06/10/2009 : Football League Blog : What A Difference A Gate Makes
6 October 2009 : What A Difference A Gate Makes
One of Yeovil Town's opponents will be confident that they can increase their attendances for next season by more than 25 percent. How can they achieve such a feat, in these days of credit crunches and recessions?

League One side Huddersfield Town are the club in question. Last season, as part of their Centenary celebrations, they introduced a bargain season ticket price for their supporters, aimed at filling their hugely impressive Galpharm Stadium. In terms of getting bums on seats, this was a marketing masterstroke, boosting last season's average attendance to 13,298, largely due to them gaining over 12,000 season ticket holders as part of the deal. Despite this season's offer not being quite as generous, their crowds have held up well and are currently averaging 12,081 spectators. All rather impressive given that they had an average crowd of 9,391 during the 2007-08 season.

Yet next season, they are likely to find their gates going even higher. In fact they can almost guarantee it. Is it by clever marketing, the engagement of supporters, the introduction of new ticketing deals? Or is it simply by massaging the figures so that they look better?

The traditional method of recording an 'attendance' at a football match has been the number of clicks made on a turnstile. It is the number of people who attended the match. It does exactly what it says on the tin. It is the number in attendance at the game. Why would it be anything else?

It would appear that there is now an alternative definition of an attendance. Certain clubs define them as the number of tickets sold or distributed for a fixture. Thus the 'attendance' you read in your Sunday papers suddenly starts to actually mean 'ticket sales', with some even extending as far as 'tickets distributed'. It stops becoming an 'attendance' in the true meaning. Those who fall ill, have their car break down, or have other commitments pop up are marked as having attended the match, when actually they didn't.

This practice first courted controversy during the bad old days that saw the end of the original Wimbledon Football Club in the days leading up to its franchise out to Milton Keynes. Many Wimbledon supporters groups began to boycott fixtures at Selhurst Park in protest at the impending move. The strength of the Wimbledon supporters' cause was crucial given that they were appealing to the Football Association to show how many of their supporters objected to the franchising of their club. Their Independent Supporters Association saw their club's attendance figure as being a statement of just how many of their fans were against the franchising of their club. It was there that the PR wars began.

Wimbledon FC continued to include those season ticket holders in their attendance figures, even in cases where those season ticket holders were stood outside waving protest banners. Thus those boycotting the games not only missed the dying embers of Wimbledon FC, they were also marked as having attended the match and therefore not having taken part in the boycott. The response from the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association was to have their own people stood outside each turnstile with hand-held clickers that would record what they saw as the 'real' attendance at the game. They then published their own figure to counteract the club's own version. At times the 'official' version and the WISA version differed by 100 percent.

Over the past few seasons, we've picked up that a growing number of Football League clubs are adopting the practice of redefining their attendances using the 'ticket sales' definition. We're under the impression that Bristol City and Bristol Rovers are doing it, and although Yeovil Town certainly weren't doing that back in their Conference days, they are doing it now.

Glovers Chief Executive Martyn Starnes confirmed this to be the case in the January 2009 ABUFP meeting, stating:

"All the season ticket holders are included in the attendance figure and that this is standard practice by clubs throughout the Football League."

Except that it is not standard practice. Oldham Athletic have confirmed this week that their attendance figures are calculated by the 'traditional' method, whilst so far Huddersfield Town have also adopted this method. Terriers Chairman Dean Hoyle explained his club's current definition:

"Traditionally, at Huddersfield Town we have announced and reported 'attendance' at games as the number of spectators coming through the turnstile into the stadium. This excludes those who buy a match ticket or are given a complimentary ticket but don't show up, and also those season ticket holders who don't show either. It is an attendance figure."

That's been fairly obvious to all given that Huddersfield's lowest attendance figure for the 2008-09 season was 9,294. With 12,000 season ticket holders, clearly upwards of 3,000 of them had stayed at home for that fixture for whatever reason - the low price of Huddersfield's Centenary season ticket meant that supporters could afford to buy a season ticket whilst recognising they'd miss a few games yet the Terriers continued to record the actual numbers in the ground.

This season, so far, Yeovil Town's visit to the Galpharm Stadium represents Huddersfield's highest attendance of the season. The crowd was 12,646, boosted by dirt cheap admission prices to make up for the early kick-off caused by Huddersfield's rugby league side playing at Wembley in a televised fixture later that day.

Next season, Huddersfield will adopt the revised 'ticket sales' definition. Based on the above fixture, that would have seen a gate of 15,855 announced on the day of the match against Yeovil Town. A total of 3,209 spectators either owned season tickets, bought tickets, or were given complimentary tickets but didn't turn up. Presumably a few of them had their rugby scarves on and were heading down the M1.

What that means is that when Huddersfield proudly announce "attendances up by 25 percent!" as some positive news from their club sometime during the 2010-11 season it won't actually mean there are more people piling into the Galpharm - just that the method of calculating the figures has changed. And if the Football League announce more 'record' attendance statistics for its member clubs, how will we be able to tell whether it is because more punters are coming through the gates, or whether this 'increase' is due to a moving of the goalposts. Huddersfield defend their change of policy by adding:

"Almost everyone we asked report the 'tickets sold' figure. We need to report our 'gates' in the same way as everyone else, otherwise a false picture is given."

It could be argued though, that all it does is ensures that one more club is giving a 'false picture' of their attendance rather than one less. Back in the bad old days of Wimbledon, the footballing world laughed at the idea of such obvious spin being used to apparently manipulate attendances by not measuring the actual numbers inside the ground. Now just seven years on, it would appear that CEOs and Chairmen up and down the land have all decided that this is a rather good idea.

