Friday, June 01, 2007

Time to sit down and be counted...

If the Carlos Tevez affair is responsible for one thing, it's the slanging match which has since erupted between the fans of all those clubs involved.

Followers of Wigan Athletic, Sheffield United et al pointed the finger at West Ham claiming they'd cheated on the rest of the Premier League, and in return West Ham fans turned to Wigan with suggestions that they're a small club not fit for purpose in the top flight.

And what's the reasoning behind that particular argument? Well let's just say it appears to be a lack of support on the part of the Wigan fans. It doesn't take the most well-honed observation skills to notice that the JJB Stadium is somewhat underfilled on any given matchday, and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by that.

Wigan has traditionally been a rugby town most notably fielding strong teams in the League code for the last hundred years or more. Wigan Athletic Football Club only became a fully-fledged League team in 1978, and by the time that happened, few seemed willing to devote themselves to a life following the round ball game. The trend for scarce supporting of the local football team was therefore set for many years to come.

Yet after nearly three decades floundering in the lower divisions of the English game, Wigan finally reached the top flight in 2005 and this was seen as the best chance ever to attract more supporters to the club. Sadly, attendance figures struggled to reach any ambitious targets that may have been set, despite the recently-built JJB Stadium being a modern and attractive home venue.

So just how did Wigan compare to other clubs when it came to filling up their stadium during the 2006/2007 Premier League season? As ever, we at Some People Are On The Pitch decided to crunch those all-important numbers to find out...*

First of all, let's consider stadia capacity in the Premier League. Old Trafford and the Emirates Stadium are at the top of the list and rather admirably they were over 99% full throughout last season. So if Man United and Arsenal were able to fill huge stadia with capacities of 60,000 to 80,000, surely it should be easy to do the same with a stadium containing around 20,000 seats, right?

Right - if you're Watford, Portsmouth, Fulham or Reading. Wrong, however, if you're Wigan. Their stadium is, capacity-wise, the fifth smallest in the Premier League at 25,138, yet over the whole of the last season it was only ever 72.2% full. Not particularly impressive, it has to be said.

Somewhat surprising is that Wigan's stadium wasn't the emptiest overall. That goes to Blackburn's Ewood Park which, despite having a capacity of 31,154, was only 68.2% full all season.

At the other end of the scale, a special mention should go to Sheffield United who, prior to relegation, kept their 30,000-seater stadium over 99.4% full this year. And that's really where we come back to our original point.

For some, a club that has a strong, loyal following can earn great respect regardless of how big it is. It can be forgiven the occasional grumble when things aren't going so well because you know the support and love of its fans will carry it through in the end.

Looking at the graph above, however, you're left with the feeling that out of Sheffield United and Wigan, perhaps the wrong team were relegated. They may have had Neil Warnock as manager, but at least Sheffield United could earn great respect from the devoted following of its huge army of fans.

* Source: Football365


Chris (B Squad) said...

Again, well done, appealing to my inner number-cruncher. I find it surprising that more teams aren't over the 90% threshold, especially Villa and ManCity. Does the data used reflect actual attendance or tickets sold? You would think away fans would buy up tickets if available.

It's always difficult to generate fan support in a town that doesn't have a history with the sport. Wigan's story has an interesting parallel with the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL. In 1987 they relocated from St. Louis to Phoenix, an up and coming city which had no professional sports before the 70's.

20 years later, the Cardinals can't manage to sell out their games. And due to television contracts, if any team does not sell out a game, it cannot be televised in their city. Even after being the most popular sport and having the incentive of actually having the games televised, they still can't sell out 8 games.

It's little embarrassing when compared to teams such as the one in my city, where the waiting list for tickets can be as long as 20 years. Last month a fan paid $21,000 at auction just for the right to purchase tickets.

gm said...

Number crunching maybe, but sweeping generalizations and outdated cliches abound also....
Perhaps you could reconsider your misplaced assertion that Wigan is a Rugby League town by examing the average attendances of the Warriors next to those of Wigan Athletic over the past two seaons.

You could also define your definition of "disappoining attendances" in the context of Wigan being the club with the highest increase in support year on year over the past 10 years of any other club in the football league....

You could also crunch some numbers such as the current population stats for the city of Manchester, for Merseyside and even Blackburn and then have look at those for the catchment area of Wigan Athletic, (ie - Wigan Borough). Can you extrapolate any meaningful conclusiosn when contrasting this small town and its sporting attendance with the metropolis of Manchester and the CITY of Sheffield? I wonder what ratio of Sheffield residents attends Sheffield United games compared to the ratio of Wigan residents who support their local team?
I wonder will you have the inclination to reveal that the rate of support in Wigan, therefore VASTLY eexceeds that of our recently relegated friends, or willyou prefer to rely on the hackneyed "ours is bigger than yours" drivel.

