Just to set some context to this article, I was prompted to put fingers to keyboard by three recent, virtually simultaneous, observations.
The first was a discussion about MadStad attendances this season, which look to be consistently lower than last year by around 2,500 per match. Delving a bit deeper, the average attendance from our first six home Championship games is 16,951, compared to 19,459 for the first six of last season, and when you look at crowd figures for games against the four teams we’ve so far played this year and last gives strikingly similar results. Against Ipswich the crowd was down by 3,258 (from 20,456 last year), against Huddersfield it was down by 2,614 (from 17,649), against Millwall down by 3,154 (from 18,245) and Derby down by 3,324 (from 21,465). This is a small sample, and attendances are affected by many factors, but there does seem to be a consistent trend here, and since both Ipswich matches were the first home match of the season, played on a Saturday in mid-August, I’d suggest this is a good like-for-like indicator. To compound the worries, last week the Rotherham game saw the lowest league crowd at the MadStad for ten years. It’s pretty clear that football at Reading isn’t quite as popular this season as it has been over recent years.
Then we have the second observation. A significant number of my friends and acquaintances, all long-term season ticket holders for many years, have chosen not to renew their season-tickets this year. It really is a striking number – without much effort I can think of ten such friends, who until this year had held season tickets for a combined total of well over 100 years, and who have all spontaneously taken the decision to walk away this season. That makes me wonder if this reduction in attendances is a general phenomenon, or if it’s maybe more related to a certain generation or specific demographic of supporter.
But the third factor behind this article is a number of Twitter discussions with supporters who don’t seem to be able to countenance walking away under any circumstances whatsoever – including one who ended the conversation by saying he would be a die-hard Reading supporter until "they nail down the lid on my coffin." This is a recurring theme amongst many supporters of all clubs, for whom the most prized virtues of all, the ones with which they most vigorously and visibly identify themselves, are loyalty and commitment.
So we have a contradiction here - supporters who will never, ever be other than loyal to their club, at the same time as attendances are falling and long-term supporters clearly are walking away from their club. This prompted to think a little more deeply about the type of supporters at the club and their motivations, as well as the reasons that supporters do stop supporting. Of course, this is written about Reading supporters, but I’m sure it applies in similar ways to supporters of all clubs.
However, let me stress I’m not looking to write about what it means to be a supporter – many much better writers than me have covered that subject to exhaustion. If you want something along those lines, read Nick Hornby’s "Fever Pitch," or, better still, read "A Fan's Notes" by Frederick Exley. Although it involves a different type of football, it captures the highs and lows and the effect of these onto the troubled life of a supporter better than any other book I know.
So, for starters, let’s consider the textbook "football supporter" – an image much loved by the media and much perpetuated by them over many years. It’s also an image that the "football industry" itself has latched onto with great enthusiasm – and by "football industry" I mean all the various organisations that make money out of football, such as TV companies, newspapers, advertisers, bookmakers and so on – not to mention football clubs themselves.
For all these organisations, this "loyal supporter" is a much beloved stereotype, one which they champion as the image every supporter should aspire to. And supporters are complicit in this - for many there’s an on-going and unspoken "I’m a better supporter than you" one-upmanship in progress. The more loyal and the more devoted, the greater the kudos for any supporter, so this endless quest to be a "perfect supporter" perpetuates.
Of course, there are good commercial reasons why the football industry loves this stereotype – the supporter who is unquestioning in their loyalty and devotion is the one who will be first in line to buy replica shirts and all other manner of club-branded tat, and they’ll also be the supporter who won’t quail at high ticket prices or inconvenient changes to kick-off times. Their "loyal supporter" façade is built on being at the match, whatever the time, money or effort required - so they’ll be there at the match no matter what it takes – and they’ll visibly be there, because being seen to be a "loyal supporter" is much more important than actually being one.
