Reading lists of of football attendances records can make for dispiriting reading. After reaching highs in the late 1940s and late 1960s, crowds at English football went into a tailspin that nearly killed the club game for good. During the 1982/83 season, Tony Gubba reported for “Football Focus” upon the malaise that was sweeping the game. Liverpool, the English champions and a club that would, the following season, become the European champions for the third time in seven years (indeed, the Liverpool team from the 1977-1984 period would be a not unreasonable call as the greatest European club team since the great Real Madrid side of the 1950s), confirmed that they were running at a loss. With entrance fees for the Kop at £2, the club could no longer rely upon gate receipts to cover their outgoings. Whichever way you looked at it, the figures were depressing, and when the twin disasters of Heysel and Bradford occurred in May 1985, at the end of a season of unprecedented hooliganism, they went into freefall. Here is a sample of the statistics of the time:
- During the 1983/84 season, Everton’s average home attendance dropped by 4.6% to 19,343.
- During the 1985/86 season, Spurs’ average home attendance dropped by 27.9% to 20,859.
- During the 1987/88 season, four clubs had average home attendances of under 9,000.
- During the 1986/86 season, Arsenal’s average home attendance dropped by 23.7% to 23,824.
- During the 1985/86 season, Aston Villa’s average home attendance droped by 16.8% to 15.237.
This period in the game came back into my thoughts a couple of weeks ago, as I perused The Sun’s list of the cost of the cheapest season tickets at Premier League clubs. The figures make for extraordinary reading. Premier League clubs have, on average, increased the price of their season tickets by 7.8%. Only one club, Bolton Wanderers, have dropped the price of their cheapest season tickets, reacting to the gaping gaps in the seats at the Reebok Stadium last season by slashing the price of the cheapest season tickets by 14.3% to £299. Only four over clubs out of the twenty have chosen to freeze their ticket prices. Even amongst those that have only made modest increases, the amounts of money being asked are extremely high. Manchester United used to be one of the cheapest places to watch Premier League football. Not any more. The cheapest Old Trafford season tickets are now almost £500. Finally, spare a thought for supporters of Arsenal. The cheapest season tickets at The Emirates Stadium are now £925 – almost £400 more than the cheapest are at Chelsea.
Spiralling hooliganism was one cause of the collapse in crowds in the early to mid 1980s, but it wasn’t the only reason by a long way. Decimation of the industrial communities in the north of England was a major contributor towards falling attendances. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that football is a leisure activity, and not the life and death issue that the media often portray it to be. This is as true now as it was twenty-five years ago. Economists are arguing over whether we are on the brink of a global recession, or whether we have already entered it. We can be certain of several things. Prices are rising. Mortgage costs are going up. Unemployment is rising. And football remains a leisure activity. One wonders how long these large annual increases in ticket prices can go on for. Ultimately, if someone has to choose between putting food on the plates of their family, paying their mortgage or their Premier League season ticket, there is no question which one of the three will be the first to go.
Further down the football ladder, clubs are showing a little more flexibility. Huddersfield Town sold over 16,000 season tickets at £100 each this summer. Bradford City had a similar result with a similar plan last season. Such initiatives bring much-needed instant revenue into clubs which still suffer from depressed sponsorship revenue. In the Premier League, however, clubs don’t seem to think that they might need to cut their cloth accordingly if a recession bites. Their season ticket increases come on top of the start of a new television contract that will considerably swell their coffers. Why the need to extract yet more money from their already put-upon supporters? It’s fair question, but it seems unlikely that we will see any honest answers to it from Premier League clubs in the near future.