The problem is that it's not clear who is recording attendances by one method and who is recording by another. We know Yeovil Town include Season Ticket Holders regardless of whether they turn up or not, and anecdotally believe that the two Bristol clubs do the same. We know that Huddersfield don't currently, but will do from next season. However, Oldham Athletic are sticking to the 'traditional' method with a club statement explaining:

"At Oldham Athletic, we continue to report the 'attendance' as the number of people inside the Stadium attending the game. We do not count season ticket holders or anyone who has purchased a ticket and does not attend the game, therefore giving a true reflection of how many people were in attendance at the game."

Even then, there are smaller nuances to consider. Do clubs consider complimentary tickets in their attendances - e.g. those given to the family of players, the press, freebies dished out to schoolchildren or soccer schools as sweeteners etc. Under the 'tickets sold' way of recording attendances, if these are included, then we could 'solve' Huish Park's attendance problems by printing off 3,000 tickets, distributing these to schools and then not being too bothered about whether they turned up or not, because crowds had just gone up by 3,000! But of course that wouldn't get us very far.

From a Yeovil Town perspective, there's also the question of when did the club switch from one method of calculating attendances to another? And on what basis was that decision made? Did it produce an apparently false perception that crowds had increased that season - or perhaps mask a season where crowds had fallen, but were boosted by people who weren't inside the ground?

Oldham appear to be determined to stick to the traditional way of announcing attendances at games, regardless of whether it makes their crowds look lower than their League One rivals. However, they do agree that the Football League need to agree on a set standard for such things:

"We feel that the Football League, as an organisation, should determine a common policy as to whether clubs announce 'attendances' or 'tickets sold'."

The only surprise in the highly sensible proposal from the Latics is that a common policy doesn't exist already. We're in agreement that one should, and would question exactly what those clubs bumping up their attendances by people who aren't in the stadium seek to achieve?

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Comments On This Article
chris said ...

Exactly, what do they seek to achieve. Perhaps they are playing at 'Ostriches'. Putting their head in the sand and thinking every thing is better than it really is. That's certainly how it would appear at Yeovil. Why change any thing when all appears rosey? If the football league condone this approach then let's just watch the lower leagues dissapear whilst officialdom shows its collective backside!
06/10/2009 21:25:12

Taff said ...

If we're including all season-ticket holders in our official figures then presumably our actual crowds are even worse than they already seem? Ye gods...
06/10/2009 22:12:50

Bingham said ...

I have always been interested in football attendances and on Sunday mornings spend considerable time studying such figures. Such aspects as league position and local derbies are of course the more obvious reasons for match attendance sizes but then there are aspects like evening games, away followings of the opposition and how well they are doing, high profile signings,the weather,television programmes etc etc that will affect such figures. I have always wondered whether season ticket sales were counted automatically but if so, wondered further as to which games they applied to. After all, we do see a number of games free if we are a season ticket holder and in theory have not attended those games. Whatever the case I am feeling a little confused by it all and maybe somewhat cheated if not all the teams base their figures on the same criteria. Ideally I would like these numbers to be all about how many people were actually there on the day. But then I will add a final comment from my wife who has just asked me why on earth do they print these figures anyway? They don't do it for athletics, horse racing, tennis, cricket, golf etc.......and she's absolutely right, as usual.
PS. Does the taxman come into the picture in any way?
07/10/2009 08:55:39

Badger said ...

As I understand it, attendances started to be more formally recorded inside football grounds around the 1950s - before that you'd tend to see flat rounded figures such as "10,000" given. In non-league football, Yeovil were one of the front-runners in this in that our programmes began to include our attendances far earlier than many other non-league clubs. I guess we felt our crowds were something to be proud of at that level. I suspect crowd figures were produced partly for kudos, partly for transparency with supporters (if you know how many are coming through the gates then you know roughly how much money is coming in) and partly for safety reasons - clubs needed to know when their grounds were full. But up until the Wimbledon fiasco with Charles Koppel, I'd not heard of a club including people who weren't in the ground as part of their attendance. If we head down this direction then "attendances" will become a nonsense because clubs will be able to manipulate them however they see fit, purely as a PR exercise. Dish out 3,000 tickets to schools and boost your crowds - it won't matter anymore if only 500 of the kids turn up. The "attendance" will at that point become whatever a club wants it to be.

The issue with the taxman and attendances is a bit of an urban myth. Because the taxman is concerned with revenue, and because tickets are complimentaries, kids-for-a-quid, family tickets etc an attendance doesn't tell the taxman a thing. He'll want the gate receipts and in that instance that will be based on the numbers of tickets sold.
07/10/2009 09:49:25

Chris said ...

What happens in the case of something like the Liverpool game? IIRC ticket stubs from two home games against Scunthorpe and Kidderminster were required to gain some preferential status for Liverpool, and these games were 'sold out'. However on the day, there were about 5500 at each of these games, meaning that several thousand had purchased tickets but not attended. We could end up with the farcical situation of our highest "attendance" being a game where only 5000 turned up. In fact we might already have a similar situation - was the game against Leeds *really* our highest ever attendance at Huish Park? It didn't look it from inside the ground, and I laughed when the attendance was announced as 9500. So that might have been the season we started it.
07/10/2009 12:46:31

Gordon said ...

So, if season ticket holders didn't pick-up their tickets for game, and they were subsequently sold (not sure if this still done, but it used to be the practice), then the declared "attendance" could (in theory) be greater than the ground capacity!!

All a bit pointless?!?
07/10/2009 20:55:14

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