Monday, 14 August 2017

2017-18 - A New English Attendance Record?
By the end of this season the average attendance for the top flight in England will be the second or third highest in its 130-years history. It will be a new record high in the Premier League era.

That’s a pretty bald statement that will leave me looking foolish if it doesn’t happen. But it will. I doubt it will be the best. It won’t be fourth or lower. It will be either second or third. Bank on it. Guaranteed. 100%. Well, almost…………

How can I make this claim so confidently?  Let’s look at the targets first. The highest average ever recorded was 38,776 in 1948-49 with 37,400 the following season next best. Third highest came as recently as 2013-14 when the Premier League averaged 36,660.

Last season the average was 35,822 and the make-up of the division and stadia capacities ensures the figure will be higher this season.

As I say in my book' CROWDED HOUSES' - the English Premier League now fills well over 95% of available seats each and every match day. Only two avenues lie open to it with regard to increasing attendances. One is greater capacity through stadium modernisation or new build, and the other is dependent on promoted teams drawing bigger gates than the clubs they replace.

That’s why there has been very little rise or fall in the average in recent times. In the past fifteen seasons the lowest average has been 34,151 – in 2010-11 – just 2,509 below the highest. This consistency can be further demonstrated by comparing levels with those of the immediate post-war boom. Although the highs back then have still to be equalled the frequency of big crowds has been easily surpassed. Top flight gates averaged over 30,000 for the first ten post-war seasons. After dropping below that mark in 1956-57 they recovered to hit 30,000+ for the next three seasons.  They didn’t reach that level again until England’s World Cup win in 1966 sparked off another boom, with attendances averaging 30,000 or more for seven consecutive seasons from 1966-1973. From then until 1998 the 30,000 mark remained out of reach – often considerably so.

My recently published history of European football attendances - click to enlarge

By the end of 1997-98, league football had been played in England for 110 years. Excluding wartime that was 99 seasons. In just twenty of them the top division average hit 30,000 or better.

2017-18 will see that number doubled. This will be the twentieth season in succession that average gates have been over 30,000.

That is a stark indication of how long the Premier League has been ‘booming’ and how well it compares with what has gone before. There is one caveat and that is current seasons consist of 380 games played by twenty clubs. For much of the 20th century it was 462 matches and twenty-two clubs. The greater the number of both games and clubs the more difficult it becomes to achieve a high average as – usually, though not always – the ‘extra’ clubs are not among the best supported.

But let’s return to 2017-18 and see what’s in store in the coming months.  Why am I so sure my prediction is accurate? Accepting that most clubs will draw around the same as last season (which given capacity occupancy it’s reasonable to do) it’s necessary to compare promoted and relegated clubs. Sunderland were best supported of those going down with an average of 41,787. Middlesbrough drew 30,449 and Hull City 20,761. Promoted Brighton were watched by an average of 27,996 and that’s not going to fall in the big league. True, there’s little room for expansion. Their ground holds a little less than 31,000. But it’s a fair bet that their average will be in the same territory as Middlesbrough’s.  Huddersfield Town, with an average of 20,343 and a stadium that holds almost 25,000 are in much the same boat and their Premier League average will be pretty close to Hull City’s.

It’s the North-East that will provide the first big boost to gates. Newcastle United averaged 51,106 winning promotion, just over 1,000 below capacity. Again, there’s little room to expand but, crucially, they drew almost 10,000 more per match than Sunderland. Over a season that’s 190,000 more spectators and by itself would add 500 to the average crowd for the division. Even if the three promoted sides did no more than replicate their Championship figures they would still add over 300 to the average Premier League crowd.

And that’s the worst case scenario.

So the difference between promoted and relegated sides means the average would lie somewhere between 300-500 below the 2013-14 figure.

There’s precious little to be added via stadium expansion this season so even with the increase Newcastle will bring, that third place still looks out of sight. Here’s where capacity comes into play for, as the song says, Spurs are on their way to Wembley. Restrictions at White Hart Lane in 2016-17 meant Tottenham averaged just 31,639. For their Wembley season they have made 40,000 season tickets available (this number has been capped so as to ensure all season book holders will be able to guarantee a seat at the new White Hart Lane) and they have sold all 40,000.

Before a single person other than a season ticket holder walks into Wembley this season that’s almost 160,000 more over the course of the campaign. That adds in excess of a further 400 to the division’s average.

That now takes us – in the worst case scenario – to around 100 below the 2013-14 third highest ever.

We haven’t yet even considered away supporters at Spurs home games. To make up that 100 overall ‘shortfall’ away fans need to average 2,000 at Spurs matches. An average of anything over 42,000 at Tottenham home games would mean 2013-14’s third highest ever would be surpassed.

That’s predicated on promoted teams doing no better than last season and the rest of the division drawing the same as before. Without making a prediction as to what Tottenham’s actual average is going to be (they haven’t played a single match there at the time of writing), it’s a safe bet that it will be significantly in excess of 42,000 and would easily accommodate any surprise drop elsewhere.

