By Tony Attwood
It was quite a scandal, although not surprisingly, the media didn’t want to know. Newspaper web sites publishing pictures of a more than half empty Arsenal stadium and then sneering at the official attendance figures.
The media tended to back off after we revealed that the prime picture used to illustrate an “empty Emirates” was from a pre-season Emirates cup match in which Arsenal were not playing.
Anyway, to keep the story running someone at the BBC then had the bright idea of using up scarce public resources on this topic and so sent a Freedom of Information request to local authorities and police forces.
Public bodies in the UK are obliged under the Freedom of Information Act to respond to requests for information within 20 days. However the Act gives no punishment for those that don’t and many public bodies (such as schools) simply ignore the Act, and there’s nothing much that can be done.
But one might suspect that in a time of constant national crisis over police numbers, the BBC might have thought twice about asking them to spend time on this, but they did and eight public bodies did reply.
And yes some of the findings were interesting, but not that unexpected. Newham Council (in whose area the Taxpayers’ Stadium of West Ham is situated say the average attendance at West Ham was 42,779 whereas the official figure is 55,309.
Manchester City had average figures of 7,482 lower than club figures, and so on. Only one club – Manchester United had club figures which matched council figures.
The BBC then compared the percentage of tickets sold, and the numbers obtained under the Freedom of Information request, and looked at the difference.
So with West Ham the club said they were operating at 97% of capacity, the Freedom of Information request reported 75% capacity – a difference of 22%. Watford had the second largest difference at 15%. Could West Ham be making up their figures? Well, surely not with such eminent people at the helm.
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The point here is that in order to make proper safety provisions, all clubs are required to know how many people actually attend each game, but they have no legal obligation to release this information, so really we are no wiser than we were before.
Arsenal report an average of 57,054 tickets sold per game at Arsenal Stadium out of the 59,867 capacity last season. Arsenal Supporters’ Trust said the actual average attendance was about 46,000.
The problem here of course is that while we know how Arsenal got its figure (they added up all gold, silver and red tickets sold) we have no idea at all how on earth AST got their figure. But of course the AST figure has been given a lot of publicity, and sadly it seems no one thought to ask them where the figures came from. Or indeed if it really matters.
Some have said that having lower attendance figures can affect sponsorship, but most sponsorship money comes from TV companies, and is agreed long before the season starts (often several years before the season starts in fact). And when it comes down to it, the number of people in the ground is affected much more by the number of games played than any variation in the number of people actually turning up.
So a good cup run or two will push total numbers watching the club right up, and this is what Arsenal has achieved. Consider the last five years in terms of cup competitions
- 2013/14 FA Cup won, Champions League round of 16
- 2014/15 FA Cup won, Champions League round of 16
- 2015/16 FA Cup quarter finals, Champions League round of 16
- 2016/17 FA Cup won, Champions League round of 16
- 2017/18 League Cup finalists, Europa League semi-finalists
The additional income and media attention generated by the club through the FA Cup, European games and in one case journey to the League Cup final, was a much greater factor in Arsenal’s financial well being than any issue of seats being unsold. And it greatly increased the chances for people to see the club – chances which many chose not to take up. The attendance figures at League Cup games – even at the semi-final, was very modest.
Indeed the argument about unsold seats being important is so fragile that it looks very much like a case of moaning for the sake of moaning. That in itself is of course not a topic that the media will ever look at (because it is what they do) but Untold is pulling together some information on this which we hope to publish soon. I think it is quite fascinating – but then I always find this stuff about human behaviour interesting.
But we all know that those of us with season tickets will miss games for various reasons. For me, living 86 miles from the ground, it can be anything from the weather (not just before the game but also considering what conditions might be like at 11pm as I set out back from London to the Midlands after a midweek game), to the fact that for all sorts of reasons I take the two holidays I get a year during the season, not during the summer break. That’s my choice of course, but I suspect I am not the only person who does it.
Also anyone who has a life beyond their season ticket can get caught out by rescheduling of games by the wretched TV companies, the incompetence of the inept railway companies, and by the simple fact that sometimes important family matters cannot be arranged according to the whim of those running football.
What will be interesting will be whether the new TV deals with the increased number of games, starting in 2019/20 will affect the numbers going. It is possible – none of us knows as yet.
But there is another issue here. I can’t think of any event open to the public which gets 100% occupancy. Yes, the Bob Dylan concerts I go to can get quite full, but that is because each one is sold individually. When a tour comes up in England I buy a ticket if I am free at that time, and thus only illness or other major problem will affect my attendance. But with a season ticket I buy 26 games before the season starts, knowing always that I will be missing a few.
And there is also the factor of the reliability of some of these figures shown above. In five (yes, actually five) cases the number of people attending a Tottenham game at Wembley was, according to Brent Council, larger than the number of tickets that Tottenham declared they had sold. I wonder if Inland Revenue knows about this.
Arsenal sold 60,000 tickets through the Ticket Exchange system last season, and from what I can gather a number of clubs have looked at Arsenal’s system and consider it to be a system that works rather well. On the other hand Paul Turner of the West Ham United Independent Supporters’ Association, is reported as saying that WHU attendance figures are “fake news” and a “face-saving operation” by the owners ahead of their attempt to increase the capacity at the stadium London tax payers are still paying for.
What is perhaps particularly interesting in all this is that during the time Mr Wenger was at Arsenal, Untold regularly received commentaries from anti-Wengerians claiming that people were giving up their season tickets, and that tickets were available to anyone who wanted them. It seems that story was maybe not quite 100% accurate.
But still, there is always something to complain about. Although for anyone interested, I am sure there will be plenty of spare tickets for the League Cup game against Brentford. And probably quite a few for the Europa too.
The latest post from our series on Henry Norris at the Arsenal
And today’s anniversaries