A veritable twitterstorm was set off in the Goonersphere yesterday morning following a blog on the aisforarsenal site highlighting the real attendances at Arsenal matches. The blogger, John B, has gone to the trouble of using the Freedom of Information Act to get figures of actual attendances from the Metropolitan Police, and Arsenal have agreed them – well, Arsenal have said they’re ‘broadly accurate’, but I’ll come back to that.
What the figures show is that on average there are well over 6,000 empty seats at Arsenal, and the real attendance is on average 5,998 under the number of tickets sold.
As aisforarsenal points out, it’s been a running joke that halfway through the second half of the match, Arsenal will announce an attendance figure of around 60,000. Everyone knows it’s not accurate, but they do it anyway. My esteemed AST colleague Nigel Phillips reckons it’s to do with making the Premier League brand look in better shape than it really is, with matches sold out and packed out, full of excited fans who can’t get enough of foreign millionaires belting the old pigskin into the onion bag (and occasionally biting chunks out of other foreign millionaires). In reality, at Arsenal anyway, matches are nearly always very close to being sold out, but there is a sizeable part of the season-ticket-holding fanbase who don’t turn up every week. Not only that, but Club Level, with a high number of corporate seat holders, has many seats unused at every game, and the 12-man executive boxes aren’t often very crowded. Club Level and the boxes aren’t a huge part of the stadium, but it all adds up. Arsenal have revealed that there are 600 season tickets that were used a maximum of once in the whole season.
Inevitably there will always be fans who had every intention of attending but were ill or held up at work or some other reason. Not thousands per game, but again it adds to the number not present.
In the old days, before every match was all ticket and when the proportion of season ticket holders was lower, the attendance figure really was the attendance figure (notwithstanding the people who bunked in free because they knew old Tommy on the gate). The turnstiles clicked, the numbers were counted, and about an hour after the match started they’d added everything up and could say how many were in. Nowadays they know well before kick-off how many tickets have been sold, and with computerised turnstiles they can tell within seconds (or at least should be able to) how many are inside the ground. So why do they wait till the second half to announce a ‘tickets sold’ figure they knew days before? Surely only to keep up the pretence that they really are counting everyone coming in on the day and giving out that figure. I don’t know why they insist on this, but I suspect for a number of reasons they just want to give the figure that looks better.
Partly I think it’s pure PR, bigging up the Arsenal and Premier League brands, partly it’s to take the edge off the anger of fans who couldn’t get tickets for big matches that have many empty seats, and partly it’s a justification for high prices and indeed price increases. Arsenal don’t want to own up to any of these, so I can only guess how much weight each has and whether there are other reasons I haven’t thought of. If they wanted to be more transparent they could always announce both the tickets sold and actual attendance figures. As it is they are happy to pretend 60,000 have turned up when they quite plainly haven’t.
When this was discussed on twitter there were some Arsenal fans who couldn’t believe that there were so many empty seats at certain ‘packed out’ games. My friend @GeoffArsenal tweeted a link to a video of the card display before last season’s Bayern match, to show how packed it was. I replied that I could see plenty of spaces, whereupon others tweeted that, oh yes, there were spaces then, before kick-off, but they all filled up later. Oh, okay then. So we’ll go with your guesses for every match rather than the actual counting, shall we? Nearly everyone believes that they themselves are a reliable witness, but court evidence shows that most people are incredibly bad at recalling things properly, not to mention hopeless at estimating the size of large groups of people or objects.
It’s always possible that in the case of an individual match that seemed to those present to be very full the wrong figure has been written down and given out – simple human error. It could happen. Maybe the figure of 53,147 for the Bayern game really should have been 58,147. It’s possible. But I am inclined to believe the figures. A few empty seats in every row soon adds up, and as I mentioned there are plenty of empties in Club Level at the best of times. In any case the figures obtained from the Met originated from Arsenal (proud owners since 2006 of several dozen computerised turnstiles). So why Arsenal only admit to the figures being ‘broadly accurate’ is a slight mystery – or it would be if I didn’t know how the Arsenal PR machine works these days.
Arsenal aren’t the only club in this situation – Man Utd also have a big stadium, sell out most matches and have a large chunk of fans not attending. The RedsAway blog ran a similar expose last year on Old Trafford. Funnily enough, the majority of the comments in response were along the lines of ‘That’s bull, there are never that many empty seats, the figures must be wrong, the Police must be lying’, until a couple of people injected some sanity. Obviously the people saying the figures are wrong have never done any counting, they just ‘know’. I’m not sure why the police forces of London and Greater Manchester would want to pretend there were fewer people at football matches than there actually were – surely if anything they’d want to go the other way to justify needing more officers? Pretending there are fewer people makes the lives of the Police present harder.
I was also informed that announcing tickets sold as attendance has long been the case in American sports, though why this is relevant is not clear to me. There are things in American sport (equal distribution of TV and other revenues, openness on salaries and transfer fees, for example) that we should adopt in the UK, but we don’t need to copy everything. The set-up of English football is different in many ways to most American sports.
What is the relevance of any of this, you may ask? Arsenal get the money from tickets sold anyway. Well the problem is that fans want to get in and see matches, and can’t. And it’s a football CLUB remember. The supporters are what give the club its purpose in the first place. Not only that, but it helps the team if the stadium is actually full rather than just pretending to be: better atmosphere, more backing for the team, more enjoyable for everyone. It’s a no-brainer.
I don’t want to over-dramatise this. It’s not in any sense a tragedy that people who’ve bought tickets don’t turn up, but it is something that can largely be sorted out to the benefit of the team and fans. So why not do it? I haven’t got time to put forward all the solutions, but Le Grove had a few yesterday and, and there are others on Gunners’ Town here.
The problem is Arsenal don’t feel the need to do much, given the number one concern of the owner is the income, which is not currently under threat. I suspect Stan Kroenke would much prefer selling TV subscriptions than having to put up with the inconvenience of running an operation that has to cater for large crowds turning up. (Yet another reason why a diverse shareholder base including fans is a better idea than a majority or sole shareholder.) It’s worth keeping the pressure on for positive change though, otherwise you can bet there’ll never be any.