Empty Red Seats: So how are Swindon Town going to fill them?
Attendances at the County Ground have declined somewhat and there remain plenty of empty red seats. The club have finally taken some action so Ron Smith gives a manifesto for increasing the gate…
An attendance of 9,291 watched Swindon Town beat Coventry City 2-1 on 21st December 2013, yet two thousand fewer supporters watched the same fixture a few weeks ago as only 7,299 were at the County Ground. The trend has been downward so far this campaign in all five League One games as hosts. 889 fewer supporters watched the Crewe fixture than last season, which was also played in August and so it’s easy to draw comparisons between the two. Taking the five League One home games, the average attendance has reduced in a season from 8,312 to 6,951; Town’s lowest now for nine seasons.
So right now we’re all rightly bemoaning attendances at the County Ground being circa 1,000 down from last season, but finally the club have woken up and taken much-needed some action. Their decision to allow supporters the opportunity to purchase a ‘match card’ of multiple tickets for six or eight games at discounted matchday prices rates is certainly something to shout about and will hopefully put a few extra hundred on the gate. However the real and perennial issue of underachievement in bringing enough supporters through the turnstiles has never been fully addressed.
To be honest, even if attendances were back up to the average level of the previous five seasons of between 7,800-8,500 we still shouldn’t be content. The ground holds just under double that amount and with a population within the Borough of 209,000, plus a significant Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire hinterland there’s always untapped potential, yet the majority rarely attend. Am I the only one who looked around the County Ground during the highs of Di Canio wondering why the place even then wasn’t full, in particular when we received the League Two trophy..?
There are clearly other structural forces at play that have restricted attendances. These have been here for decades and something radical needs to be done in and outside of the club to boost numbers through the gate…
1. Price shouldn’t be the sole focus
So far this season only the Sheffield Utd game was above £25 level of matchday prices last season, yet attendances have been down on all games in League and Cup. So we can deduce that matchday price isn’t the primary driver towards attendances and the club must not focus only on the cost of tickets when implementing any strategy to boost supporters through the gate.
The perception remains that attendance is directly linked to price and it’s safe to say there is a link, however this correlation is more apparent in season ticket sales. In the past 12 seasons, three of the four highest average attendances have come in a significant part to some of the lowest season ticket renewal prices. However, there is no such link in terms of matchday pricing, whereby the highest average attendances have arisen from the highest ticket prices. What this demonstrates is matchday pricing is greater influenced by performances on the pitch, the level of away support and, a few years ago, an Italian managing the team.
The extent to which offering reduced matchday prices will have the desired effect is therefore somewhat limited to performances on the pitch, so thankfully Mark Cooper’s strong league position and brand of football will be the other desired factor needed to increase the matchday gate.
2. Engage the masses to give it a go, only once or twice a season, and don’t demonise those who don’t attend games regularly…
I bought a season ticket, so that’s some money in the club’s coffers. They then don’t necessarily mind that I didn’t go to the Scunthorpe United game, but would rather I attend a few so there aren’t quite so many red seats on display. Work commitments meant I missed the visit of Brighton and there will undoubtedly be a few more games I’ll miss this season. Without the ties of a season ticket I can only imagine the weekly decision and balance of whether to watch Town – home or away. Your reasons / excuses are all valid, who am I to question..?
With a population of around 300,000 live within 20 miles of Swindon there should be enough people around that many deciding not to attend will be balanced by others considering, or following through on their intentions to watch Town. If a reasonable percentage of these 300,000 attended once or twice per season then that’s an excellent start. You don’t need to come every week and us all, myself included sometimes, shouldn’t demonise those supporters who cannot attend every week, as failing in some sort of patriotic duty.
3. A massive 87% of Town fans want safe standing, so properly join the campaign and do something about it?
If atmosphere and matchday experience is what the club should focus on, then why not listen to supporters? Given 27% of those surveyed stated the introduction of safe standing at the County Ground would directly lead to their greater attendance of games, then that’s an untapped potential.
The headline statistic highlights the appetite for safe standing. Yes I realise the club can only act with a change in the Law, however only the clubs can really push this through with the FA and Football League. Steps have been taken earlier this year with the League announcing a formal review, however we’ve had little news since on the club’s stance in the vote earlier this year to confirm whether they’re taking this matter seriously, or whether they would now consider trials if they were able to conduct them.
