LINK Sport’s man at the heart of Swindon Town, Sam Morshead, discusses the club’s relatively low attendance figures at present and why the Robins are struggling to attract more fans…
IN an online world built around trends, human beings are incredibly difficult creatures to predict, as Swindon Town are finding out to their cost this season.
Despite playing the best football this reporter has seen at the County Ground in almost 20 years of following the club, Town’s attendances are well below both the level the senior hierarchy in SN1 were perhaps expecting at the start of the campaign and the level the quality of performances deserve.
Swindon are playing in front of an average audience of 6,527 in all competitions this term and owner Lee Power lamented the absent “thousand” supporters in his programme notes ahead of the clash with Oldham Athletic on Tuesday night.
No wonder he’s publicly concerned. Taking a rough punt that each of those thousand fans contribute £20 each in ticket revenue, the club have already missed out on £100,000 – half the total fee which will be due to Tottenham for Jon Obika or one third of their annual investment in their thriving youth academy.
It’s a sizeable blow, though not quite seismic. Not yet, anyway.
Over the course of the season that funding “gap” could rise to around £500,000 – between a quarter and a fifth of the first team’s total annual budget.
Identifying the issue
So what is the root cause of the problem?
Well, speaking to fans through the medium of social media, where trending is king, there appear to be a multitude of factors behind the stay-away crowd. They range from expense to disenchantment, cost of travel to discontent with the style of play, though those who argue the latter must be stuck in a time warp somewhere around 1990s Selhurst Park.
Ticket prices are an obvious bone of contention with many – perhaps most importantly with those who are travelling from further afar than the SN postcode region.
At £25 or £27, side stand tickets for gold standard games are ludicrously high for third-tier football. That’s not to say they’re not wholly representative of the sport in general, with the lower leagues dragged along on a 24 carat gold leash by the Premier League and their opulent decadence, but they remain out of reach for many.
The trouble is, it’s increasingly difficult for football clubs to keep in touch with supporters. Football League regulations limit the number of one-off ticket offers that teams can advertise to around four per season, while the club has staff to pay and rising bills to process each month away from what we see at the County Ground on a Saturday.
The economic climate is harsh on a large chunk of the population, it’s a vicious cycle that’s spinning out of control and football, led as it is from the top by men with blinkered views on the fragile state of its lower levels, is suffering as much as everyone else – unless, of course, you’re bankrolled by Russian roubles or American dollars.
To give Town credit, an attempt was made to give fans the chance to spread payments on a season ticket out over a number of months earlier this year but, in this year of all years, that was fundamentally flawed because of two reasons.
Out of touch
Firstly, longstanding fans of the club became massively disillusioned with events at the County Ground over the course of the summer. The club they had piled their wages into for months on end, for years on end, was being sullied by rumour, counter-rumour, hearsay and legal jargon.
Football supporters do not invest themselves – emotionally and financially – in their team (that’s right, THEIR team) to be treated to a summer of discontent. How many pounds of season ticket revenue were lost with each passing adjournment between April and late June? How many fans simply fell out of love and, regardless of the incentive eventually offered when the drama reached its denouement, decided they didn’t want to come back?
I’d suggest that figure is relatively high and heightened by a lack of communication from the club, though that openness may have been limited by lawyers.
The buzz, however, disappeared from Swindon Town in the most abrupt fashion I can remember. There wasn’t the anger of the Mike Diamandis shenanigans, the moaning and groaning of constantly poor performances on the pitch or the fervour and excitement of play-off campaigns in 2004, 2010 and 2013. Everything just went mute.
That lends itself to apathy, which is hardly ideal when you’re looking to launch a marketing campaign, stirring into life the men and women whose hard-earned cash you require to fulfil a model of self-sustainability.
The media was no longer used as a tool of propaganda, mass marketing or public relations – press conferences became theatres of suspicion, information was encoded to fool even the most talented decryptors at Bletchley Park and the momentum which small clubs rely upon to motivate a community vanished.
Slowly Town are improving that. Their website is being readily updated with news, video and audio, thanks to the tireless work of press officer Tom Otrebski, and media gatherings are happy places once more. That will help in time – but it came from a standing start and only now is it starting to gather pace.
What must also be remembered is that a lot of Swindon supporters are not based in the town. The way Swindon evolved, post closure of the GWR, meant thousands of families with existing allegiances to other clubs moving into the region. Those families still follow those clubs – Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea et cetera – religiously today.
Other families are happy to lot children grow up on a televised diet of Sky Sports glamour and over-hype rather than introducing their kids to the not-so-appealing-but-ultimately-much-more-rewarding land of following their local club.
Attend a Football in the Community camp – and there are a remarkable number – and you’ll see great swathes of Premier League replica shirts and perhaps the odd hand me down ‘Kingswood 07’ number. It speaks for itself.
For those ex-pat Swindonians who before travelled to games at the County Ground, the expense of following the side is now too much. Astronomical and barely justifiable train and fuel prices limit their movements and Town, like all football clubs, have absolutely no say in that.
Supporting a club is not as simple as walking down to a ground and buying a ticket anymore and a trip to watch a match is not just about the 90 minutes – it’s about everything that encompasses it.
It’s what the money could have been otherwise spent on. It’s whether the fan feels wanted by the club enough to part with his money. It’s being sensible in an industry where sense has been discarded like the curdling milk at the back of the fridge.
The old phrase more money than sense might be an apt way of describing life in the Premier League but it’s completely the opposite in League One.
Mark Cooper told the local press today that the only way Town can retain the audience they want and require is by winning every game they play. That is probably true. If that ridiculous quest were ever to be achieved, Swindon Town would be a Champions League club with multi-million pound assets and a fanbase of many hundreds of thousands.
But it’s not going to happen, now, is it? And so my worry is – what next?