Age ain’t nothing but a number

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Here’s an interesting statistic I heard the other day on TalkSport: In the seventies, 80% of football fans going to all live games were aged between16 and 24 years old. Nowadays however, that figure has fallen to 8%, while the average age for a supporter at a league game has more than doubled to 44.

The immediate response is to obviously point the finger at Sky. They have ‘ruined football’ by showing more live games on TV than ever before, and allowing those fans who for whatever reason, are unable to get to games, the chance to watch their team.

 

Unfortunately, the prevalence of this televised coverage has supposedly led to the majority of young people feeling that watching a game on TV is the same as actually going to the match, and many of them have genuinely never seen their club live. It’s obvious for a Manchester United supporter, for example, where the demand for tickets is so high, that conceivably you might not physically be able to get your hands on a ticket for a game, but we’re talking about the entire breadth of the football league here not just the upper echelons. Surely as, say, a Torquay fan though, you’re not exactly struggling to a get a ticket to a home game, so given the choice why are younger fans staying away from seeing their team live?

Are we left once again pointing the finger at Sky, for offering us the chance to watch higher calibre games for (almost) free, rather than paying to see our own mediocre clubs? I just don’t buy this argument. Yes, the prospect of Arsenal vs. Manchester United will always excite the football fan, but if it was a choice between that fixture on crystal clear HD-TV or seeing my personal team live (probably lose in the rain) I still know what my choice would be ten times out of ten.

 

Everything about the live football experience was intoxicating right from my first experience of it: the crowd noise, the characters, the singing, the fun new words I used to learn, the pies. I could go on all night, and I think that everyone else that’s ever been to see their team and is passionate about them will share my sentiments. I guess we’re back at the root of the problem though; getting kids to their team’s games in the first place. For 20 years now Sky has been behind the Premier League, and those kids initially spoiled by the superb TV selection are now in that crucial bracket mentioned at the start of this article.

More so than apathy, what truly keeps young fans away especially in the lower leagues, is the cost. Sure, if you go to somewhere as spectacular as the Emirates Stadium, you expect to pay £45, however I was planning to go see my local non-League team the other day because I was in the area, but was put off by having to pay £12 to watch, with all due respect, football of basically the standard me and my friends can play. This is where it starts to get prohibitive, because even up in the Championship where there are, let’s be honest, some pretty poor sides housed at shambolic stadiums, prices up to £30 are not unheard of. Now for your average 18-24 year old, no matter how much you love your club, it gets to the stage where when you add in traveling costs and refreshments, you simply cannot justify going week in week out, which was pretty standard for this age group thirty years ago.

The gulf between the top division and the lower leagues is dramatically widening, and even within the Premier League, the majority of other teams struggle to keep up with the top 5. Success within the football industry is a self-perpetuating circle though. If you have a good season, the club earns more money and can thus attract bigger name players; foreign investors see the money to be made from your club, so get involved as businessmen to simply make money; ticket prices therefore go up and your average fan is left out in the cold, replaced by the so-called “prawn sandwich” eating masses which Roy Keane eluded to several years ago. Keane said of these corporate fat cats, who bought out large sections of Old Trafford simply for hospitality purposes, “they have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and don’t realise what’s going on out on the pitch…I don’t think some of the people who come to Old Trafford can spell football, never mind understand it.”

You find among the big clubs these days that often the support at away games is considerably louder and more enthusiastic than that at home games, with only the proper die hard fans willing to brave the trip. The fact that 3,000 Arsenal fans at an away game can make more noise than 60,000 at a home game might sound like an oxymoron, but it’s true. Can this be blamed on Sky though? Sure they put a lot of money into the top-flight clubs for broadcasting rights, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. They would certainly argue that the amounts they give to the teams is justifiable, given the service they provide to the wider football-watching population, and if club boardrooms genuinely valued their supporters, surely the money from Sky could be used to offset their other spending in order to guarantee ticket prices stayed low? Corruption is rife because of the money at stake, but I think this is more a reflection of the cynicism involved in the modern executive running of clubs rather than just Rupert Murdoch’s greed. How many chairmen or directors attend every one of ‘their’ clubs games? Few I would imagine, which is why seeing guys like Mike Ashley at every Newcastle game, in the club’s shirt no less, is so refreshing.

The only way the opening statistic will change at the big clubs in the next few years is if they have their hands forced by a significant drop in attendance and therefore revenue, but we have seen that this core group of 18-24 year old fans has been easily replaced by slightly older and wealthier supporters, who don’t batter an eyelid at extortionate ticket prices. We must accept that, compared to the seventies, there are simply more distractions and activities for younger fans to spend their time and money on.

 

As long as the big clubs in the top division maintain their success though, they will never have problems filling the stadium. For the lower league sides however, this could spell the beginning of the end; if basically no-one under the age of 30 is getting to games now, in ten or twenty years time will they still have any fans left?

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