That 2017-18 will exceed 2013-14 is  - as I hope I have demonstrated – not in any doubt.

Spurs are on their way to Wembley - click to enlarge

What about second place? Is that achievable? Undoubtedly yes? Will it happen? I think so but there’s no guarantee. To match the 1949-50 figure of 37,400 there needs to be an increase in Premier League crowds of 600,000. Again, taking a worse case scenario with regard to the promoted clubs they will still add 120,000 to last season’s total.  That leaves a difference of 480,000 for Spurs to make up, all else being equal. An average of 57,000 would do it. If there was a fall elsewhere, an average of 60,000 should compensate and 65,000 would do it for certain.

Will Spurs draw those sorts of numbers to Wembley? Not just once or twice for showpiece games but match after match?

In their favour is the example of West Ham United. A club that had never averaged 35,000 in their history drew a shade under 57,000 after moving to the Olympic Stadium. No disrespect intended to the Hammers but Spurs have a much greater history of large crowds and have averaged over 50,000 several times in the past.  In four UEFA games at Wembley last season, two were over 85,000, a third hit 80,000 and the lowest of all still drew 62,000.

Factor in the larger number of tickets available for other London clubs visiting – Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham and Palace will all bring substantial numbers of supporters – and the sheer novelty of seeing their team play at Wembley for fans of many clubs elsewhere in the country and it’s easy to see Tottenham drawing an average in excess of every club in the league bar Man Utd.

But it must remain open to question. Just being in Europe allied to undoubtedly greater live TV coverage casts some doubt on their chances as few matches will be played on Saturdays at 3pm and many fans will face long journeys for evening or noon kick-offs on dates yet to be announced.

Attendances at the first three or four Wembley matches should provide the answer. My feeling is that the attractions of Wembley as a league venue will outweigh the difficulties involved and the 37,400 mark will be breached. But whereas I am 100% certain 2013-14 will be surpassed I’d reduce that to around 65% for overcoming 1949-50.

That leaves just one more target – that all-time record average of 38,776 in 1948-49. Can it be beaten? Could it happen this season? My answers are yes and possible but highly unlikely respectively.

To take the second part first. To breach the all-time record requires in excess of well over a million more spectators this season than last. Allowing this time for the best case scenario of the promoted clubs adding 200,000 to the total it leaves over 900,000 more to watch Spurs – if numbers are static elsewhere. To put it in stark terms Spurs need to draw over 150% more in 2017-18 than they did in 2016-17.  It would take an average of around 78,000 for the record to have any chance of being threatened. That’s higher than any English club has ever achieved in 130 years of league football. Yet it is only slightly more than Man Utd draw week in week out and is a figure they would surely beat had they the capacity to do so. So it is undoubtedly possible. Looking at the average scenario of the promoted teams adding ‘only’ 150,000 in total it becomes much harder. It means Spurs would have to draw almost one million more on their own – or an average close to 83,000.

That’s more than watch the best supported club in the world – Borussia Dortmund – and to my thinking at least is a step too far.

The record CAN be beaten though. Of that I am certain. It needs the ‘right’ promotions and relegations to do it. Let’s take the 150,000 I’m sure the promoted teams will add this season. Then allocate Spurs the same numbers as Arsenal currently draw when their new stadium is complete. That would leave just under 450,000 more spectators to be added to create a new record. Aston Villa being promoted and Bournemouth relegated would match that figure almost exactly, based on Villa’s previous attendances in the Premier League.

If you want to guarantee it then have Liverpool or Everton move into a larger stadium. Or see Sunderland come back up with Villa while Burnley or Swansea join Bournemouth at the bottom. For added security relegate both of those clubs along with Bournemouth and promote any one of a dozen other Championship sides capable of drawing 25,000 or more in the Premier League.

In short, a record which has stood for almost seventy years and which has long been regarded as set in perpetuity can be broken. All it needs is the relegation of a couple of clubs with the smallest support at the same time as the promotion of two – possibly just one – clubs with a big following.  It may not even need that.  Theoretically it could even happen this season – but that would mean Spurs leaping not just from the middle of the English rankings to the top but to become the best supported team in the world. I doubt it will happen this term.
Bournemouth’s Dean Court – by far the smallest Premier League ground - click to enlarge

I was going to leave it there but I think I should clarify what I referred to earlier regarding the difference in club numbers and matches played in the 1940s as opposed to now. In ‘CROWDED HOUSES’ I compared the 2013-14 figure with the previous third best of 36,217 in 1947-48. To equalise matters I deducted the attendance figures both home and away of the two relegated sides in that season so as to compare like with like. That led to the 1947-48 figure rising by just over 2,000 per game. To genuinely top the existing record would require at least a further 750,000 spectators over the season. The law of diminishing returns regarding promoted and relegated sides makes this highly unlikely. The chances of having a sufficiently high number of clubs with the largest grounds being in the Premier League at the same time are remote. In 2017-18 nine of the twenty largest grounds in England belong to clubs not currently in the Premier League.

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