As for your spurious assertion that the wrong team were releagted: you seem to base this conclusion entirely upon the attendance rate for each club. I may have missed something here, but I'm sure that they still decide such matters on results on the pitch of play do they not? Meaning Sheffield got what they deserved, as did Wigan, (though possibly not West Ham).

finally: "Sheffield United could earn great respect from the devoted following of its huge army of fans"
Maybe, but they certainly wont earn any money from Premiership appearances next season, and I know which I'd prefer...

Chris O said...

Hi Chris (b squad)... thanks for your comments. The data reflects actual attendance rather than tickets sold.

Interesting the point you make about the Cardinals, and I find it amazing that they're not allowed to have any games broadcast on TV where the match hasn't sold out. Imagine that in English football!

gm: Thanks very much indeed for taking the time and trouble to write such a thorough riposte to the article.

Cards on the table: I did make some sweeping generalisations in my article, and my excuse is that sadly I don't have enough time available to do the necessary research required for a really in-depth piece. It's therefore as much as I can do to present some statistics and suggest one interpretation of them.

Luckily, we have people like yourself who can come in and redress the balance by putting some focus on the argument from a different perspective. Believe me, we really appreciate the articulated way you did so on this occasion and we invite others to do so in future too.

The points you make are perfectly valid, so let's look at a few of them and perhaps, if I may, play devil's advocate by suggesting some further points of my own? Feel free to let us know what you think of them!

Unfortunately I don't have the statistics to hand which would confirm what the ticket allocations were for away fans at each game. This would naturally give an interesting slant on the figures I've already provided.

I take your point about the comparative populations of Wigan and, say, Manchester. One thought I have is this: the JJB Stadium has a capacity of 25,138. If you take out the 5,400 seats set aside for away fans, you're left with 19,738. Now bearing in mind that Wigan has a population of 81,203*, that would presumably mean that Dave Whelan every other week hopes for approximately 1 in 4 of the local population to come through the turnstiles?

Again, a lot of generalisation going on there, but would you say that the stadium is a little too big for what's required?

Another point in my defence (and please don't take this as a personal attack - we don't do those at Some People Are On The Pitch): I did say "Perhaps the wrong team had been relegated..." and didn't wish for one moment to explicitly say this was the case, be it based totally on the statistics provided or otherwise. Obviously that is an opinion which differs from one individual to another, and yours was just as worthy of mention as that stated.

Finally, I agree that at the end of the day it's the amount of points you earn in the Premier League which determines your right to be there, which Wigan did and Sheffield United didn't. For what it's worth, it's that constantly changing permutation of teams you get in the Premier League which I like and sad though it is for Sheffield United to have been relegated, it's that sequence of change that will no doubt ensure their return to the top flight again sometime in the near future.

I look forward to that day, as indeed I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this discussion. Please come back to talk again with us soon! :)

* Source: 2001 Census

Chris (B Squad) said...

Interesting points. How are tickets allocated to Wigan games? I know for larger clubs there are season ticket holders and a slew of other interest groups like the supporters clubs over here that receive tickets. If wigan fans don't want them, do the seats remain empty or do the tickets go to a service where you can buy them online, at the stadium box office, etc.?

I think you also have to consider the financial burden that playing so many games puts on fans. 21 games minimum per season, more if you advance in the cups. Plus going to away matches. It's a lot to ask of 25% of the population. And that assumes the Rugby fans are an independant portion of the population as well. If you consider that there may be a large crossover in fans, the financial burden increases that much more. This is a more dynamic issue than it had first appeared.

Also, on the NFL, the games are televised all over the country. Just not in the home teams town. If you turn on the game you get a blue screen that says "Due to FCC regulations this event has been blacked out in this market." It's just a further kick in the stones to know that everyone else can see the game except the home fans.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply.

The stat of 1 in 4 of the local Wigan population through the turnstyles in an interesting one. When you consider that last season Wigan sold over 12,000 season tickets, and regularly added another 1000 to 3000 home fans for certain games, it seems that maybe support for football in the town is at an extremely high rate....
It is also expected that season ticket sales may hit the 15000 mark for the coming season.

The attendance for the appalling game against West Ham on 28.04.07 saw 24,726 in attendance. With the away end a sell out, we can safely extrapolate that 19326 were there in support of Wigan. As you say, that's 1 in 4 of the local population turning up for a football game. I do doubt that you will find such a ratio anywhere else.

The previous season figures were even more impressive, and were sadly dented by a ridiculous 40% increase in matchday prices. I defy any club bar Man Utd to hike prices by this amount and not see an impact on attendances.