These "loyal supporters" certainly exist, but I wonder in just what numbers. I’m fairly sure that there are far, far, fewer of them in reality than clubs and supporters would have you believe – but because so many supporters so visibly aspire to this stereotype there always seem to be more "loyal supporters" than actually exist.
Let’s consider the make-up of the crowd at a typical match. I appreciate that this will vary by club and by league, but I think most people would estimate that the home crowd would be about 80% "loyal supporters" and about 20% others, who are less "loyal", whilst the majority of the away crowd – say 10% of the total – would be the visiting team’s "loyal supporters".
In reality, though, these numbers are quite wrong. As Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski pointed out in their enlightening book "Why England Lose & Other Curious football phenomena explained" the actual demographics of typical football crowds are very different. This book, which applies statistics and economics amongst other academic disciplines, discusses a detailed survey of supporter habits performed in the mid-to-late 1990s. This reveals some interesting insights.
For instance, from an average home crowd of 21,000, about 38% were season-ticket holders who came to virtually every match – as close as we can get to the idealistic "loyal supporters" discussed above.
Another subset of the crowd, again approximately 38% of the total, were regular attenders. These were people who came to most matches, but certainly not to all of them, and the individuals in this group came from a larger pool of around 15,000 who would regularly attend matches but were choosy about which ones.
The third subset was occasional fans. These are people who come much less frequently to matches, including one-off attendances. They perhaps don’t have a particular allegiance to either team, they perhaps just like attending football and/or can’t watch their "real" team, or they perhaps have come to the match with someone who is a more committed supporter. Alternatively, they may be giving football a try as a "sports leisure activity" and might well be a family attracted by marketing initiatives.
Although often despised and derided by those who project themselves as "loyal supporters", it shouldn’t be overlooked that this study found that this demographic of "occasional supporters" made up nearly 24% of the total crowd – a not insignificant proportion.
Of course, these are the figures analysed at just one club, and I’d expect this to vary from club to club. A smaller club, especially one further down the league pyramid, might have fewer "occasionals" amongst an overall smaller attendance, whilst a bigger, inner-city club, especially one with a long tradition of success, would almost certainly have a greater proportion of "loyal supporters" and longer-term season ticket holders. But such clubs also are targets of "football tourists" – overseas visitors going to a single match. Look in the crowd of any high-profile match featuring one of the "Big 5" and you’ll see just how prevalent this new phenomenon of the Premier League era has become.
As an aside, there’s a direct correlation between the relative proportions of "loyal supporters", "regulars" and "occasionals" at any ground. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that at a club like Reading, where the majority of high-profile success has come in the last generation, and where marketing efforts are predominantly aimed at the "sports leisure activity" and family markets, the proportion of those we’re labelling "loyal supporters" will probably decreasing, and this will have a consequent effect on the atmosphere at matches.
Of course, from a marketing point of view, the task of the club is to convert "occasionals" into "regulars" or, even better, into "loyal supporters." From what I’ve seen over recent years, I don’t think this is happening, and if anything we might be seeing the opposite, as I’ve noticed many "loyal supporters" leaving. Because for them the route is unlikely to become a "regular" or an "occasional" – it’s typically to walk away completely.
The next insight within these crowd statistics is even more interesting, and relates to number of "loyal supporters." Even when this total stayed fairly stable from season to season, at around 8,000 at the club surveyed, the actual individuals concerned changed substantially from year to year. In fact, this "churn" each year averaged over 10% of the total season-ticket base – so although the club might still have 8,000 season-ticket holders from one year to the next, it had lost nearly 1,000 of them and replaced them with the same number of new ones.
This demonstrates that the even amongst "loyal supporters" there’s a significant turnover from year to year – being a "loyal supporter" is unlikely to be a lifelong thing, rather it’s something you do for a certain period of your life. People – even self-proclaimed "loyal supporters" - do stop supporting teams, or at least they stop attending matches, for all sorts of reasons.
And it seems that there are enough Reading supporters affected by these reasons right now for the drop in attendances to have become noticeable – and at the same time it’s clear that not enough new supporters are coming along to replace them.
