Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Arsenal’s actual average attendance last season was 53,788

It has long been a bug bear of mine that Arsenal announces official attendances which so often are clearly not accurate. The scores of empty seats at many home matches are clear proof that things are not what they seem.

It's become a bit of a running joke among supporters and everyone seems to have accepted it. But I've got so annoyed with the ‘tickets sold = attendance’ policy that I decided to try and do something about it.

So, armed with a trusty sword of truth and shield of justice, I did what every great conspiracy theorist-in-the-making does and fired off a freedom of information request.

It went to the Met Police, that bastion of fair play and trustworthiness, who eventually delivered what I asked for: the actual attendance figures supplied to them by the Club for every home game last season.

The real attendance stats
The figures (based on the official stadium capacity of 60,338 stated in the 2013/14 Premier League Handbook and which can be downloaded from the image below) make for stark reading:

* on average the actual attendance was 5,998 lower than that stated by the Club
* on average 6,550 seats were empty per game
* the worst attended match was Fenerbahce at 44,779, which was 15,559 lower than capacity and 11,492 below the official attendance
* the best attended game was Liverpool in the league at 57,341
* the real average attendance was 53,788 compared to 59,786 announced by the Club
* a total of 173,945 seats went unoccupied at home games last season




(For reasons only known to themselves, the Met have not published my request and the data on their website, which they appear to do with most other FOIs. But if anyone doubts their validity, the FOI reference was 2014050000832 and Arsenal have said the numbers are ‘broadly accurate’ which I’m taking to mean ‘accurate’. If you want to download the sheet visit )

Hopefully the chart and numbers speak for themselves but I’ll highlight a couple of points that struck me.

Firstly, it isn’t ‘big games’ that necessarily draw the biggest crowds. The Chelsea (Premier League, not League Cup) and Bayern Munich matches were only the 18th and 19th best attended last season while Southampton, Norwich and Fulham were 5th, 6th and 7th.

Secondly, non-weekend matches are generally more poorly attended: Saturday and Sunday games comprise nine of the top 15 attendances compared to only three of the bottom 14. Does that mean weekday travel could be improved or just that supporters are inevitably going to struggle to get away from work / school / college in time?

Thirdly, television coverage appears to be a non-issue. I can’t see a pattern based on whether matches were screened on terrestrial or digital television but I’m open to any suggestions that I’m missing something.

Why oh why
The numbers trigger two ‘why’ questions: why does Arsenal announce the tickets sold figure as the attendance, and why do up to 6,000 people not turn up to every game?

My working theory going in to this exercise was that the Club uses the ‘tickets sold’ number to overinflate the true demand for tickets, thereby helping to justify charging some of the highest prices in the world. It also encourages season ticket holders to renew and avoid potentially missing out on tickets on a match by match basis because they think demand is *so* high. The counter point to that argument is that matches are selling out so surely demand is there. But when you consider there are approximately 45,000 season ticket holders (leaving about 12,000 tickets for match-by-match purchase if you assume 3,000 away fans), there will be many more people who have paid for a ticket that they want to get rid of than those actively deciding to go to a particular match.

However, having looked at things in more detail, I think the real answer to the first question is that a) it’s probably just easier and quicker to give that than the real attendance and b) it appears to be common practice. I dropped a quick email to a dozen current Premier League sides. Of those that responded, only Spurs said their policy is based on actual attendance. Burnley, QPR and Everton all base it on ticket sales. It was by no means a scientific exercise but it at least shows Arsenal isn’t the only club who practice the policy.

What Arsenal say
At this stage I got in touch with the Club to get their side of the story. They strongly rejected the suggestion that the policy was an attempt to deliberate mislead supporters in connection to ticket prices.

Their statement said: “We are clear in all our communication that the figure we are announcing reflects the number of tickets sold.

“The club are comfortable with using ‘number of tickets sold’ as the measurement for attendances, and believe it is a reliable and relevant one. We have no plans to review this at present.

“It’s worth making the point that the Club work hard to ensure that Emirates Stadium is as full as possible on matchdays, through our Ticket Transfer and Ticket Exchange systems.”

I would dispute the point about them clearly stating that attendances reflect tickets sold. The media are apparently told it explicitly on match day but I don’t see any evidence of it in the programme or Club magazine. It also doesn’t state it on the Club website (though equally it also doesn’t say it is the attendance, it just gives a number which floats around on match reports).

I didn’t ask the Club to explain why they think an average of 6,000 supporters do not turn up having bought a ticket as I think it is an impossible question to answer. The more important point is what they are doing about it and in highlighting the Ticket Transfer and Ticket Exchange schemes the approach they are taking is clear.

What more can be done
The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust asked a series of interesting questions at the last supporters’ forum and the answers also show the Club is looking at improving those systems, with the prospect of a ‘seat utilisation’ scheme in the offing. I would take that to mean incentivising people who do actually turn up or make use of their ticket. That could include rewarding supporters through cup final ticket prioritisation, as Tim Payton, the AST secretary, suggests in this blog. Tim also raises another good way of improving the Ticket Exchange system, by allowing tickets to be bought/sold for less than face value.

