Jamie Casey breaks down recent attendance and admission figures for some of Yorkshire's biggest clubs.
The clock on the upper tier read 2.59pm - just one minute to kickoff. There was the usual strong stench of dodgy meat coming from the hot dog stand and the usual alcohol fuelled irritants a tier above. Outside the ground, ticket touts never even bothered showing up for their trade, but then this was no usual three o’clock kick-off.
I brought myself to look beyond the food stall and the minority of drunken mouthpieces, scanning my eyes across the appropriately named ‘Fantastic Media’ lower tier and the number of young fresh-faced Huddersfield Town fans was, well…fantastic.
It was April 2009 and Huddersfield Town had broken financial barriers by charging just £2 entrance to the Galpharm Stadium to see their Football League One clash with Carlisle United. Their motivation? To cement the next generation of Terriers’ fans before they become seduced by the glamour of the Premier League.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the legion of youngsters that watched the game that day won’t, in time, turn out like the yobs that sat above them, but they may well keep their recently promoted club flying high in the long-term.
In 2009, financial struggles within the UK was one of the main causes of falling attendance figures in football, and nowhere more so than in the north of England. With the exception of Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool, northern clubs at all levels were, and in some cases still are, finding it difficult to fill their stadiums.
Costs were being cut in every department of the average person, especially hobbies - and supporting your football team can be the most expensive hobby of all.
But it was the not-so glamorous clubs in the Football League – so dependant on the local working-class communities to attend their games – who set the tone in preparing for the future.
Bradford City initiated the trend. The club was the subject of acclaim in 2007 when they announced that season tickets for the following season would be available from as little as £100, working out at less than £4.50 per league game. The offer had increased attendances by 57.1% by the end of the 2007-08 season and breathed new life into the club following their slide down the ranks.
With an average figure of 13,659, Bradford had by far the highest attendance in League Two that season. And the move was such a success that Bantam fans were awarded a further price cut when it was announced that 2009-10 season tickets were available from £99.
Perhaps even more significant was the breakthrough effect Bradford’s success has had on other Yorkshire clubs. Huddersfield, whose average attendance in 2008 was down by 11.2% on the previous year, rocketed to an average of almost 13,400 in 2009 after their copycat impression of Bradford’s pricing strategy.
The club, prior to their equally impressive, aforementioned £2 admission, offered fans season ticket prices as low as £99 in summer 2008 in celebration of their centenary year.
“It almost doubled the season ticket sales to 16,200 compared to around 8,500 last season,” said Marcus Middleton, Chairman of the Huddersfield Town Supporters’ Association. “At that price it made sense for anyone to get a ticket, as they would only have to attend 5 of the 23 games to break even. It definitely reignited the passion in many Town fans.”
Despite their creditable price structure, Huddersfield Town did not produce on the pitch, with the team finishing mid-table at the end of a mediocre League One season. But the main concern about non-attendees was the possibility of losing the current generation of fans, and missing out on the next.
Another Yorkshire club who deserve recognition for trying to prevent the ‘armchair following’ is Barnsley. Poor form has inevitably led to disappointing attendances. But, galvanized by the success of the other regional clubs, Barnsley offered match day tickets to their vital relegation clash with Nottingham Forest for just £5 in 2008.
The general belief was that parents could not afford to take their children to games, and the kids in turn would develop support for the teams they see regularly on television in the glorified Premier League and Champions League.
This ‘armchair following’ is evident in any high street in the UK. Seeing children wearing Chelsea or Manchester United shirts in the centre of Leeds and Sheffield is unfortunately commonplace these days, but not so much in Bradford and Huddersfield, a result of their clever work in keeping the locals on side.
Bringing ‘the floating fan’ back has been a priority amongst the lesser Yorkshire clubs over the past few years, but while it’s unfeasible to run a football club with budget season ticket prices year upon year, it does appear that they have stabilised their attendances through regular promotions, as this season’s figures suggest.
After two month’s of the 2012-13 Championship season, Barnsley’s average attendance exceeds last year’s total by almost 10%, despite their poor form. Huddersfield, meanwhile, have naturally enjoyed a significant boost in attendance following promotion from to England’s second tier, the Championship.
If more clubs outside the top two tiers in other regions of the nation were willing to replicate such promotional offers, perhaps the influx of ‘armchair’ fans in the English game would not be so much of an issue.
Anyway, upon leaving the Galpharm stadium that day, where veteran Andy Booth’s late header sealed a home win, I was intrigued by the lure of that dodgy hot-dog stand. But for £3.50…it hardly represented good value for money. At just £2, this will surely be the least expensive game of professional football I will ever witness. Here’s hoping for more match days when admission is cheaper than the hotdogs, because for football clubs, capturing the next generation of football fans is priceless.