Blackpool’s Winter of Discontent

by | Aug 1, 2016

When all is said and done at the end of the first day of fixtures in the Football League on Saturday afternoon, there will be one particular statistic that many may reach for before any other. At home against Exeter City in their first match in the basement division of the Football League since 2001, how many people will bother with Blackpool FC’s first match of the season? For the last two seasons, attendance figures have been higher than might have been expected at a club that has fallen into a state of something approaching open warfare between the supporters and the owners of the club, but there’s a reason for that.

Two years ago, even though dissent at the way in which the club was being run was starting to grow, Blackpool offered a price on two year season tickets which made them amongst the lowest in the Football League Championship – the division which, it seems almost astonishing to report, the club was in at the time that the deal was announced – and which was taken up by around 4,000 supporters. Attendance figures remain somewhat misunderstood by some. They do not reflect the number of people inside a stadium on any given match-day. They ordinarily reflect the number of tickets sold for a match, and as such all season ticket holders are counted as having attended, whether they did or not.

When this is coupled with away attendees in the figures, it’s easy to see how a degree of misunderstanding can come about when they are released, and for the last two seasons Blackpool have been able to give the impression that attendances for matches at Bloomfield Road have been substantially higher than they have appeared to those who have actually attended. On more than one occasion last season, photographs were sent to social media accounts from Bloomfield Road which demonstrated that even a sizeable number of those who had bought these season tickets were no longer attending matches there.

This summer, however, that offer expired and nothing came along to take its place, so this season, starting with that match against Exeter City, attendance figures are highly unlikely to be taking into account vast numbers of supporters who have purchased season tickets but are not attending matches. Come five o’clock on Saturday afternoon, we’re likely to have a far clearer idea than we have previously had regarding the number of people that have joined the boycott of the club. The club has taken action in order to try and stem the flow of people away from Bloomfield Road at present, reducing season tickets to £220 in order to try to tempt people to stay with an early bord offer that lasted until the eleventh of July, but to what extent will this work when there is now a matter of principle at stake?

The initial answer to that question would seem to be, “Not as well as those leading the boycott might hope, but still a substantial number”. We won’t know for certain just how bad things have got for the club in this respect until Saturday, but current estimates would seem to indicate that more than a thousand season tickets have been sold for the coming season. The numbers, however, are more layered than we might immediately guess. For one thing, £220 is exceptionally cheap for a season ticket for a Football League club, although they reverted to a “normal” price of £275 thereafter. And how many of these tickets will have been sold at the full adult rate? There are, after all, reductions for seniors and those under the age of nineteen. Bloomfield Road this season will not, as some may have hoped, be completely empty, but there will undoubtedly be banks of empty seats and the financial hit that the club will take is likely to be high.

It would also seem to be something of a stretch to call, say, 1,000 season ticket holders at the club next season anything like a “success”, especially when we consider the height from which Blackpool has fallen. Three seasons ago, the club’s third back in the Championship following their one year sojourn in the Premier League, the club’s average attendance was 14,217. If the average attendance for this season levels out at around 2,000 in League Two, that would mean that more than 85% of those attending matches at Bloomfield Road have drifted away in the time that it has taken the club to plummet from the second tier to the fourth.

And that, quite asides from anything else, feels like a huge wasted opportunity. Blackpool is not a huge town, and the club has never enjoyed particularly dizzying attendances. Rising to the Premier League tapped a new seam of support which saw attendances rise to levels not seen at Bloomfield Road since the 1970s. That opportunity to build the club, however, has been spurned by the Oyston family. We cannot say with any degree of certainty how many of those who have drifted away from the club over the last two or three years will ever return to Bloomfield Road while the Oystons remain in charge of it. It’s unlikely to be a substantial number, though.

When viewed from outside this prism, this has been a fairly normal summer for Blackpool. The club installed a new manager, Gary Bowyer, upon the departure of Neil McDonald at the end of last season. Bowyer at least has experience of working under eccentric owners. He joined Blackburn Rovers as the club’s under-18 coach in 2004, becoming the reserve team manager in 2008 and having two spells as caretaker-manager before finally being offered the job on a more permanent basis in May 2013. He lasted two and a half years in the job before being relieved of his duties in November 2015. He might have been considered a reasonably solid choice had it not been for the chaos that surrounds the club on all sides at the moment. As things stand, however, he’ll be doing well just to steer Blackpool away from any flirtations with the non-league game and arrest a slump that has seen the club win just sixteen matches over the course of the last two seasons.

With less than five days to go before the start of the new season, normal operations around Blackpool Football Club remain suspended. Those normal pre-season feelings of anticipation, excitement and hope are all but missing from a club that has been run into the ground by owners who have shown little but contempt for the supporters, and which has fallen from grace with such speed that it’s difficult to believe that it’s only six years since the club was gearing up for a season in the Premier League. Such considerations already feel like a different world to many Blackpool supporters, for whom the biggest victory of the season – indeed, the only one that may count – would be the departure of the hated Oyston family. They have shown no signs of wanting to move on yet, though, so the battle goes on, and will do so until the club is back in the hands of owners that might actually treat everybody associated with it with the respect that they deserve. And the hope that this may eventually come to pass is about as much as many of the club’s supporters have at the moment.

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