I do not pretend for a moment that Wigan Athletic are a well attended club in Premier League terms. We are undoubtedly the smallest club in the top flight, and smaller than many, (if not the majority), in the lower leagues. However, this is what makes football the interesting and dynamic game it still is despite the vast sums of money now floating around the game.

When you consider that the transfer balance from when Paul Jewell took over amounts to a deficit of only £4m, Wigan have proven that it still doesnt take huge investment to "buy" a place in the top flight. Another myth concerning Wigans rise to the top is that it was bankrolled at huge expense by whelans millions. Obviously the capital was there, but £4m is peanuts in modern terms. With a year on year increase in attendances from a paltry 2,500 it is clear that progressive football, steady growth and a fair bit of luck can take almost any club from obscurity to the big leagues.

Irrespective of crowd sizes, is this not a "good thing" in that it revitalises the game, adds fresh blood and feeds the aspirations of every club and supporter outside of the big 3?

Wigan are a small club success story that have demonstrated exponential growth in stature and support over the last decade, and provided we maintain our Premiership status, look set to continue to grow. To dismiss us as unworthy of Premier league status due to current attendances, as many flippantly do, is as ill-informed as it is shortsighted and lazy, (yourself excepted).

As we have seen, closer examination of a few statistics show that support is not quite as pathetic as it would seem when erroneously contrasted with the liks of Liverpool, Man Utd et al, (also worth noting that within our loose catchment area we have 6 other Premier League alone).

To answer the other posters queries:

Any tickets unsold to home fans remain unsold. There is no matchday entrance.

Yes, a significant proportion of the Latics support also attend Rugby League games. When either side have a particularly big game, the others attendances are often affected, espescially as the rugby tend to play on a Friday night or sunday afternoon, leading to 2 fixtures at the stadium in 48 hours!
Add to this the glorychasers who have for many years chosen to ally themselves with our more prestigous neighbours up the road in Liverpool and Manchester, and you will hopefully apprciate that 1 in 4 of the local population, is a stunning figure even if it is an infrequent occurence!

BR said...

gm, in my opinion has set the record straight with regards to the initial, very lazy, post.

Right at the outset of the post Chris O fails to stress the enormity of the injustices committed by West Ham United with regards to the Tevez affair. History shows that until the Scammers fiasco, all clubs, at whatever level, who have broken the ineligible player rule have ALL been docked points. In my opinion just fining the Scammers leaves an open invitation for a raft of clubs to do the same next season. And don't think for a minute that one team somewhere will not try to do what the Bubble Bursters have done this season.

Everybody knows that Wigan Athletic are deemed 'fair game' when it comes to ridiculing their crowds. However, a seasonal average of over 18,000 is quite good, given the lack of away fans that visit the JJB Stadium. Only three Premiership teams sold out their ticket allocation of 5,000 last season, with the rest of the visiting team's averaging just over 2,000 per game.

So Latics in effect have only 20,000 seats available for Wiganers. But for the majority of games there are close to 16,000 Wiganers in attendance. When the big teams arrive in town the home seats are always sold to capacity. The number of home 'sell outs' is actually pretty impressive.

In the old days when the local rugby club was in the ascendency (they being the ONLY professional rugby league team in the sport, hence a remarkable record, albeit against part timers) their record seasonal average was just over 14,000. Since they have been at the JJB Stadium they have broken that record and added a further 1,000 to it. It is extremely rare that ANY Latics home game played over the last two seasons has been lower than the rugby clubs current 15,000 seasonal average. It is also worth noting that on the very rare occasions they have filled the ground, (and this can only ever happen when they play St Helens) over 7/8,000 unsegregated visiting fans were in attendance having undertook the epic journey by bus over Billinge Hill, situated less than six miles from the JJB Stadium!

Ironically, the myth of massive rugby crowds has been perpetuated over the last three decades by Maurice Lindsay, the rugby club's chairman who is now a member of thre Wigan Athletic board of directors!

Lazy hacks are alway guilty of falling into this trap, if only they realised how foolish their words look when put into print!

Although I am not suggesting any wrong doing by the rugby club, it is interesting to note that for their games they count every season ticket holder, of which they have several thousand less than Latics, plus thousands of 'freebies' that are distributed to local schools, etc, etc, whether or not they attend the game. Wigan Athletic on the other hand only count actual 'attendees' of the game.

In Wigan, one club benefits by inflating crowds due to a 'salary cap', whilst the other knows there are tax advantages by having 'lower' ones. I'll leave it to the more lazy hacks to finally let the penny drop!

