I am very pleased to say that Simon Hall is back with another great peice. This time a thought provoking article about the Wigan game and the empty seats. Chris.
So after seven long years, Saturday afternoon saw the much-anticipated return of Premier League football to St. Mary’s. And wasn’t it, well, entirely underwhelming? You may be relieved to hear that I am going to leave the football post-mortem to Nigel Adkins and his team, who are infinitely more qualified than myself to carry it out. Instead I will focus on the thing that was most disappointing to witness as a fan in the stadium: the numerous empty seats and general lack of enthusiasm from the Southampton fans. Was this really our triumphant return to the “promised land”? Looking around the ground, one could have mistaken this for a January mid-table clash, not the first home game of a fresh Premier League era. The attendance of 29,604 was as curious as it was upsetting.
Anyone watching highlights of the game won’t have failed to notice the sparse turnout and Gary Lineker tweeted during the game: ‘Surprisingly poor turn out for Saints first game back in PL. Ground looks half empty. Any reason?’ While the ‘half empty’ claim is clearly exaggerated, the underlying point is certainly a fair one. How could Southampton FC possibly fail to sell out their first home game back in the Premier League, let alone leave the best part of 3,000 seats unfilled? Wigan’s meagre away following explains away a fair portion of this and accounted for the lack of atmosphere but gaps in the home sections were there for all to see. The point of this post isn’t to attack the Saints fans who didn’t go – I for one detest the pointless ‘plastics’ debate which has plagued the pre-season fan forums – the aim is instead to identify why so many stayed away for one of the biggest games in the club’s recent history.
When it comes to attendance-related issues in football, a logical place to start is with the economics of supply and demand. Unfortunately the supply of Southampton-Wigan tickets clearly exceeded demand at the price implemented. Or, as Matthew Le Tissier rather more succinctly put it in response to Lineker: ‘Massive hike in ticket prices I think mate’. The fact that tickets for the Manchester United game next Sunday have already sold out unmistakably demonstrates that there is enough overall demand for Premier League football amongst Southampton fans. Unfortunately (although perhaps understandably), it seems there is not that same demand for Wigan Athletic. Logic and economics dictate that an adequate solution would be for the club to lower ticket prices for Category C games like Wigan and offset this by increasing the price of Category A tickets as people are clearly willing to pay to see the top teams. Currently, the spectrum of prices is fairly narrow, with the cheapest ticket to see Manchester United only £8 more than the cheapest ticket to Saints vs. Wigan. If fans are willing to pick and choose their games in this manner then make them pay for it. Whether this is a feasible solution remains to be seen.
However, I believe this debate should not stop at ticket prices. Southampton FC also needs to ask itself whether it is doing enough to actively draw fans in. Football clubs are ultimately businesses and in no other industry would a company expect customers to return purely through a sense of loyalty; why should Southampton FC be any different? It may be slightly unfair to suggest that the club does not put the effort in with regards to marketing and communications. In the last two years, the communications side of things has improved dramatically with engaging website and Saints Player content, as well as informative and up-to-date social media accounts. The problem is that much of this activity targets active Saints fans, like myself, who already go out of their way to take an interest in the club. While that is a worthwhile exercise, it could be argued that Saints sometimes stop short of attracting new customers and fans through their marketing efforts. Acquisition marketing should not be underestimated in the context of a football club.
Aside from the surprising attendance figure, there was a relatively subdued atmosphere and general negativity amongst those inside the stadium. Over the years (and the last couple in particular), I have come to see St Mary’s as a noisy and largely positive fortress for the club but there was something missing on Saturday. Once again, the lack of Wigan fans explains part of this as the Saints fans had nobody to bounce off and the forceful Northam End had large gaps due to the late return of Wigan’s allocation. More concerning was the sight of hundreds of fans all around the ground heading for the exits as Koné struck the visitors’ second and decisive goal. Even worse than that were the few boos that were scattered around the stands after the final whistle. In my previous post before the start of the season, I wrote about the patience that needs to be displayed by fans in the forthcoming campaign as we lose more games than we have been used to. Unfortunately, a small minority seems to think we should be winning every single Premier League game. While the result was certainly disappointing, I can assure you that if you were booing yesterday you’re in for an extremely long season. Adkins and his men have earned their shot at the Premier League and there is going to be a period of adjustment.
Overall, it seems that there is much to ponder for the Southampton FC team and fans alike. In the past, Adkins has talked about ‘controlling the controllables’. Frustratingly, there are very few controllables for football supporters. What we can do is fill our seating allocation and give our team as much support as we can muster. We need to make sure we take more control for the remainder of the season. Fortunately, one game doesn’t make a season and the next two matches represent perfect stages to start putting things right.