As I’ve mentioned in this writing space before, this season has been my first as a Championship football fan for over a decade, and thanks to some pretty dire results at the Riverside this season, that doesn’t look like changing for Middlesborough in the foreseeable future. To be honest, another season in the second-tier doesn’t really fill me with a great deal of dread; I’d go if they were in the Premier League, I’d go if they were Sunday League – it’s just what you do, isn’t it? If you’re a real fan, that is.
That’s how I used to feel, anyway. But a few things I’ve seen and read this season have made me think my aim was a bit off, maybe not in theory, but in practice at least. First game of the season, a dreary Friday night fixture against Sheffield United. As I sat and drifted in and out of an incident-free 0-0 draw, I surveyed the sea of empty red seats below me, as the stadium announcer proclaimed that the crowd was 11,500 below capacity. “Disgraceful”, I thought to myself, “opening day and two-thirds full, learning who the fair-weather fans are now, eh?” Every time I saw the highlights, at what still feels like four in the morning each Saturday, I’d wince with embarrassment at the ever-diminishing crowds, 22,000 one week, 17,000 the next (Incidentally, I also came to realise the hypocrisy of a so-called ‘proper fan’ only ever watching his team on late-night highlights packages from a student house in the East Midlands). Detached from my hometown, I just assumed that dropping out of the top-tier had simply driven the part-timers away. But then, at my first game back for the Christmas holidays, I genuinely felt ashamed of myself. The game didn’t light any fireworks (we lost 1-0 to Cardiff, if you’re really interested), but before the game, as a show of solidarity, the club had sanctioned a protest by the campaign group ‘Save Our Steel’ against the proposed closure of the Corus steelworks at Redcar, and the resulting 1,700 redundancies. I looked at the price on my ticket. ‘£32.00’, it said back to me. I looked at my season-ticket holding mate, “£420”, he said sombrely. All of a sudden, 11,500 empty seats meant something very different.
I’m not trying to bore you with the trials and tribulations of my team, but I think that the current relationship between the town and its football side highlights a growing problem in the modern game. In the calendar year between October 2008 and October 2009 unemployment levels in the Teesside area rose from 16,243 to 22,449, pushing the average salary of the town down to just £18,700 a year. Whichever way you cut it, when your annual wage is £7,000 below the national average, it’s hard to see where football can fit into this tight budget. Now, I’m not an economist, but I do struggle to see the cost-effectiveness of keeping Premier League prices at a Championship club, particularly one whose tiny fan base is being fed balls-first through the financial mill.
And that, I believe, cuts to the heart of one of the major issues. Which clubs have been slated for low attendances? Bolton, Middlesbrough, Wigan, Macclesfield, Chester. See a pattern anywhere? Small, industrial, working-class towns in the north of England, where the redundancies that we watch from our cosy middle-class living rooms are actually happening, are actually real. Britain could go bankrupt and Man United and Liverpool would still find 50,000 ‘fans’ from Surrey to bus-into their lavish arenas. Some clubs have a billion fans across the world to pick from, we don’t.
The clubs themselves, however, are by no means blameless in this problem. I suppose I should be grateful that my club is doing anything to help those out of work, but I can’t help feel that ‘allowing’ supporters to protest seems a pretty hollow gesture when a single adult ticket still costs £32 a go. Clubs can freeze prices all they like, but if fans can’t afford them this season, then what makes you think they’ll be able to in a year’s time?
Many chairmen and pundits will tell you that a football club is a business like any other. If we take them at their word, then surely the onus is on the company to serve the consumer, rather than the other way round. Clubs are pricing themselves out of the market, and unless they change their ways, local teams will die out.
What will we be left with? Full houses of Japanese tourists at Old Trafford, Anfield and the Emirates whilst dust forms at the Reebok and weeds grow at Southend. So the next time you fancy a pop at 11,500 empty seats, think whether you’d fill them if you had no job and a family to feed. Look at who it is that fills your own palatial arenas: were they there before you’d won anything, or are they just the ones who’ll pay £50? As far as I’m concerned, you’re welcome to them.