4. Promote games properly…
Not everyone uses social media or email, however these channels are becoming the sole focus of the club for launching promotions. I’m sure, if the club asked for help, they’d find some supporters to organise with flyers to hand them out in the town centre, outside supermarkets, schools, businesses, leisure centres etc to promote games, ticket deals etc. Directly market to the town and don’t hide within a virtual reality and hope everyone turns up!
5. £30 for Junior Reds…
Okay so £30 gets you…
- £30 per season membership
- FREE use of the J-Town Room on matchdays
- Play FIFA14 in the J-Town Room
- Personalised membership card
- Exclusive Christmas gift!
- 5% discount on STFC mascot packages
- Junior Red e-birthday card
- FREE meet the players events
- Chance to be mascot and sit in the dugout for warm-up
- FREE entry to all home league fixtures for U10s
So what’s missing from the above..?
Driving Engagement – The matchday programme content for JRs isn’t too bad, so why not send out a monthly or quarterly magazine in the post using the template of the programme section for the JRs? This will help keep kids informed throughout the season, including stories about their favourite players, assist their reading, be fun, engage with them directly etc. Surely this can’t be too difficult for the club as a means to help them reach out to the JRs, who then might ask their parents if they can go to the next game..?
Designated family stand – There’s no family area within the ground. It’s been tried a few places, including the Town End and lower in the Arkells Stand, without success. With the JR room located in the Don Rogers stand the family area this seems the most appropriate location for the family area.
6. Reach out to the community…
As above, there’s a whole town and many who would welcome to join in and help if asked. It seems the football club forgets the ‘club’ part as it operates as a somewhat distant business, viewing supporters as customers rather than part of the ‘club’. We’re all proud Town fans and I’m sure many, myself included, would jump at the opportunity to help and assist in any way we can, so reach out to the community as we can help increase the support. Don’t be afraid to ask, particularly the Supporters’ Trust and Supporters Club who can mobilise and organise plenty of supporters to promote the club.
7. Give us reasonable travel options…
£10 to park at the ground is a joke. I appreciate there are not many spaces and we all should ‘travel sustainably’ so why not give us some reasonable travel options..?
Apparently Swindon Town ticket holders can get a small discount on First Great Western rail services. I only found this out a few weeks ago and wonder why it’s not promoted in any form, such as on the club’s website, ticket office or season ticket brochure? Something that needs promoting…
Turning to the town itself, Swindon is a sprawling medium density town. To walk from the far outskirts of the town to the County Ground takes around 1 hour 30 minutes for the 4.5 mile distance. A bus journey will be circa 37 minutes for that distance, plus the walking time at either end. Then if you’re travelling by bus there’s the issue of a lack of stops near the County Ground and the bus timetable having never heard of an approx.4.55pm finish to the game. You’re left with having to leave early to walk 5 minutes to queue on Queens Drive or County Ground, or wait to enjoy the finish and miss your bus. The club should liaise with the bus companies to provide more appropriate bus timetables and dropping off facilities in close proximity to the ground on matchdays, which just might sway a few more supporters in, or at least make it a simpler journey to the ground for many. Hey, why not just go the whole way and offer a subsidised bus service, even from out of the town, on matchdays..?
I watch cricket and rugby with a pint in my right hand, so why not football? Yes football supporters have a historic bad reputation, similar to the bans of standing that seek to differentiate the game from every other major spectator sport in this country. I certainly know that being able to watch Town in comfort and a pint (in designated areas of the ground) would add to supporter enjoyment of a significant number. Like safe standing this isn’t a Swindon specific issue, however clubs themselves are the bodies who first need to wake up and start promoting such initiatives to the authorities otherwise the situation will never change.
9. Loud and Proud…
Campaigns like the ‘Ultras Swindon’ and ‘Red Army Loud & Proud’ between 2004-2008 certainly brought a bit of colour, fun and life back to enjoying watching Town from the ‘terraces’. Atmosphere has frequently been a complaint I’ve heard of why some supporters do not attend games, so what can the club do to help fund and assist supporters who want to inject a little more life back into the ground. In the end this opportunity is down to us, supporters, to work together, promote and make the noise…