One Among "54,648"!

By Robert Exley

An attendee at the BATE Borisov game ponders why many didn’t bother

There’s an old adage that no lie lasts forever and the truth will always come out in the end. That adage of course is a bit of a daft one, as how on earth can you measure the number of lies that have never been exposed? There is however a point where a lie becomes so obvious that it makes it blindingly stupid to continue peddling it and, ultimately, self-harming due to the fact that people generally lose trust in the source of the untruth in the long run. This is a fact of life which most people learn as children, however in this ‘Post-Truth’ era of the late 2010s, it seems to be something totally lost on people that run business with a turn over that runs into billions of pounds, like Premiership football clubs.

In the days since the failure of Arsenal FC to fully sell out virtually every home game around the start of this decade, the club’s ‘official’ attendance figure has since become something of a bone of contention among Arsenal fans. The gerrymandering of the attendance figures by Arsenal has been obvious over the last five to seven years or so, but alarm bells about falling attendances was always something I’d scoffed at as historically speaking demand was always exceedingly high, even throughout this period. Thanks to the brilliant ‘The Arsenal History’ site, a quick perusal over Arsenal’s attendance figures for 1985/86 tells you that most of Arsenal’s attendances since 2006 have been nothing much to worry about (45,109 v Spurs on New Year’s Day the highest attendance of the season within a 60,000 stadium!). That was however until last Thursday.

When you look for instance at Arsenal’s attendance figure for Leicester City’s visit to Highbury on the last day of August 1985 at 18,207, it’s difficult to image any game at the E******s Stadium having only filled just under a third of the stadium. Until of course, BATE Borisov turned up in N5. The official attendance figure however reads "54,648" – having attended that game there was no way on earth that ground was nine-tenths full that evening. Aside from Arsenal FC being stupidly economical with the truth however, what also must be asked is exactly why Arsenal’s lowest attendance this side of the millennium has occurred. And that isn’t quite as easy a question to answer as you might think.

Some might put it down to the general performance of the team, but are Arsenal really playing so badly as to attract a crowd that barely quarter fills a stadium they previously had little trouble filling out? Even after losing 2-8 to Man United back in 2011, a full house of 60,087 turned out to see them play Swansea two weeks later. The nearest ‘Mickey Mouse’ fixture to that calamity was Shrewsbury in the League Cup which brought an official attendance of 46,539 and having attended that fixture too I can personally testify that more people turned out that night than to watch the BATE Borisov game. Some might point to the cost, but the admission fee for the numerous empty seats on the lower tier was just £15.50, which compared to most sporting events is barely anything.

Some might point to the weather, but football is after all a winter game. Huge swathes of the season are played out in the cold and most games have previously seen a stadium at least 85% full. Some might point to the quality of the tournament, opposition and the second string line up, but back in 2009, the home leg of the FA Youth Cup Final attracted a crowd of 33,000. The Quarter Final tie away at Spurs for that campaign saw 19,084 head to White Hart Lane on a Thursday night, so the choice of evening to play the game isn’t necessarily a factor either. Maybe there’s one truth behind this that might just be too unpalatable for the industry to consider – maybe football’s bubble is simply beginning to burst?

After all, this isn’t necessarily a problem that just effects Arsenal alone. Tottenham Hotspur’s average attendance at a stadium which holds a capacity of 90,000 people is 72,229. The visit of Chelsea brought out a crowd of 73,587 and Liverpool brought 80,827. Few people thought that the top flight record of 84,569 for Stoke City’s visit to Maine Road to face Man City in 1934 would have still remained intact by this point of the season, but it still does. At the other end of the scale, Spurs have seen an attendance low of 23,826 against Barnsley. Even a Cup tie with West Ham for a tenner brought out just 36,168. And this is apparently the most ‘successful’ and ‘threatening to achieve’ Spurs side we’ve seen in a generation!

One of the answers to Arsenal’s low attendance on Thursday was that the tie was shown on TV. Arsenal’s Europa League fixtures have been averaging around half a million on BT Sport 2, which is roughly what football matches attain on Satellite TV these days anyway. There’s evidence however that football’s Satellite TV ratings have been dropping over the last few years also, as at the start of the 2010s Sky could once rely on an audience of around 1.2 million viewers. Despite paying out record sums for the rights back in 2015, both Sky and BT Sport have seen viewing numbers falling. Much has been made of British football’s huge overseas TV audience, which admittedly is considerable, however ratings for NBC’s coverage of the Premiership, shown coast to coast across America, also fell last season.

