By Tony Attwood
There is an argument that says that Arsenal should fill up their stadium for every game of the season, and because there are empty seats around that shows that the club is failing and the owner and management are to blame.
In fact in terms of seats that are the argument is utterly flawed, in that the highest average attendance Arsenal have ever had for league games at home was 2012/13 with 60,079. A time when fans were very critical indeed of Arsenal and their manager (it was indeed to era of “4th is not a trophy”.
It was in fact an odd season for the record attendance to be achieved – for this was the eighth season in a row in which Arsenal came third or fourth in the league. That run ended after ten years in 2015-16 when we were runners-up. It was also the season after Robin van Persie forced himself out of the club having been the league’s top scorer with 37 goals in his last season with us.
So have the seat sales at Arsenal declined so dramatically since those heady days?
In fact they haven’t. The average last season was 59,899 – a decline of 180 seat sales per match on average across the whole season in comparison with record breaking 2012/13.
Of course not everyone who has bought a seat for a game turns up, but short of Arsenal installing Draconian measures to penalise supporters who do not turn up for a match, I am not too sure what can be done. All the figures here are “seats sold”. And indeed as far as I know, no club presents figures of actual numbers who click through the turnstiles.
(Incidentally, dealing with people who don’t show up is a fraught issue. What do you say to season ticket holders who are taken ill, who have a loved one taken ill, who get stuck on the M1 for hours, who find their train cancelled, who see the fog or ice or snow closing in and decide not to risk the journey? I speak as one whose round trip to each home game is 190 miles, so I know the difficulties.)
Here are the figures for tickets sold for last season from the largest grounds in the Premier League
|3||West Ham United FC||58,336||+2.6%||59,988||56,811|
|4||Tottenham Hotspur FC||54,216||-20.2%||81,332||29,164|
|5||Manchester City FC||54,130||+0.1%||54,511||53,307|
|7||Newcastle United FC||51,121||-1.7%||52,242||48,323|
In passing we may note the dramatic drop in Tottenham’s figures – down 20% from the previous year. You may recall that in 2018/19 Tottenham were supposed to be New White Hart Lane (Newhal for short) having spent the previous season at Wembley. In fact a slight hitch with the electrics, or the seats, or the plumbing or the sub-contractors or an invasion of ants or something at Newhal itself meant they suffered a few delays and continued to play at Wembley for much of the season. One can only assume that the supporters didn’t like Wembley too much. We’ll see if they like next season better.
The only other teams that had major changes in their attendances were as we might expect. Fulham went up by 22%, Cardiff by 55.8% and Wolverhampton by 9.7%. In all 10 clubs saw a growth in ticket sales and 10 a decline.
Only four clubs had a higher growth in number of tickets sold for league matches than Arsenal last season. Leaving aside the three large jumps noted above, West Ham grew their ticket sales by 2.6% and Crystal Palace by 1.6%. Arsenal’s 1% growth came next, making Arsenal sixth in the list of growth rates. Not bad for a club seen by some as being in terminal decline.
No club got close to Tottenham in terms of a drop in ticket sales. The second worst performers were Huddersfield down 3.5% which is not surprising given the season they had. Then came Southampton, down 2.1% and Chelsea, down 2.0%, perhaps a reflection on the dismay felt at the seeming cancellation of the new stadium project after the owner got refused his work visa.
In fact history shows us that Arsenal supporters will fill the stadium to overflowing towards the end of a season if the team is challenging for a trophy, but crowds will sink very quickly at other times. The club does have support across the world, but it has never had a support that will guarantee 60,000 plus a game.
Indeed if we look back through history we can see that for a lot of the time Arsenal have attracted much lower crowds than they get at the moment.
From 1998 to 2006 Highbury was full with its circa 38,000 capacity and Mr Wenger’s successful team. But it is worth remembering that when Highbury went all seater, its reduced capacity of 38,000 was in fact felt to be ok because it was ABOVE the average attendance for each of the previous 19 years. The last time before the move to the all-seater Highbury that Arsenal had a larger average attendance was 1972/3.
In other words, for 19 years running, Arsenal had a stadium that could hold around 60,000 but each and every year had an average attendance of under 38,000.
What this tells us is that there is, historically, no natural demand for tickets at Arsenal much beyond 35,000, and what has kept the sales at anywhere near 60,000 is the success of the team in being in the top four for so many years in succession. Arsenal is a club that can get 60,000+ when it is successful on the pitch – but history shows absolutely clearly that when the club is not successful, the fan base drifts away.
In fact for 12 of the 13 years since the new Arsenal Stadium opened Arsenal have had the second highest attendance figure for Premier League matches. In 2017/18 Tottenham overtook Arsenal because of their playing of games at Wembley. Here is the table, which is a simplified version of the data that appears on the European Football Statistics site. The full set of details for these figures is here.
|Year||Position in league||Attendance|
So to put it simply, yes Arsenal could attract crowds of 60,000 plus on occasions, but between 1969 and moving to the Emirates, Arsenal only managed that in two seasons – 1969 and 1971. Since being at the new stadium the club has been selling more tickets per game than it has ever done before by a long way. The only time the average attendance approached current levels in the past was 1948 when the return of conscripts from the war took the average attendance up to 54,982.
It is not impossible that the incredible growth in attendances since the move to the new stadium has brought in people who have never gone to every match and who, in buying their season ticket, expect only to attend some times.
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