of a millionaire owner is unlikely to raise Birmingham above the level of also-rans, while Wolves and Albion would be unwise to extend their thoughts beyond the rather insipid ambition of mere survival. The holy grail of 17th is unlikely to sustain anyone for long.

The indications are that fans of all clubs have recognised the glass ceiling that exists in English football and, when faced with high ticket prices, they are voting with their feet. The supporters are out there – in front of their televisions or sat at their laptops – but the appetite to part with increasingly hard-earned cash is diminishing. The thrill of seeing their famous old clubs tread water or scrap for survival is simply insufficient. Heady days for West Midlands football? The empty seats tell a different story.

From WSC 285 November 2010