One thing many people have forgotten is just how far football came over the last twenty five years or so in terms of profile and popularity, not just globally but in a domestic sense too. At the start of the 1990s, during Arsenal’s last pre-Premiership season a crowd of 27,844 turned out to watch Arsenal play title chasing Leeds United at Highbury. As was the case back then, League games were shown on free to air terrestrial TV for anyone with a TV set to view on the ITV network. The viewing figures however only ever averaged at around seven to eight million and barely scraped ITV’s top thirty ratings for the week. Very often ITV’s ‘The Match’ languished below Harry Secombe’s ‘Highway’ from ITV’s obligatory ‘God Slot’ programming.

Football however still often dominates social media discourse and is very much still top of the trending list on Twitter at any given time. If apathy isn’t at the heart of falling ratings and attendance figures maybe its something else? For many years, people have often warned of football’s demographic time bomb, as the game’s core attendance has come from the ‘baby boomer’ generation. As many of them are entering their seventies, they’re becoming less interested in travelling to view games in the football stadium in all weathers. The generation under the age of thirty have often been priced out of the game over the years and never really had a prolonged period of football match attendance during their lifetime. It’s therefore not something the game can necessarily expect from them.

And let’s not forget that the wages and savings of millennials simply do not go as far as that of older generations. The baby boomers attended football as a ‘pocket money’ audience. Football however has spent the last twenty years or so pricing out even the ‘first time mortgage buyer’ audience. There’s also the old adage that the young are more adept at newer technology and instead of paying to watch games in the stadium or on Satellite TV, are simply streaming live games off of the internet for free. This is a threat I pointed out through the Online Gooner back in February 2015, warning of Football suffering its own Napster effect.

Remember also that the 10,000% plus price rise for showing games in pubs over the last twenty five years and the fact that most of the decade has seen pubs shutting down at a rate of knots, also means that football’s greed has also slowly killed this previously reliable route of revenue. You would think that taking all this into account - like back in 1985/86 - maybe football might be becoming something of declining interest to media conglomerates. Well, you’d be wrong.

The bidding for the broadcasting rights deal for the Premiership will be coming up over next few months and apparently Amazon, YouTube and even Facebook are interested in bidding, which could see even the £5 Billion reaped in 2015 dwarfed by comparison. With fears that football’s bubble may be about to burst any time soon, I hope it doesn’t pass by those running the game that this could easily be the most important contract they’ll ever negotiate for the future direction of the sport in this country.

*Robert Exley can be found on Twitter@robert_exley

26th December 2017 10:15:08


Comments and Reaction

User comments on this article are now closed. If you want to continue the debate, why not do so on the Gooner Forum.

Perryashburtongroves  22:21pm 26th Dec 2017

That's a very interesting piece. In terms of why attendances have fallen at our place, the main one I think, is that people have just become fed up of watching a team managed by Wenger. He has killed the interest of many supporters and really, there's no hope of games actually having something riding on them. Quite frankly, we're still waiting for a headline, big moment game at the ground, nearly 12 years after moving in. I just think people have lost faith and did so years ago. It's testament to the loyalty of the fanbase that it's taken this long and didn't happen five or six years ago. In terms of the next generation following football in the same way that we have done, I don't think it's going to happen. Kids-early-mid 20s these days watch football in a very different way. Going to games isn't a habit as much these days and when you can watch a stream from home and be on your phone, laptop or tablet or worse still playing ****ing PS4 football games,why bother sitting in the cold or not getting that precious Wifi connection? Anyone with a screen can get a clip of a goal within seconds of it going in on social media sites and young fans don't seem to have the patience to watch 90 minutes of a game when all they want to see are the goals. The business model which Arsenal pursued 15 years ago is dead. The manager is the football equivalent of a zombie and the players look ****ing bored too. What we are seeing now is the result of not doing the right thing five years ago and getting a new manager in. Still, this is what the owner and the AKBs wanted. This is what you've done to us all. - Post No. 111358