To state that the rugby club has been successful for over one hundred years is also one of those famous Lindsay myths. In 1978 when Latics were elected into the football league the rugby club were in the second (and last) rugby league division. Even then Wigan Athletic crowds were greater than those of their rugby counterparts by some considerable distance.

Wigan Athletic did not 'flounder' in the lower leagues for almost three decades. They built themselves up from a non league club into a Premiership one. A look at the records of most of the 92 football teams in this country, (most of whom have over 100 years start on Wigan Athletic), will reveal they have not won nearly as many 'promotions', championships and made as many Wembley appearances as the Latics.

Chris O is however right about the wrong team being relegated. All fair minded sportsmen all over Britain know who should have gone down, don't they?

In answering gm, Chris wonders whether or not a stadium of 25,000 is too big for Latics. In reply I would add that the Wigan Athletic fan base has grown from 1,200 to 18.000 in little over 11 years.

You need to bear in mind that Wigan is essentially a football town, unfortunately the club lost many thousands of fans to other more glamourous teams over three generations. Time will reveal whether or not the JJB Stadium is too small for Latics. But given the fact that the home spectators only have about 4,000 seats to fill now (and possibly half of the away end) and that the youngsters of the town are now proudly sporting Latics kits instead of those of Liverpool, Evertom, Manchester United and Manchester City, the stadium could well be too small a decade from now.

ere_Wigin said...

It may have escaped the author’s attention but football is played on the pitch not on the terraces.

Premier league football teams are solely judged by the points they accrue over 38 matches not by the size of the crowd or number of prawn sandwich they sell.

Had the author taken the time to contact Wigan Athletic, he’d have found it has more fans under 16 year of age than any other Premiership club.

Chris O said...

Phew - a lot to get through there! First of all and once again, thanks to everyone for all the comments that have been coming in. I've really enjoyed learning a lot about Wigan Athletic and the way they run their football club.

It's worth saying at this point that the article was my way of channelling the feelings of a few football fans I know that felt Wigan were a small club and didn't deserve to be in the Premier League on account of their attendance figures. I decided to find out what those figures were and create the article around it. I have no such bad feeling towards Wigan myself and sincerely look forward to seeing them in the top flight again next season.

br: I'm sorry you think the original article was a "lazy post". While not the most well-written piece in the world (by my earlier admission), it wasn't done lazily. A lazy post would have been me saying "Aren't Wigan crap?" but I think you'll agree that anyone can write that. For an ordinary bloke running a simple little blog site at home where new material gets written virtually every day, it deserved a bit more credit than you gave it for what it provided, i.e. the basis for a healthy discussion.

If I was being paid to write for The Times sports section, I'd have done a lot more research and reasoning, believe me!

It goes without saying that all the facts and figures that br, anonymous (gm again?) and ere_Wigin have mentioned have shown that Wigan should not be dismissed as insignificant or lacking sufficient support. It was my hope that some Wigan folk would come along and give a different take on the story and you've done that wonderfully well.

It's also heartening to know that so many local young fans are now giving their support to Wigan rather than taking the easy option of siding with the big clubs nearby. It's a sign of how far they've come and long may it continue.

As for the Carlos Tevez affair, he's been mentioned plenty enough on this site and many others over the last few weeks, so I thought it best not to bore you by reiterating the facts which you all know now.

And that's about all I've got to say on the subject for the time being. If you want to keep your comments coming in, please feel free to do so. I'll try to reply to them when I can.

br said...

Chris O wrote...

'If I was being paid to write for The Times sports section, I'd have done a lot more research and reasoning, believe me!'

Please Chris 0, get a job with Times then. Because the Times hacks that I always come across clearly don't do any research at all!

Fair play to you for getting a debate going.

A point to ponder for you is perhaps that just because Wigan are deemed a small club by the ignorant masses, it is just as well the Latics fans are passionate about their club to stand and fight their corner!

wigan till i die said...

10 years ago wigan were playing in front of 1200.last season we averaged over 20,000.can any other premier league club match that or any other team,i think not.when will people realise that you dont get points for filling stadiums.we are where we are on merit,by gaining promotion by scoring more points than anyone else and then staying there.if we get relegated it will be because we are not good enough,not beacause our crowds are poor.

Anonymous said...

My first match was 12 years ago in front of 1500 against Notts County. Find me a club whose attendances have grown as much in the short amount of time and then come back to me. The article may have a smidgen of relevance then.

weenie said...

Nice post and interesting comments. The 1 in 4 of the local population attending is an excellent stat and is all the more impressive, given Wigan's Rugby League history where little boys play with the oddshaped ball rather than the round-shaped one!
As to whether the right team was relegated or not, well, given Wigan's final day performance, then the right team stayed up!

Chris O said...

I agree on both counts, Weenie! Thanks very much for your comments!


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