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Future of football is full pubs and empty stands

Football has undoubtedly changed in the last 30 or so years. The question that needs to be asked is whether it has changed for the better or whether it has chosen a road towards irrelevancy. Don’t get me wrong, football will still be played in front of huge television audiences but crowds in the various stadiums may well number in the hundreds instead of the thousands that currently pack places like Old Trafford.

It’s a future which should not be of great concern to owners who have invested their millions in some of the world’s biggest clubs because the return on their money will be enormous. It will include individual, rather than collective, club television rights and a European Super League.

That is no longer a question of being an ‘if’ but simply a matter of time. It is one of, if not the prime reason, why people like the Glazers are determined to hold on to Manchester United irrespective of what short term inconvenience fan protests may present. But that’s perhaps another story best left for another day.

Until that time comes, Manchester Evening News journalist Andy Mitten has written a thought provoking piece on how clubs are making sure that rather than delaying that day, their greed ensures that it will happen much sooner that anyone expects.

Reds face battle for fans – Andy Mitten, Manchester Evening News, 16 June 2010

South Africa may command the attention of the football world but much closer to home the staff in United’s ticket office are counting up the season ticket renewals. They won’t have to worry about the extra workload of Gary Neville’s testimonial, which was scheduled to be played this summer but has now been postponed. A big-name opponent on a relatively limited budget was required.

Glasgow Rangers appeared to fit the bill until police wisely stepped in to block such a game. The people of Manchester saw enough Rangers fans fuelled on cheap alcohol to last a lifetime when the Govan hordes were in town for the 2008 UEFA Cup final. While there are many genuine Rangers fans who know how to behave, the drunken damage has been done.

Sunday was the deadline for season ticket renewals at Old Trafford and, despite prices being frozen following the sustained protests by fans, the renewal figures seem to be well down on the same point last year. United will reason that many fans usually need a gentle reminder to renew after the deadline and a United spokesman said: “We are very happy with the renewals. Based on previous years we are very confident with the way it has gone.”

But it seems there has still been an underwhelming response from Reds, many of whom are angry at the Glazer ownership and the huge debts attached to the club. Sales of executive tickets are understood to have been especially low so far and given that the waiting list for season tickets for many sections of Old Trafford is now non-existent, expect United’s marketing department to start advertising the merits of owning a season ticket throughout the summer.

Without any big-name signing so far, United will have to work especially hard. The United hierarchy have other reasons to be concerned. The average age of the match-going fan at Old Trafford is currently 53 years and seven months. The figure is predicted to rise year on year, part of a national trend that sees the average age of match-going football fans rising.

It brings all kinds of knock-on effects – twice as many ageing Reds struggle to reach their seats in the upper tiers and now apply for lift passes by comparison with six years ago for example. United should not be complacent. Junior fans may not be as profitable as adults, but they are the future lifeblood of the club.

City have always been excellent at recruiting young fans and discounting tickets. Surplus capacity at Maine Road at the City of Manchester stadium has allowed them to do so but the Blues have remained committed to younger fans attending matches.

United’s family stand is always sold out and the club do an excellent job with the annual open training session and other youth initiatives, but the family stand accounts for around just six per cent of the Old Trafford capacity. Kids can get reduced price tickets in other sections of the ground but gone are the days when unaccompanied local youngsters could queue to pay on the day and get in for an affordable price.

In 1987, I used to deliver this newspaper for a wage of £2.20 a week – twice what it cost to stand on the Stretford End. No such possibilities currently exist and what 14-year-old wants to be applying for tickets six weeks ahead of a game? Most kids at the match are now taken by adults – an inherently different experience and passage to adulthood than going with your mates.

If the trend is not abated, the average age of fans will creep up towards pensionable age. Hoardings would be better advertising holidays for the elderly and stair lifts rather than lurid new football boots. That’s one area United’s marketing are probably looking into now. – Andy Mitten, MEN

If that does not make you think hard enough about the future of the game, here’s a comment from a regular fan who had this to say about Mitten’s article.

There’s a whole generation of kids growing up now for whom being a football fan has nothing to do with going to the match week in week out anymore – When I were a lad (!) it was all about coining in enough cash to afford 30p bus fare and £1.20 to get in the ground. The whole focus back then was going to the game.

My kids, and many others like them, they watch these guys on the TV and that’s enough for them. They have posters on the wall, they have stickers and match attax cards, magazines, DVD’s and Sky TV. These footballers are like popstars who you might see in the flesh once every blue moon when you go to a concert, or film stars who you don’t see at all – just on the screen. That’s the difference now and in years to come this will affect attendances.

PB, Urmsterdam, 16/06/2010

How true PB. How sad but how absolutely true.

Is watching the game in a pub the future of football?

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