Cyril  9:27am 27th Dec 2017

Perry, couldn’t have put it better. I will never forgive the mismanagement of the years since our move. I want to use stronger words. I, like many have paid out tens of thousands of pounds to follow them. We were promised so much in 2006. The PA begging us to follow them and keep up the support in 2007 remains in my mind. Believe me, they needed us then, but do they now with a further new TV deal? It does feel like your best friend has shafted you. Anyone can do that when you give of your trust. When I give you 4 quid to watch footy in the eighties, then it’s your club, but when I give you 12 to 1500 quid a year, it becomes my club as well regardless if I am just a stakeholder. Or will the club shrug that comment off and say. ‘ I do not think so’. Thought not , as you would see an exodus. They could have invited investment but peddle this line of sustainability and not being able to challenge financially. How convenient. And you dont mind challenging my financial inconvenience, do you ?. I feel sick writing this. The artful dodger would be proud. Perhaps fan power could get Roger Dawltry back to blast out ‘ we wont be fooled again’. - Post No. 111367

The Man From UNCLE  11:03am 27th Dec 2017

It was cold. It was the week before Xmas. It was a meaningless game against BATE Borisov in the Europa League. Even for £15 a pop most sensible people would have stayed at home. The club goes on the American model that the attendance is the number of tickets sold. If the season ticket holders don't turn up, what does it matter to them? One thing the club could do, also following the US model, is give a figure for the "no shows" which at least would have them being honest. It's not just AFC. Look on any PL highlights programme or live games you'll see plenty of empty seats nowadays. - Post No. 111370

Scruff  11:06am 27th Dec 2017

Have noticed references from the silly boy about Untold Arsenal and how it is the leading light on all things Arsenal. Really? A site that allows homophobic and racist comments that are laughed at by other posters ( why he is allowed his racist remarks on here is disgraceful) Untold was commisioned by AFC as a mouthpiece for Wenger to try and appease the fan's after the move from Highbury knowing fully well the lies and spin we were fed. Every Arsenal site bar one wants Wenger gone every Arsenal site bar one are Arsenal fan's only one site is an Arsene fan go work it out. Best to ignore the silly boy and his white hooded mates - Post No. 111371

equalizer  12:52pm 27th Dec 2017

@Scruff, As I explained here before, Tony Attwood is the director of a marketing and sales organisation called Hamilton House. Its an organisation that produces positive spin and writes blogs for companies and private individuals. He's basically a professional shill. http://www.attwood.me.uk/DirectMarketing.html - Post No. 111376

TOOAW  13:30pm 27th Dec 2017

Mark of Nark equals scruff. BUSTED. - Post No. 111377

Robert Exley  13:50pm 27th Dec 2017

@Man from Uncle - all of those factors are accounted for, but previously would never have prevented either a sell out, or a 50,000 plus crowd. There's no hiding a receding public demand for attending football matches. As for the tickets sold definition of attendance, it's counter to any dictionary definition of attendance (i.e. to attend), so it is in essence a lie. It may be what they do in America, but this ain't America. We know what words actually mean on this side of the Atlantic - Post No. 111378

Scruff  14:04pm 27th Dec 2017

Equalizer I don't need any explanation on Attwood I know all I need to know about him even where he resides and his fellow director's thank you very much. Tooaw what a dimwitted little oaf you are you say you are open to meet markymark for a discussion well I will join in and meet you as well! What time does school finish these day's? - Post No. 111379

Seven Kings Gooner1  14:55pm 27th Dec 2017

I think attendances will continue to fall in the Premier League simply because there is very little competition. The top six teams will remain roughly the same for the next coming decade, unless another wealthy owner wants a piece of the action and throws billions at winning the title. The crucial factor for all club owners is staying in the top flight because of the immoral sums of money handed out to clubs before the start of each season. For that reason alone managers like Hodgson, Moyes, Allardyce and Pulis will always be with us, as club owners fight to stay in the "best league in the world" (LOL) Watching Everton pack 11 men in their six yard box at home to Chelsea, to gain another precious point to remain on the gravy train will be the battle plan from January onwards of about 6 - 8 clubs until they are mathematically safe. I have been watching 4th tier football for the last 6 years and right up to the last match of the season at least 10 teams will have a chance of promotion, which makes every game these 10 teams play very competitive and good value for money. If fans are fed up with the PL get down to the lower reaches of football, it's still fun and good value for money. I used to blame Wenger for everything that was wrong with Arsenal F C but to be honest the ridiculous hype thrown at the players in the top division of football has been just as much a turn off as Wenger's continuous keep ball tactics. I now avoid both ills and look forward to competitive football every fortnight amongst the "journeymen" of the lower and non leagues teams. - Post No. 111380