There is clearly a problem with the Ticket Exchange system. At the time of writing, there was supposedly half a dozen tickets available through it online for the Crystal Palace game but when you click on them they say they are no longer available. The buying process is extremely user unfriendly and the selling process must be the same – you can guarantee there will be more than half a dozen empty seats on Saturday.

Some other points I would throw in to the debate about getting people to the ground are trying to address the non-weekend travel issues, assuming that is a problem for people as the chart suggests. If the Club successfully pressed the authorities to put on a few more late trains would that be enough to convince people to come to games?

I think the Club could also put more effort into its supporters’ clubs. If the volunteers running them were given more backing, they might attract and keep more members and in turn be able to run more transport to and from games.

Admitting the problem
Whatever you reckon the solution is, the first step is for the Club to acknowledge how serious the problem is in the first place and I think that means abandoning the ‘tickets sold’ policy on official attendance, or at least giving the true attendance as well as tickets sold.

Fundamentally, Arsenal is redefining the word ‘attendance’ and it is misleading. Other clubs do it as well but Arsenal has always claimed to stand for higher values than everyone else and it should do so again here. I hope getting the real attendances into the public raises the profile of the issue and goes some way to convincing the Club they need to rethink the policy. Only then can they talk honestly about how to fill all the empty seats.

PS: On a historical note, the Club also confirmed that the supposed record attendance at the Emirates Stadium (against Man U in 2007) was based on tickets sold. Hope the club historians have their asterisks ready.

27 comments:

  1. An excellent article that raises important questions. The glaring reality is that a huge number of seats are unoccupied on match days despite the demand for tickets. The club cannot be held accountable for that, as it is the choice of the ticket-holder to bother to show up, but why wouldn't they, and in such numbers? The ticket exchange system could address this, but seems to be under-utilized. Again, it begs the question, if you have paid for a ticket, can't attend, and have the chance to recoup your outlay, why wouldn't you?

    As for the club's policy, well, the word attendance implies bums on seats, perhaps governing bodies such as the Premier League should insist on this number being published, even it would take a little longer to verify.

    It's a shame there are so many non-committal fans out there with money to burn on tickets, but no motivation to turn up and cheer on the team they supposedly support. If only fans would dearly love to take their place could have a better chance to procure those tickets.

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  2. Good read that. I currently rent a season ticket and travel from South Wales, ohh and I dont drive. So as for Monday night football, towards the end of the season, I missed out on both the West Ham and the Newcastle game. I dont think its fair though for a team like Newcastle to travel down to London on a Monday night. Its a joke these days, with the Asian market being so big, surely the number of mid week and Monday games should be limited to suit away fans and fans across the globe

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    1. Think travel will have a big part to play in it - weekend games much better attended more regularly. Think the Club should acknowledge the problem, look into the causes more and press for action to help supporters.

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  3. Just for the record most clubs announce the attendance according to tickets sold for tax reasons. Simple as that. It's common practice and to suggest that what Arsenal do is unusual is completely wrong.

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    1. If that is the case, the Club didn't say that in their response. And why would Spurs - admittedly only one club and, well, Spurs - announce the real attendance?

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    2. I believe the answer to the second part lies in the phrase exceptions and rules. We (and others) were heavily investigated by HMRC over image rights and other tax 'sliding' and since then have announced full sales.
      I'd also say, as someone who was a regular on the terraces from the mid-'70s that previously attendances were often grossly under-reported. Any terrace boys of that era will remember often gasping at low attendances when we knew different.

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  4. great research mate

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  5. Much ado about nothing. If the club sells 60,000 tickets for a game and 10% on average don't turn up and 90% do then the club are perfectly entitled to say that they have sold 60,000 tickets. Who knows why they didn't bother/ couldn't make a game. There could be many reasons corporate bookings where not all invited make it, midweek games when other commitments make it harder to attend, sickness, travel problems any of myriad other individual complications. It might seem sensible to use the old much maligned strategy of selling 66,000 tickets in the expectation that 6,000 don't make it but that's always been a recipe for disaster. Not all fully booked hotels have every room occupied and not every sold out concert has everyone turn up. Why do we see a need to make a fuss about it when Arsenal involved? The more so it appears to be the convention among PL games with the exception of those with small grounds like Spurs who still can't fill it for every game. The club are perfectly entitled to publish the tickets sold as this is the only true measure of demand for tickets. Making it easier for the 10% or so who don't turn up to sell their tickets still won't get 100% attendance for all games and whether they choose to do so or not doesn't matter at all

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    1. I totally agree with you. Much ado about nothing.