So let’s take a look at some of the reasons that people stop attending games.
No surprises here - this is one that probably affects everyone at some time or another. Lives change. People leave home or move, they go to university, they change jobs, they have relationships, they have kids and so on– there are all sorts of reasons why people stop coming to matches. For everyone, it’s all a question of priorities, and real life brings changes that can lower the priority football has in their lives. But, of course, these things can work in reverse – I know people who’ve stopped coming to Reading when they had kids who have now come back – with their kids. So lifestyle changes needn’t always be a permanent move away from supporting the club.
Time and Money
The two things most of us don’t have enough of – and they go hand in hand. As everyone knows, football isn’t cheap these days, and as well as paying for the ticket there are all the other incidentals – travel costs, train or bus fares, parking etc., not to mention refreshment, programmes etc. The latter are optional, of course, but for many a burger or a beer are as essential a part of the "matchday experience" as the game itself. And even for people who can spare the money, there’s time and hassle as well – travel to Reading, queues for buses getting to an out-of-own stadium, or queuing to park and then to get out of car parks before the post-match war of attrition on the A33… These are all obstacles which make the thought of the match less attractive.
Friends and Family
A word-cloud of the responses of supporters asked why they first started coming to football shows that the most commonly used word is "family", closely followed by "friends." Football is an inherently social occasion, where who you go to the match with is as important as the match itself. So flexibility in ticketing is an important thing – and the ability to sit (or stand) together with friends or family is crucial, especially when friends or family members might not have season tickets or might not know weeks in advance that they’re able to come to a match. So sometimes people simply stop coming when the friends or family they go with stop going for some reason.
Not something likely to much affect those who declare themselves in the "loyal supporters" category, but something likely to affect those who are new or occasional supporters. Because anyone who is attracted to the club by marketing initiatives or short-term incentives is unlikely to be fully emotionally engaged with the club, and so might easily be lured away by someone else’s marketing initiatives or short-term incentives. That’s not to belittle marketing initiatives, and new supporters may well be hooked by the experience and in turn into "regulars" or "loyal supporters" – but if they’re lured to the game by fripperies rather than football they’re also more likely to see it as one of a number of potential leisure activities and never make the full jump of commitment to the team.
A tricky one, this. Despite all the protestations of the "’Til I Die" brigade, I think everyone has a breaking point at which they’ll walk away from the club they support. For some it may be quite minor, for others it might be extreme, but there are surely limits to everyone’s loyalty?
Would you still support the club if it was bought by an obvious criminal with blood on their hands? Would you still support them if ticket prices were increased exponentially? Would you still support them if an owner relocated the team to a town 80 miles away – or (even worse!) amalgamated them with Oxford or Swindon? What about if an owner decided they should wear red shirts rather than blue and white hoops? Or how about if the name "Reading" was dispensed with and the club was officially renamed "Royals"?
I appreciate that everyone has their own individual moral standards and breaking point - for me, a little bit of the respect I have for Reading FC dies each time I see adverts for Peachy loans (payday lenders with exploitative business practices and an APR of 1058%) on the perimeter advertising boards. But surely there is a breaking point for everyone, so I just don’t believe anyone who says they’ll support the club unconditionally and unquestioning, no matter what happens.
You’d think this would be a straightforward one – the worse the team plays, the lower the crowd. To a certain extent, yes, but it’s not quite that easy. For most of their existence, Reading fans were used to watching a team that, frankly, wasn’t very good. There were occasional highs, but the team rattled around tiers three and four for 71 of their first 80 as a Football League team. That was the status quo, everyone knew their level and attendances didn’t fluctuate wildly.
But the MadStad years have brought a change, and that’s in expectations. In the era of wall-to-wall media coverage and Premier League flirtations, expectations have been massively raised. At the same time, it seems that for some supporters who didn’t experience the years of Elm Park mediocrity, patience and tolerance levels are a lot lower. This not only affects attendances but reflects on calls for change, "more investment", managerial sackings and general discontent. Whilst obviously more relevant to newer supporters, who are less likely to be entrenched as "loyal supporters" and so more likely to leave when the going gets tough, it also affects longer-term supporters in a much subtler way.
