“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
In a recent article, I argued that football clubs have to be run on a sustainable basis and so, in seeking to put our own club onto a firm long-term financial footing, Argyle’s owners deserve our support.
A key element of financial sustainability is match day income, the majority of which comes from ticket sales. The further down the football pyramid you go, the more important match day income becomes as TV, commercial, sponsorship and other revenue is much lower in the EFL than in the Premiership.
The average attendance of 10,413 at Home Park last season was the fifth highest in League One, 33% more than the average for all 24 clubs. At first glance that looks pretty good, but is it really? Should Argyle be pulling in more supporters or has the club hit a ceiling?
To answer that question we need to look at location. How well a club is doing in terms of getting bums on seats depends partly on the catchment area that crowds are drawn from. The Herald did an interesting exercise recently, calculating attendances for all League One clubs as a percentage of the local population. They ranged from a high of 12.8% (Fleetwood) to a low of 1.6% (Rochdale). Argyle came in at 3.9%, a disappointing fifteenth place compared to its fifth rank on actual attendance.
But those percentages depend on how the potential fan base is defined. It’s easier in the relatively sparsely populated southwest, where the population is concentrated in cities like Plymouth. But where do you draw the line when calculating the potential catchment area for the likes of Charlton and Wimbledon, located in a city with a population of almost nine million? Or Walsall, which is within Birmingham’s vast urban sprawl?
Another factor is whether a club has ever played in the First Division/Premier League. Those that have tend to draw bigger crowds. Argyle have not, making it the biggest city in England yet to host top-flight football. Ten League One clubs (Barnsley, Bradford City, Charlton, Coventry, Luton Town, Portsmouth, Sunderland, Blackpool, Oxford United and – depending on how you interpret their recent history – Wimbledon) have played at the highest level and have the fan-base legacy that comes with that.
So with its relatively small population (just 264,000 in Plymouth itself) and lack of top-flight history, the potential for Argyle to draw significantly larger crowds might appear limited.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. For one thing, the League One teams in bigger population centres face greater competition for supporters from clubs in higher leagues. For those not committed from birth to a particular club, a Premier League or Championship club might be a more attractive Saturday afternoon proposition. Wimbledon have Crystal Palace to the west and Fulham and Chelsea just across the river. Walsall have Wolves and West Brom down the road with Birmingham City and Aston Villa not much further away. The good news is that Argyle face much less local competition; the nearest Premier League team is Bournemouth, a whopping 127 miles away while it’s 45 miles to the closest EFL club, Exeter City, playing a league lower.
That means we can legitimately expand Argyle’s theoretical supporter base north and east into Devon without running into bigger clubs competing for fans. Adding just Tavistock, Ivybridge, Totness, Torquay and Paignton gives an additional 143,000 potential supporters. To the west, Cornwall’s 550,000 people are even more removed from top-level football, so it’s hardly surprising that Home Park has always attracted a good number from across the Tamar. Including just the main Cornish towns close to Plymouth (east from Bodmin) adds around 80,000 people. Adding the population of those nearby towns in Devon and Cornwall to that of Plymouth itself gives us a potential supporter catchment of close on half a million. That is surely fertile ground for recruiting the additional 8,000 or so supporters needed to fill Home Park next season.
Another way of estimating the kind of attendances Argyle could aspire to is to compare the club with Dockyard Derby opponents, Portsmouth. With a population of 238,000, slightly less than Plymouth, last season’s average attendance at Fratton Park was 18,162 (which, coincidentally, would almost exactly fill Home Park’s expanded capacity next season on completion of the new Mayflower stand). While Portsmouth benefit from a relatively recent Premier League history, their catchment area is limited by the proximity of two top-flight clubs – Southampton 22 miles to the west and Brighton 50 miles to the east. So they’re unlikely to pick up much uncommitted support outside Portsmouth itself.
On the face of it then there’s good potential to boost attendance at Home Park. How to do that is a discussion for another day, but it has to be achieved without alienating the die-hards and without losing the unique appeal that brings people into football grounds in the first place.
Starting with the die-hards, I’d define them as the 8,000 or so hard-core Argyle fans who come as a matter of habit, belief of whatever else you want to call it. These are the supporters that are so devoted to the club that they would tolerate an environment and facilities that might not be acceptable elsewhere, because for them supporting Argyle is not a mere ‘leisure’ activity. I count myself among that group. I enjoy the little hardships that come with supporting a club in football’s third tier. I like the raw edge that makes a visit to Home Park different from a trip to a Cribb’s Causeway, Bluewater or one of those other appalling identikit shopping malls that we are all supposed to love these days.
Then there are the maybe 2,000 to 4,000 who regularly attend some number of home games. While those fans, together with the die-hards, constitute the heart and soul of the club, the reality is that they aren’t sufficient on their own to underpin a club that is competitive on the pitch and financially sustainable off it. There is a shortfall of 6,000 to 8,000 needed to hit capacity in 2019 and beyond. Attracting them without alienating the core supporters is the challenge.
New supporters won’t be attracted to a run-down stadium with overflowing toilets, terrible food and a vaguely threatening atmosphere (thankfully that’s a caricature of how football used to be and Home Park isn’t like that). In 2019 a family-friendly atmosphere, improved food options and generally smarter facilities are essential to attract supporters who haven’t been to Argyle before. Inevitably some fans will mutter that this is ‘selling out’ and sadly some clubs stoke that resentment with toe-curling management speak such as ‘enhancing the customer match day experience’. That aside, we shouldn’t be ashamed of trying to create an environment where people might enjoy spending a couple of hours on an a Saturday afternoon with friends, spouse or children.
But there is a limit. Sanitise football too much and you lose the very thing that makes it distinctive. Competing on comfort and slickness is an area in which football clubs can’t win. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve the experience, but watching football on a cold afternoon in January is never going to be as comfortable as drinking coffee in Starbucks, wandering around a shopping mall or sitting in a cinema. Clubs that try to match that are on a losing bet.
When competing with other leisure activities, football clubs need to play to the strengths of the game itself, namely authenticity, rawness and spontaneity. Shopping malls are inauthentic places, designed with the sole purpose of parting us from our cash. Modern retailing is a science, with everything about the shopping ‘experience’ managed. And that also means removing any raw edge from the experience. In TV and in the movies, the stories and their endings are predetermined and at some level we are aware that the spontaneity has been squeezed out.
Football offers a raw experience on a different level entirely from those alternative sources of entertainment. While in theory football is just another item on the menu of possible leisure activities, in reality it is so much more than that. It offers something lacking in other areas of life where so much is designed for us. Football is totally unscripted and that’s one of the reasons we love it. Nobody can possibly predict what is going to happen when the whistle blows at 3pm on a Saturday.
And that means the experience of attending a football match must not be over-scripted. It must not become just another form of consumption in which the customer is a mere lab rat. Football has to keep that spontaneity and raw edge. It needs an audience that won’t be shushed into respectful silence. It’s about an attachment to something bigger than yourself, a feeling of belonging that you’ll never get from shopping or surfing the Internet. That’s what we get when we go to a football match; it’s what makes it different and special. And if that is lost in the push to get more people through the turnstiles, it will be self-defeating.
I remember the first time my son came to Home Park. As it happened, the Pilgrims lost heavily that day and after the final whistle I half jokingly asked him whether he wanted to go to the next match. He looked at me like I was mad – and not for the reason you might think. “Yes, of course”, he said, like there was no other possible response. Bobby Robson would have been proud.