Sunday 30 December 2012

English clubs need to downsize stadiums for the sake of fans

Alex Lawson suggests that some English clubs could follow Italian clubs' lead and reduce the capacity of their stadium.

Market forces are against football clubs looking to increase their fan base. Sure, Manchester City and Chelsea are increasingly finding a bigger and bigger global fan base but the likes of Wigan, Blackburn and Bolton in the North West where competition for support is rife as well as clubs like Coventry and Middlesborough suffer from swathes of empty seats on a weekly basis.
The Old Lady's new home, The Juventus Stadium
Greed in the English game forcing up ticket prices, combined with competition from other sports and activities for kids, have combined to drive fans away from British grounds. Even some of the most ardent supporters have said no to choosing between buying a season ticket and having a holiday at an equivalent cost. As such a number of clubs have found themselves in large, newly-built modern grounds missing missing the crucial final piece: fans.
But over in Italy several clubs are taking action. The Old Lady Juventus last season moved into their new surroundings - the imaginatively named Juventus Stadium - after years of empty seats at the much disliked Stadio delle Alpi which was built for the 1990 World Cup. The reasons behind the stadium’s average attendance being a pitiful third of its 67,000 capacity are plentiful but centre upon bad sight lines due to the running track, a poor atmosphere and a dearth of transport links. But fundamentally Juventus were a team ill-matched to their ground. While claiming to be Italy’s ‘best supported’ club with around 11 million fans, the residents of Turin chose to watch Torino while Juventus sold out grounds in Milan, Parma, Palermo and Bologna when they played a number of ‘home’ matches elsewhere in 1994-95 to try to the alleviate the problem. The new ground, built on the same site, is relatively compact - seating 41,000 fans - and has a tight rectangular shape beneath an oval roof in a more British style. In short, it suits The Old Lady like a pile of knitting on a winter’s afternoon.
But it is not just Juventus that have come to terms with the failings of their long-term home. The San Siro, one of Europe’s most majestic and iconic grounds, will no longer house the blue side of Milan’s famous duelling rivals. Inter Milan last month revealed China Railway Construction Corp will invest in its new stadium, moving out of the 80,065 capacity San Siro after ground sharing with Milan since 1946. The new Internazionale stadium will have a capacity of 60,000 and construction would start next year, due for completion in 2017, although a location has not been confirmed. Meanwhile, arch rivals AC Milan will be hoping the team can improve gates and atmosphere after recording their lowest ever season ticket sales of 23,000, some of which were returned after the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Similarly, Udinese are also planning to redevelop and modernise their Stadio Friuli, revising its capacity down from 42,000 to 25,000.
For British clubs keen on expansion, these Italian decisions could sound a note of caution. A number of traditionally big clubs including Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday have proposed expansions on top of older but atmospheric grounds. West Ham, too, could think twice before trading up to the larger Olympic Stadium in favour of the cauldron of Upton Park, if a deal is ever done. The East Londoners are also known to heavily discount ticket prices at midweek matches suggesting the better fortunes of other London clubs is beginning to hurt attendances.
Ultimately, clubs need to ensure that their stadiums reflect both the size of their fanbase at present and allow a proportion of extra capacity if the team hits good times. A winning combination of an impassioned fanbase and modern facilities remains both an achievable and common aspiration.
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