Supporters aren’t idiots – they know what they see and they make their own judgements about the club and the team. They can see when things are not going well. So a relentlessly positive set of messages from within the club and from the manager, setting expectations constantly and unrealistically high, cause and conflict. I believe the psychologists call this conflict that comes from seeing one thing and being told another "Cognitive dissonance." Unrealistic expectations not being met is something else that may trigger the departure of some supporters.
The Matchday Experience
I hate that term, but let’s accept it for the moment. Since its earliest days there’s been something about football that has made it slightly dangerous, slightly bawdy, slightly disrespectful, slightly frowned upon by polite society. As such, it’s provided a safety-valve effect that’s been a crucial part of its appeal to many - where else can grown men and women, who have countless responsibilities in their lives, scream and shout and maybe swear, but also release some passion and some energy? No-one’s talking about hooliganism here – the vast, vast, majority of football supporters know the difference between high-spirits and taking things too far and don’t cross that line.
But football as an outlet for letting yourself go and letting has for decades been a key part of the attraction of the live game for many supporters. Take that away, by oppressive stewarding or the numerous ways in which clubs control supporters and supporter behaviour (for instance the very subtle way of controlling how supporters celebrate goals by drowning out anything spontaneous with music) and for many much of the appeal of the game has gone. I know that many have left for just this reason – the "sanitisation" of football - because too much club control has stopped them from completely immersing themselves in the game, and as such their matchday experience has diminished. Telling, though, many who cite this as their reason for walking away have not left the game completely. They’ve typically moved down a few levels, to watch football where there are fewer constraints on how they behave. Too much of this and there’s a danger that the whole matchday for everyone will end up being much less spontaneous, interactive and participative – with a stadium full of spectators, rather than supporters.
The relationship between a football supporter and their team is quite unlike any other supplier-consumer relationship in the world. You’ve never heard of anyone wanting their ashes spread in the aisle of their favourite supermarket, or travelling hundreds of miles every week to the shop that their family has always used. That level of commitment stems from a level of emotional relationship that depend on the club’s identity – the supporter really needs to be able to identify with the club in order to engage with them to that level.
But just what is Reading’s identity at the moment? If you’d asked me a few years ago I’d have been able to tell you straight away – the club used to be something special, different to all the other clubs, with obvious standards. I respected them for the way they were run, for the way they stood up to greedy players, for the influence they had over players’ images and behaviour, for the loyalty they showed in standing by their own, and in the way that so the football club seemed immune to many of the worst aspects of modern football. I loved the whole way they worked, the image they projected, the fact that the owner had standards and decency, there was a real difference about Reading FC.
Is there now?
Sadly, hand on heart, I can’t point to anything that distinguishes the club from any other football team in the 92. Financial standards have been blown away, there are players in the team who are thoroughly dislikeable and who publicly display all the worst aspects of the modern game, and the club is owned by – well, who exactly is the club owned by? We know some names and we’ve seen some pictures, but that’s about all we know. No-one has a clue what the future holds or what the owners’ intentions are or what the owners – or Reading FC – actually stand for.
And I think that’s one of the biggest reasons for disillusionment and loss of engagement amongst many. It’s hard to have a proper emotional relationship - and supporting a football team is an emotional relationship – with the sort of entity that Reading FC has morphed into over the past couple of years. That specialness, sadly, has gone, and there’s nothing very different now from virtually all the other 91 teams in so many ways.
I know lots of people feel this – and I really do fear that unless the club and its new owners urgently address this problem of lack of identity and decide what they are and what they stand for, many more people are going to walk away. Because whilst many other factors that affect attendance can be overcome, it' likely to become harder and harder to continue maintaining emotional ties with what has become "just another team".