With AFC Bournemouth recently announcing their new partnership with local hospices Forest Holme, Julia’s House and Lewis-Manning and the BBC publishing the results of their Price of Football survey it seems the proper time to examine the support that lower division clubs receive and what they, in turn, provide their communities. Without delving too far beneath the surface, it is readily apparent that lower division football clubs rely on the communities for support as much as the communities do the club. Without having the lucrative television contracts, or boasting international tours to bolster their profile and their coffers, League 1 and League 2 clubs are reliant on local support.
AFC Bournemouth is a prime example of a lower division club. Over the past 10 seasons they’ve enjoyed promotion to League 1, suffered relegation back to League 2, and a resent resurgence that nearly culminated in successive promotions. Their partnership with local hospices is part of the Football Leagues official charity partnership with Help the Hospices and Bournemouth’s commitment to the three hospices builds on their pre-existing relationship with Julia’s House. As is the goal of every club which has seen a fair number of promotions and relegations between the various Football Leagues, Bournemouth is again on the upswing. The club earned their most recent promotion following an outstanding campaign in 2009-10 when they allowed just 44 goals, posting 20 clean sheets en route to a second place finish on 83 points and automatic promotion to League 1.
With all things, success breeds success and AFC is again enjoying great support as they drew 172,412 fans over the course of the 2010-11 nPower League 1 season, at an average of 7,183 per match. This increase in attendence is clearly built upon their promotion to League 1 with a boost of 42,000 fans. At even their lowest reported ticket price (excluding incentives, season tickets and other schemes) that is an additional £756,000 in gate revenue. This increase came from their previous season’s 131,557 (5,719) per match as the club registered the third highest attendance in the league. As the club has produced results on the pitch, the supporters have responded at the turnstile and Bournemouth’s attendance has been growing steadily for the past 113,406 (4,930) in 08/09 League 2, 126,597 (5504) since their relegation from League 1 at the end of the 2007-08 season. In fact, the 172,412 marked a 9 year high, since the 2002-03 League 2 promotion campaign that saw the club draw 174,158 (though just 6,966 per match).
As Premier League clubs continue to raise prices of everything from match day tickets to game day refreshment lower division clubs are hopeful that their discount option will provide a path for families to enjoy live sport. However, the trend in attendance has not reflected this as the most successful clubs continue to retain support while the attendance in League 1 and League 2 remains static. Over the past 5 seasons the attendance figures aggregated from espn.com:
The 2009-10 season enjoyed the presence of both Norwich City and Leeds United who each claimed more than 560,000 in attendance. Outside of that one season both League 1 and League 2 have retained the support they had five years ago. In the BBC Sports article, Rochdale spokesperson Peter Woodhouse was quoted as saying “if you are a club like Hull and on your own then it is a little easier. But kids growing see Manchester United and Manchester City on television and that is what we are fighting against.”
It is true, despite having the lowest cost to attend a match, as determined by BBC Sports Price of Football survey, Rochdale currently suffers from one of the lowest gate receipts in the top 4 divisions. The lowest and highest prices are as reported in the survey.
The figures at the right show that Rochdale drew fewer attendees than nearly any other club playing in the nPower League 1 this season. In fact, the only clubs to have drawn fewer were Hartlepool and Bury, and last season Bury was playing in the nPower League 2. The figures also show the dramatic difference between the Championship and the next level down. Preston and Sheffield Utd would have easily drawn enough fans to have been 5th and 1st in total attendance in League 1. Of course, those totals were earned last season when both suffered through relegation campaigns in the Championship.
It seems that Mr. Woodhouse’s words are quite correct and smaller clubs are losing out to the larger neighbors while those clubs with more isolated fan bases enjoy slightly better gate. The proximity of larger clubs does provide one benefit however, as Bournemouth enjoyed their largest home attendance when they hosted local rivals Southampton, with more than 10,000 present inside Dean Court. Southampton, a club which as recently as 2004-05 was a Premiership club, also saw a spike in attendance for the AFC visit, posting their second largest attendance of the season. But more often than not it the larger clubs who draw support and attendance away from the smaller clubs.
“We are close to the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool and Everton aren’t far away and then you have Burnley, Leeds, Oldham, Bury and Stockport all nearby and we are right in the middle of it all,” said Woodhouse.
This means clubs need to be creative and cautious with their finances. The implications of poorly handled finances are very familiar to current Championship side Southampton. Following questions of financial insolvency in the 2008-09 season, Southampton’s parent company went into administration leading to the club receiving a 10 point deduction. The Saint’s inclusion in League 1 was a boon for the other clubs as both Leeds and Norwich City had earned promotion to the Championship, leaving a void of nearly 1.2m in matchday attendance. Their first season back in League one since the relegation at the end of the 2007-08 season saw them stay in League 1, just missing the playoff spots after suffering the 10 point deduction suspended from the reason before. With no further penalty the following season The Saints finished second and earned promotion to the Championship where they’re sitting atop the table after two matchdays.
As the lower division clubs continue to fight their more famous neighbors and rivals, they have not forgotten than the base of their success is the community that surrounds them. While each club is part of the Football League’s official charity partnership, clubs at all levels engage in additional charity work and community building. From simple one day events like Brentford’s support of The Shooting Star Trust to Hartlepool’s Ticket Incentive Scheme for schools to promote good citizenship among their students, each club is working on engaging their fan base. This is not simply action taken for the betterment of the common good, like each clubs work in ending racism, but a direct campaign to promote a local social good. With greater publicity of the value pricing, the continued efforts of the club officials and players in their local area and by continuing to put a quality product on the pitch, League 1 will hopefully build on the past five seasons sustained attendance and be able to use that success to further reinvest in their communities.From AFC BournemouthPress Release: Help the Hospices was chosen as the Official Charity Partner of The Football League for the 2011/12 Season following a public vote on www.football-league.co.uk. Julia’s House is a hospice in Dorsett which specializes in aiding children with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions. More information can be found, and donation can be made, through their website located here.