It was September 2011 when my partner invited me to go along to the CSKA Moscow-Inter Milan Champions League match at the decaying shell that is the Luzhniki. I remember it for two reasons, the first, my phone was stolen; the second, that an independent PR company carried out a supporter count at all points of access to the stadium and presented their findings to the police. According to the official record, 35,000 tickets were sold, according to the PR company counted a little over 40,000 supporters going through. The police met with officials from CSKA and the answer was “They were special guests”. One seventh of the crowd going into the regular seating areas were guests, the police issued a fine to the club for breaching safety regulations.
Now why is this even remotely important? It is because it goes to the need for fans to be in the stadium at all in Russia, it’s not as if clubs need their patronage. The Premier Moscow clubs attract a lower percentage of the city’s inhabitants to their matches than the Airtricity Premier League clubs from Dublin, this shocked me after doing the maths on it. Reasons for shockingly poor attendances can be paralleled. Facilities, perception, entertainment and competition (other sports). However while Airtricity League fixtures are almost completely safe to attend and there is a good atmosphere at matches, in Moscow it is rare to find really energised crowds (without tired choreography) and it has the very definite appearance and reputation of danger.
The main difference, however, between Irish clubs and those in Russia boils down to money. Irish clubs need to get the fans in to buy tickets, eat curry chips (St. Pats have the best in the league) and increased numbers are parlayed into reasons for commercial entities to sponsor the club. Under FAI club licencing Irish clubs have to budget for average crowds so that punters in the stands means life of death for a club, not so in Russia. Clubs are funded by the local government, an oligarch, a company or a combination of all or two of the three. Ticket and concession sales, along with actual commercial sponsors (not shuffled money from owners) are a tiny fraction of club revenue and unlike in England (for example) where the lower down you go the less impact TV money plays and the more important traditional sources become, in Russia it remains the same or drops. Below I’m going to use just 2 examples from each of the top three leagues (which are all professional) showing percentages of total revenue for 2012-13.
- RFPL – Moscow club – 1.5% tickets, 0.2% concessions, 0.6% merchandise. Krasnodar club – 1.9% tickets, 0.1% concessions, 0.3% merchandise
- FNL – Siberian club – 1.7% tickets, 0.3% concessions, 0.4% merchandise West Russia club – 0.9% tickets, 0.1% concessions, 0.2% merchandise
- D2 – Ural-Volga club – 1.1% tickets, 0.1% concessions, 0.1% merchandise Southern club – 0.6% tickets, 0.2% concessions, 0.1% merchandise
Now the wage budget (players only) for four of the six. Krasnodar club €32million; Siberian club €5.4million; West Russia club €2.3million; Southern club €650,000.
On the other side of the equation, policing, security, repairs and costs of having fans – which most club officials agree that 5% of their costs fall into this section, meaning that on average it costs three times as much to have police and security at the stadium than you make from having fans there at all. It makes sense financially to play matches behind closed doors. Atmosphere can be piped in, CGI fans can jump for joy at goals and players still get paid. It’s win-win. No drugged up and/or drunken idiots smashing up stands, no fines to pay, no need to upgrade facilities, no reason to negotiate with police and no complaints.
It could be a long term plan from Russian clubs to eliminate fans from stadia altogether. Combining terrible customer service, over the top policing, under developed or run down facilities are perfect to push more fans away from matches, Croatia is an ideal example. Shuffling leagues and clubs like playing cards have resulted in the continuing busted flush that is Croatian professional football, Russia continues to go this way. A new season format, league re-alignments and rule changes have meant nothing when the underlying ideology is to keep everything the same. The RFS may level more and more fines on clubs for their staff or fans bad behaviour, though until they take an active and honest effort, alongside the clubs, to make football more family and fan friendly, it would be as well to lock the gates and let the players play, we have PPV TV to watch them on after all.