Robert Exley  15:50pm 27th Dec 2017

@SevenKingsGooner - although there is arguably more competition now than in say 2002. There's a top six now and arguably all of them are capable winning a trophy or being involved in a title race with a run of luck and few players added or emerging (even Arsenal). There was only Arsenal and Man Utd fifteen years ago and attending games was all the rage. Trends with attendances often run regardless of the quality of the product. Most people think the 1960s and early 70s are a golden era for quality, but attendances were falling throughout this time and newspaper libraries are fall of crisis stories on that issue. Even Arsenal's '71 double season saw some attendances in the BATE Borisov region. - Post No. 111381

mbg  17:38pm 27th Dec 2017

That old adage may not be all that daft at all because the lie that is wenger is lasting well (with others anyway) nigh on twelve years now and still been believed by the gullible no matter how blindly obvious and stupid it is. wenger out now. - Post No. 111385

Paulward  18:20pm 27th Dec 2017

Van Dijk on his way to Liverpool for serious money. What are AFC going to do to address OUR appalling defensive record? Appoint a better defensive coach ? Buy better defensive players ? Or nothing at all ? I wonder. - Post No. 111387

Seven Kings Gooner1  18:32pm 27th Dec 2017

Good points Robert about the attendances, however I think in the 60's & 70's the fans were perhaps more partizan than today, football 50 years ago was solidly working class. My father called the "golden age" shortly after the war, when many amateur games would attract crowds of over 10,000 plus. Starved of entertainment during the war years, people flooded to watch any game of football. My point is that if fans want to watch a more even contest the first and second division are the matches to attend. I honestly think that from the bottom 8 teams of the Championship to the top dozen teams in division two there is not much to choose between the sides and the better coached teams tend to prevail. (Check Lincoln City) The games I have watched for the last 5 or 6 years have, in general, been very even and hard to predict the result - aside of a couple of teams most sides can beat each other. If the Premiership collapsed tomorrow I think long term English football would greatly benefit, as George Graham said in the film "89" he doubts whether Arsenal would ever appoint a manager from Millwall again, only top European managers are sought out by wealthy PL clubs. - Post No. 111389

mbg  22:50pm 27th Dec 2017

paulward, no doubt the next thing we'll hear, or be told or spun, or more precise, lied to, is TOF was watching him, keeping an eye on him, preparing a bid, etc, etc, and of course it will be believed by the gullible and the old adage will live on. wenger out. - Post No. 111396

Moscowgooner  7:24am 28th Dec 2017

Primarily I think most people attend football for the atmosphere of 'being there' rather than the quality of what is on the pitch. A sanitized atmosphere inevitably drives fans away - or they watch on TV/online. But overall attendances today are not declining and - as you point out Robert - are also way above anything we experienced through the '70s and '80s. If we assume that Arsenal are adding 10 K or so to every league crowd beyond the actual attendance, we still have an actual average attendance of just under 50 K. By contrast in 70/71, the Double Season, the average was 43,000 - and that was the peak between the late fifties and the move to the Emirates. Spurs attendances at Wembley are interesting and expose the truth about their season ticket waiting list of 50,000! 24,000 versus Barnsley was pathetic (West Ham or Chelsea would have done better): and we had a 'true' attendance of at least 10,000 more versus Doncaster. They might struggle to fill their new toilet bowl. - Post No. 111401

markymark  8:15am 28th Dec 2017

Post 111357 - Toad just to tell you again myself and Scruff are not the same person. It’s perfectly possible for two people to think you’re a tosser at the same time. Like many things with you I have explained before, but as a reminder both Scruff and I recently posted within a few minutes of each other. The system blocks multiple postings by the same user even under different aliases . It has a 10 minute window. I would also add that I am not in the least bit interested in buying some tech kit to get around that either . As I much rather spend dosh on other things. Now I think you have to answer some of Scruff’s previous questions as well. - Post No. 111403

