The price isn’t right — recession and the Football League

The start of a new season. Optimism across the Football League is high, at least for a few games, for any club. Crowds flock back after the summer break and pack stadiums out… don’t they?

Coventry City appear on our television screens last Saturday facing Derby County. Both teams have enjoyed decent starts to the league campaign and it should appeal. It should do.

The Ricoh Arena is, literally, half-empty. On Sunday, Middlesborough beat Sheffield United in front of only 14,633 – a record low attendance for league games at the Riverside Stadium.

Now, even accepting that three weeks into a new season the games so far represent a very small sample size and this could be a blip and not a trend, what is going on?

Just the bare statistics tell the story for the Championship. Of the twenty-four clubs, only five have achieved attendances over 80% of ground capacity so far this season and 14 of the 24 haven’t reached 70% of capacity.

The trend is even more marked in League One, with no ground more than 75% full and more than half of clubs operating on attendances at less than half capacity. In League Two, no club has seen a ground more than 67% full.

Here are some possible factors:

1. World Cup Hangover

England disappointed, expectations were high and were not met. Furthermore, they were not met in a style that was commonly seen to reflect badly on the English game, its coaches, players and playing style. This consequently counter-acted the usual media hype surrounding the start of the new season for the jaded fan.

Investigating this, looking at Premiership attendances so far this season tells a different story to that of the Championship. All bar four teams have attracted attendances over 80% of ground capacity and eleven have seen virtual sell-outs. No sign of a hangover there then. So we move on…

2. Recession

After witnessing the swathes of empty seats at the Riverside, Middlesbrough boss Gordon Strachan said:

“The recession is hitting now. It’s only footballers that seem to have money. I think, in a place like ours where unemployment is huge, you’re not going to get people turning up to a game that’s on the television. I’ve seen games all over the country this weekend and there have been lots of spaces around the grounds.”

This intuitive view can, in fact, be backed up by Official Government statistics which show that, as of mid-August, annual RPI inflation was running at 4.8% while headline pay rates are rising at 1.6% year on year, a fall from 2% increases previously. In effect, the disposable income of the employed football supporter as a whole is being squeezed.

So, moving on from that we come to:

3. Ticket Prices

Taking the example of Middlesbrough, the cheapest Category B adult match tickets are £23 each, with concessions priced at £13. Look elsewhere across the division and prices of £30 per ticket are commonplace and, in isolated instances, Category A games at places like Loftus Road can reach in excess of £40.

A family group consisting of a couple of adults plus children is looking at £90-100 per game purely on tickets before even taking into account travel, food, a programme and other spending on a typical trip.

In this economic environment, the early signs are that these costs are pricing some fans out of the attendance market, especially if the game is live on television. Of course, with BBC and Sky deals in place, most weekends you can find two Football League games live on the television.

In my opinion, Football League club marketing messages of “freezing ticket prices” from last season to the current campaign are insufficient. Early signs would suggest so, anyway.

The economic squeeze suggests that half empty Football League grounds are a sign of things to come for the remainder of the season.

Written by: Rich Prew

The Seventy Two
The Seventy Two published an outstanding series of articles about the Football League between 2010-12 and was the brainchild of Leicester City fan, David Bevan. As well as collaborating with The Two Unfortunates on the Football League Blog Network and a mammoth 2011-12 season preview, the site featured a host of leading bloggers and David was rewarded with a nomination in the 2011 Football Supporters’ Federation awards. Latterly, he was joined as co-editor by Joe Harrison and TTU is happy to present this archive of the site’s output.


  1. tcscott
    August 23, 2010

    This is a MASSIVE worry for the football League attendances looked good last year but this could finally be the year that fans start to “quite corrrectly as well) snub the prices set by some clubs and pick and choose games far more carefully.

    SKY has been slowly killing attendances for a while now but as you say its certainly early days

  2. Martin Kershaw
    August 24, 2010

    I think the point about a disappointing World Cup is a good one, for fans of the 72 clubs outside the Premiership, it is, in my opinion, now even harder to relate the “overpaid primadonnas” (copywright The Tabloids) that represented England in South Africa. A half decent campaign may have been enough to shore up attendences for perhaps another season but it wasn’t to be.

  3. Lanterne Rouge
    August 24, 2010

    At a loss on this one. I am in the US at the moment so cannot go to matches until Christmas, but had been contemplating not renewing my sesaon ticket anyway. I think some clubs’ inactivity in the transfer market does lead to ennui – if your pre-season acquisitions are Marcus Williams and Andy Griffin on a free, then it’s hard to get too excited.

    Other factors would include the cost of getting to matches – Network Rail continues to provide shabby service at high prices and have put their prices up despite recession. Weird kick off times are also key – that Boro game started early if I’m not mistaken and the first rule of watching football in this country is “thou shalt not travel huge distances on a Sunday”

    • The 72
      August 24, 2010

      It certainly did start early, just after lunchtime. Boro have struggled with attendances for quite some time now though, even in the Premier League.

      I think league clubs will have to get back to basics, attempting to provide entertaining football for lower prices. The current vogue for pragmatic formations and flooding the midfield doesn’t help.

      The problem being that, if you spend outside your means – which lots of clubs have been doing for a long time – the warning signs are now there for all to see (Portsmouth etc). So clubs are being more careful, which is less interesting for supporters in terms of visible ambition.

      There appears, on the surface, to be increasing disillusion over the direction in which football is headed but this might be largely down to the immediacy of popular opinion these days.

  4. Matt W
    August 24, 2010

    This has popped up quite a lot on Norwich forums lately, as our attendances for the first 2 games of the season are down on what we had throughout our League One campaign – but only just. A capacity of about 27k is filling about 24.5k for the first game and 23.5k for the second (I’m pulling these figures from memory). This is after our board made a bit of a song and dance about installing a thousand extra seats this summer to cope with demand for tickets (we have over 20k season ticket holders and a lot of casuals). The fact that the first couple of games have seen a drop has alarmed a lot of fans.

    Coming up with a reason for it is tough, as your blog points out. The summer holidays, prices, the lack of momentum – they all come into it. If Norwich start winning games and riding high, the fans will come back. If not, then the prospect of shelling out £31 to see Hull isn’t that attractive. But it isn’t club specific, as a lot of our fans think – football is pricing itself out of many peoples priorities, and unless there is a feelgood factor around the club, 80% attendance may be a thing to aim for – while trying to cover shortfall in other areas.

  5. Karl
    August 24, 2010

    I would consider myself a loyal fan of the Championship club I support and have previously been a season ticket holder for a number of seasons. Yet about 2/3 seasons ago I made a conscious decision to stop feeding the professional football gravy train. In that time I’ve maybe gone to about 10 or 12 games and then only if there’s been a cheap ticket offer on. I simply cannot justify to myself the cost of going to watch football week in week out. Especially when footballers are getting paid mind-boggling amounts of money for serving up a ‘product’ (as the marketing-men in charge of football like to call it) that most of the time is, well, dull.

    You look at the transfers amongst the Championship clubs and it’s mainly the same players getting passed from club to club. They’re all on the Championship-go-round. Mediocrity as standard and quite frankly when they’re getting paid thousands-upon-thousands of pounds every week I expect something more than mediocrity for the extortionate prices charged on the turnstiles, in the club shop or at the pie counter. Every step of the way you just feel like you’re being squeezed for your very last penny and I’m sick of it.


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