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The reason why there are empty seats for Arsenal league games

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

Pos Club Average Change Highest Lowest
1 Manchester United 74,498 -0.6% 74,556 74,400
2 Arsenal FC 59,899 +1.0% 60,030 59,493
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
6 Liverpool FC 52,983 -0.1% 53,373 50,965
7 Newcastle United FC 51,121 -1.7% 52,242 48,323
8 Chelsea FC 40,437 -2.0% 40,721 38,593

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
Average Pos Highest Lowest
2019 5 59.899 2 60.030 59.493
2018 6 59.323 3 59.547 58.420
2017 5 59.957 2 60.055 59.510
2016 2 59.944 2 60.084 59.257
2015 3 59.992 2 60.081 59.900
2014 4 60.013 2 60.071 59.937
2013 4 60.079 2 60.112 59.872
2012 3 60.000 2 60.111 59.643
2011 4 60.025 2 60.112 59.552
2010 3 59.927 2 60.103 59.084
2009 4 60.040 2 60.109 59.317
2008 3 60.070 2 60.161 59.442
2007 4 60.045 2 60.132 59.912
2006 4 38.184 6 38.359 37.867
2005 2 37.979 6 38.164 37.010
2004 Champions 38.079 7 38.419 37.677
2003 2 38.042 8 38.164 37.878
2002 Champions 38.044 7 38.254 37.709
2001 2 37.975 6 38.146 37.318
2000 2 38.033 5 38.147 37.271
1999 2 38.019 4 38.308 37.323
1998 Champions 38.053 3 38.269 37.324
1997 3 37.821 3 38.264 33.461
1996 5 37.568 3 38.323 34.519
1995 12 35.377 2 39.377 27.213
1994 4 30.492 5 36.203 21.292
1993 10 24.403 9 29.739 18.253
1992 4 31.901 3 42.074 22.096
1991 Champions 37.012 2 42.512 25.538
1990 4 33.672 3 46.132 23.732
1989 Champions 35.593 3 45.129 28.449
1988 6 29.903 3 54.703 16.963
1987 4 29.056 4 47.777 17.353
1986 7 23.813 5 45.109 14.843
1985 7 31.211 4 50.006 18.365
1984 6 28.117 5 48.831 18.612
1983 10 24.153 6 51.497 16.810
1982 5 25.590 7 48.897 13.738
1981 3 32.480 5 57.472 17.431
1980 4 33.578 4 55.546 18.869
1979 7 36.371 3 53.896 24.288
1978 5 35.446 6 47.110 23.506
1977 8 32.663 7 47.432 19.517
1976 17 26.945 13 42.031 14.477
1975 16 28.315 11 43.762 16.540
1974 10 30.212 8 50.699 13.482
1973 2 40.246 3 56.194 27.199
1972 5 40.500 3 52.102 27.172
1971 Champions 43.776 3 62.056 32.073
1970 12 35.758 8 59.489 21.165
1969 4 38.423 4 62.300 23.891

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.

7 comments to The reason why there are empty seats for Arsenal league games

  • Dublin Gooner

    Unused season tickets are inevitable for the reasons you give. It might lessen the impact if it were easier for a season ticket holder to sell/loan/gift the use of his season ticket. (The advent of season ticket cards instead of paper sheets has made this more difficult, as season ticket holders are naturally reluctant to part with their card.)
    As to what is Arsenal’s ‘hard core’ fan base, that is an interesting question. 35k might be overestimating it. I believe when Chelsea were last in the second tier, attendance routinely dropped to around 12k (which of course included away fans). Fair weather supporters will always fall away when a team goes into decline, albeit temporary, or for matches when there is nothing at stake. A quirk to this rule is that a club doing well in a lower division (fighting for promotion) will often attract higher crowds than the same club doing average or poorly in a higher division. At least this seems to be true of the clubs who yo yo between 3rd and 4th tier football.
    Back to Arsenal. Alan Hansen, bless him, was fond of saying that Arsenal were the only team he would pay to watch. That Arsenal have been a good watch throughout the trophy-less years is probably one reason many fair weather fans have continued to want to go to matches. We have yet to see whether Emery will deliver exciting and entertaining football. If he doesn’t do that (nor deliver trophies), the fair weather (or rationally minded) supporters will fall away, and who could blame them.

  • Les Martin

    Is it true Arsenal had the largest capacity stadium in England from 1936 up to 1987 ?

  • Casmir

    I’m sorry but you &I know there has never been a debate about number of tickets sold. So I don’t understand the point of the article. The debate has always been about attendance at matches. If we don’t have the figures for that, then no need to write an article pretending to address the issue

  • omgarsenal

    Read the article Casmir and maybe you’ll notice that Tony addressed your whine in paragraph’s 6 & 7. Maybe YOU can find the actual attendance figures for all EPL clubs over the last 10 years…….good luck!

  • Minesy

    The thing is I have work and social commitments in my diary running through to October next year. Even with a fixture list for the coming season up to May, I have absolutely no idea when those games will actually be played because of both TV changes and how we and other clubs progress in the cup competitions !!! I’m old enough to remember when I knew that every second Saturday at 3 pm would be an Arsenal match – in fact my father and I used to alternate with Leyton Orient games. I do have other things in my life besides Arsenal … plus unlike those days, EVERY game is filmed and shown live or put on the internet … so I will inevitably miss more than I did back in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

    As far as the ticket exchange goes, I do put mine for sale if friends or family aren’t going to take the ticket, but whatever anyone says, they don’t always sell, especially for the less glamourous games. I have never bought, only sold, is there an issue ? Some games, they sell in minutes, others they just don’t !!!

  • Casmir

    @OMG maybe if you read my comment you’ll notice that I addressed your whine in my last sentence when I said if we can’t find the data for the actual attendance, what’s the point of the article?

  • Menace

    Casmir – one cannot put a bum on a sold seat. So accept the figures as sold seats if not people present. It is so easy to criticise success, even easier to make an issue out of it.

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