The just published Begbie Traynor Football Distress Survey for Scottish football makes interesting reading particularly in relation to crowd figures. The report identifies that the “Rangers effect saw the average gates in the SPL fall by almost 30%”. While it also says average attendances across the top 3 leagues have fallen, overall gates across the 4 leagues have gone up 5% and not surprisingly the Third Division by over 1000%.
It got me thinking about the claimed 500 drop in Accies attendance figures for this season compared to last, something that Accies chairman Les Gray acknowledged in the Advertiser recently. Well first the good news. According to the attendance statistics on Football 365.com we are actually only down 448 on average this season so far. Before the Dumbarton double header, we had averaged 1322 fans compared to 1770 for the whole of last season. Every 52 extra fans help. Whatever, I appreciate a 450 drop is significant. Lets assume they all bought season tickets, this would be £67,000 additional income this season. So where have all the Accies fans gone and why?
While some will claim many have departed on principle because of the Clubs’ position in relation to Rangers and its admission to the SFL, I think the impact has been over estimated. Looking at posters comments on the Accies World I find it difficult to be convinced this accounts for 50 at the most and even that is stretching it. I think what really has impacted is the psychology of a downward spiral over the last two seasons.
If we take season 2000-01 as the starting point, many younger or more recent Accies fans up until relegationfrom the SPL have never known anything other than a team on the up. Promoted to the Second Division and playing back in Hamilton at a brand new stadium (well, half of one), attracted a remarkable 2011 fans on average that season compared to 670 the season before.Throughout the rest of that decade Accies went from better to better. Ronnie McDonald's takeover of the club, debts and all, saved us from financial meltdown and at the end of season 2003-4 we were promoted back to Division 1. Average attendances that promotion-winning season however were only 1403. In the three seasons that followed as we consolidated and developed the promotion winning team our attendance average across seasons 2004 to 2007 was 1778. That figure I guess represents what we should be expecting but assumes a club building for promotion. Our promotion season 2007-08 attracted even more fans and we averaged 2405. Our figures for the SPL were 3823, 3005 and 2898 respectively. So up until season 2010-11 more recent Accies fans had only known relative success culminating in our best ever season performance wise 2009-10 and a top of the bottom six position.
We all know what happened next. Relegation was followed by a first season back in Division One when we failed to mount a serious promotion challenge. The average attendance for 2011-12 was still 1770, back where we might expect an Accies support to be. The end of that season led to a clear out of experienced players, no headline grabbing signings and a publicly stated aim of building on youth. That has meant a season rebuilding slowly and scrapping away at the end of the table. Silky smooth football? No, but nor has it been the dross that others have claimed. So in the face of future success being some years away it is not surprising that crowds have fallen and until the evidence suggests we are back on the up these figures may not increase. Success breeds success and attracts fans back. Decline loses fans. So what can be done to kick start numbers up the way rather than waiting for the next promotion winning team to come along?
We need to rebuild a positive spiral and this needs to focus on performance, economics, politics, marketing and scheduling. Alongside the continued development of youth I would like to see Accies signing one or two experienced players who come on board to build for promotion. We did exactly that when we signed Alex Neil. That requires money and that's about the economics and the politics of the game.
Accies have offered one of the most attractive season tickets prices in Scottish football but for stay away fans that might be inclined to turn up on the day I am sure the gate price of £16 is a killer. John Boyle at Motherwell tried to slash prices but to no lasting effect so I’m not advocating £10 at the gate but at least take it down to £14 next season, keep the season ticket at £150 and see what happens. Oh and half way through the season offer up a £75 season ticket. Economics is also about restructuring. I’m no fan of what’s proposed and want a 42 club solution but that’s a whole other debate. I hear what Les says that the proposed redistribution of income could mean a significant figure for Hamilton and others which could support a bigger or more experienced playing pool but if restructuring doesn't deliver a more attractive package it's not going to help increase our gates in the long term. Nor is that money guaranteed if sponsorship and the TV money aren’t forthcoming. We have to get this right.
Marketing is also important and Accies appear to have woken up to this with the appointment of Shaun Fagan. I await the impact of this with interest but aside from setting up a lottery, I would like to see a much better match day experience. From improving the tannoys, the announcing, half time entertainment, catering and the Accies Shop. Take catering for example as one fan highlighted for the Falkirk cup game, advertise the packages prominently on the club site just as most other club do. I’m not ignoring communication as part of marketing but I’m not one of those critical of the club. Between the official web site, Twitter feed, fans forums and communication direct to the forum I think the club does well. The problem is (tongue in cheek) it doesn't respond to some of the messages received like sack the manager!! Finally, scheduling. Attending football games is a habit. Get out the habit and many stop going. Never mind Friday fixtures or lunchtime Saturdays. Never mind international breaks other than the SPL whose players might be affected. Saturday afternoons are for sport. Lets try and get through next season with a regular consistent Saturday scheduling. Oh, and don't even start on summer football!