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  6. Yes 10% not turning up is normal, still, afc should make an effort to get more fans in. Problem lies with our season ticket prices being too high. We have too many wealthy people owning tickets, not bothered about getting money back through exchange. Afc should make holders check in for matches online, and put the seats up for face value when this has not happened. But of course afc would not like to have people knowing there will be over a thousand tickets in exchange available for each match. It could lower the amount of seasonticket holders and the waiting list. For afc, its a moneygame of trying to help fans but also make sure tickets are very exclusive.

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    1. If season ticket prices were lower it wouldn't ensure 'poorer' people bought them - 'richer' people would just buy more.

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  7. Probably impossible to find out but would be interesting to see if there is any trend in the unoccupied seats, i.e. a relationship between price and occupancy.
    At least Arsenal haven't followed Chelsea & Spurs and backed secondary ticketing systems which bid up prices.

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  8. Introduce a rule that says seats that have less than optimal utilisation will not be offered to renew the season ticket.

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    1. but would you then reach the situation where people are sending in doctors notes if they are getting close to missing (say) 20% of the games in a season?

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  9. I think part of the reason could be the number of televised games and northern season ticket holders.

    I think the Northern fans struggle to get down for mid-week games. Its a bit of a trek, I moved up north about 8 years ago and find home games such an expense. If you include the time it takes to get back, it is a massive ask to go to Arsenal for a mid-week home game.

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  10. Don't Bayern Munich have a policy where if you miss 5 games you have your season ticket revoked? Something like that maybe a good idea for arsenal where demand outstrips supply

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  11. Terrific piece of research, well done. My mind is pretty boggled though by some peoples reaction to this on Twitter. Those people seeing this as some affront to Arsenal, denying the numbers or saying all that matters is the number of tickets sold are completely missing the point in my opinion. This research is highlighting the fact that there is a big opportunity to allow more people to get the chance to watch the club we all support, and to have more people in the ground backing the team. The club are trying to address this thru Ticket Exchange but the scheme needs to be improved IMO. I have a pair of season tickets and due to work/family commitments often only decide whether or not I can go on the day of the game by which time TicketEx is closed. I'll often just give the tickets away to people at work so the seats are used, but at late notice it's not always possible. If TicketEx allowed you to return seats back on day of game & had some sort of late returns where people could queue on the day or be on a waiting list for last minute tickets I think they could get more people thru the door and prob get more local fans into the ground.

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    1. If you're only deciding on the day of the game whether you want to go or not there's almost no system possible that's likely to see your seat used. Unless maybe the club allows people in for free if the seats haven't been taken up by kick off - but then what happens if you turn up at half time which you're entitled to do if you've paid for the ticket? The problem is you. Tell the club a week before if you don't intend to go.

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    2. If there is a problem then the problem is you. Don't leave it until the last minute to decide whether you want to go to a game. Nobody's going to travel to the ground on the day and wait outside in the hope that you're going to ring up.

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  12. Didn't the Premier League just announce all glowingly about Increased/Record attendances etc- The reality is of course in the figures above!

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  13. Went to a Giants baseball game in the US with my cousin who is a ST holder. He uses this app called Pogoseat to upgrade his seats and list his seats to games he cant make. Like the ticket exchange we use at Arsenal - but better..We entered our barcodes and for $100 (£60) each we were sat in hospitality. Gets better...our original seats then got bought by someone else and we got some money back! Very cool indeed! Wish we could do this at the Emirates.

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  14. Drama llama a go-go. Good digging but ultimately I agree with Anonymous from 20:40 yesterday.

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  15. How can you expect Arsenal to find a solution to a problem if it is as you say impossible to figure out what's causing the problem in the first place? Most of this "analysis" is pure speculation that is devoid of logic.

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  16. Great read, thanks for all your efforts.

    The Pogoseat solution posted by Jake_COYG does appear to be a very easy way to gain some expertise in and modernise the whole exchange process.

    Does anyone have a suitable contact email we could register under the 'Interested in partnering with us?' just on the off chance it would generate some dialogue :)

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  17. I agree with those who have said this was a pointless bit of research. Arsenal will pay tax on the income from tickets sold, and I agree that is the most sensible figure to give rather than some irrelevant 'people in the ground' number. Like someone else said, I've also heard giving the official gate as the number of tickets sold is what most clubs do these days. Hence I don't think Arsenal should change the way home attendances are counted.

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  18. High Tickets equals Empty Seats. Take a look and Premier and Lower games o TV you will plenty of Empty Seats. Great Article by the way. Football need to lower match day tickets or see their seats remain empty and unsold regardless of their propaganda.

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  19. I would suggest that a large number of these seats (and possibly more) are owned by companies that buy a season ticket or twenty at the start of the season and then dish tickets out as corporate gifts (not all corporate hospitality involves spendings tens of thousands on a box and champagne).

    Therefore the recipient may or may not be interested in attending.

    They may also be ones allocated to sponsors like Europcar, Indesit, Tiger Beer, etc.

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