Seven Kings Gooner1  11:21am 28th Dec 2017

Meant to post - thank you Robert for putting the link to the Arsenal history site, what a brilliant informative piece for the really anal amongst us. - Post No. 111405

The Man From UNCLE  12:03pm 28th Dec 2017

What can we expect tonight from Arsenal, the gift that keeps on giving (points to the needy that is). Couple of soft goals for Benteke to boost his confidence perhaps? Or maybe throw away a two-goal lead to give Palace a boost going into the new year? - Post No. 111408

MAF  12:16pm 28th Dec 2017

pleased to see liverpool try to address their defensive issues by properly investing in order to try to go to the next level. you for sure wont see arsenal doing the same. Mustafi and Xhaka were extreme waste of money by the club again. wenger would rather buy two for the price of one, when in reality a top one instead of a mediocre two, is what the ambitious club would do... - Post No. 111409

mbg  14:44pm 28th Dec 2017

Well it didn't take Liverpool and Klopp to do something about their defensive woes, while Mr Bumble no doubt gave his and Arsenals a second thought, and is still bumbling about like he has for ten years or more now. Mr Bumble out. - Post No. 111413

mbg  15:00pm 28th Dec 2017

Uncle, three points from the nice boys after rolling over the mighty palace and all will be rosey again, and a couple of our donkeys and carthorses managing to stay on their feet and have a half decent game will make it even rosier, and our defensive frailties and woes will definitely be forgotten, until the next time as usual. wenger out now. - Post No. 111415

CORNISH GOONER  16:21pm 28th Dec 2017

Well, I'm feeling a bit chirpier because I can at least see the beginning of the end for Arthur with Ivan's new signings but still a lot of anguish ahead for us Gooners. Arthur at it again today with his relentless "spin" - the latest being having to endure 21 years of poverty in the transfer market. Didn't stop him trousering probably close to £200mill. along the way did it? Well written & authoritative article as per usual Robert. - Post No. 111420

Paulward  16:50pm 28th Dec 2017

Liverpool spending big another worrying indicator that we are well on the road to upper mid table irrelevance. When you consider that Sanchez and Ozil are leaving in May and our “best “ defender is fast approaching the knackers yard due to age and injury I would estimate we need to spend 200million in the summer to just stay in the hunt for 4th next season. This is simply not going to happen, blame Wenger, blame Kroenke, blame Gazidis even blame ourselves , the fact is we are already up the creek and our paddles will soon be disappearing. - Post No. 111421

mbg  17:09pm 28th Dec 2017

We would walk 500miles, I guess it was to cold that night, lol. wenger out - Post No. 111422

Paulward  22:27pm 28th Dec 2017

Different formation same old story, extremely wasteful in front of goal and little more than a joke at the back. West Brom are second bottom and have conceded only two more goals than us this season.How bad will things get when Ozil and Sanchez leave and we can no longer out score teams? Scary. - Post No. 111427

mbg  22:46pm 28th Dec 2017

Another Scrape through if wenger and his shower were 4 up they'd fook it up, Oh hold on. wenger out tonight. - Post No. 111430

Cyril  23:29pm 28th Dec 2017

Yes we won, but that is not my idea of 3 at the back. Aaaaaaargh. The wingbacks are disappearing. It’s supposed to be a defensive formation. There is not enough cover because they have all fcuked off. Sanchez had to defend and attack tonight. Wenger you make me SICK. Please go. You are about to give Wilshere a new contract who wants it to feet all the time. I’m fed up. We need a top defensive mid you pilchard as mike Reid would put it. I want (kinda) Wilshere to do well but as soon as it goes over or bounces over his head we are Fckued. I give up. Go back to back 4 and do what want you want. Fed up! - Post No. 111433

Issue #269 - Out Now!

Gooner Editorial

21st January 2018

Life Without Sanchez Gets Off To A Promising Start

Online Ed: Arsenal enjoy a comfortable afternoon against Palace