With disenchantment and disillusion engulfing Fulham at present, Saturday’s match with Blackburn presents the most palpable opportunity to bear witness the discontent amongst the fan base. It has been three weeks since our last home match, and Saturday’s attendance at Craven Cottage will tell its own story as to whether fans are now voting with their feet when it comes to showing their discontent.
Whilst angry rhetoric and volleys of verbal bombardment can cause quite the uproar, empty seats provide nothing for the club. No atmosphere, no support and more importantly, no money.
Relegation to The Championship has already hit us hard attendance wise. From three home games so far this season, we are averaging a crowd of 18,374. When you consider 24,447 turned up to watch an already relegated Fulham draw with Crystal Palace back in May, that is a drop of over 6,000. Indeed the Crystal Palace match was our lowest league attendance of 2014 at the time, with 25,700 turning up to watch the penultimate game against Hull when we still had a remote shot at staying up.
Compare the Hull fixture in April (25,700) to the Cardiff game three weeks ago (17,508), and that is a drop off in attendance of 8,192 people. At a hypothetical average ticket price of £30 a head, that is a staggering £245,760 fall in match-day revenue from ticket sales alone. By the time you factor in merchandise and food and beverage spend, that’s close to £300,000 per game.
With 20 league games to go, that could mean a whopping £6,000,000 in reduced match-day income from last season to this.
In an environment as we are now, where money does not grow on trees, this revenue is of vital importance. What can be done to recover lost bums on seats? It is the Six Million Pound question for Fulham this season and there is no one answer.
Sat bottom of the Championship, the most obvious way to get fans back would be to start winning. Easier said than done however, and with the predicament the club finds itself in getting worse by the match, there must be an over-riding fear that attendances have not yet reached their lowest ebb. The upcoming league cup tie with Doncaster looms on the horizon like the grim reaper looking to collect his debts. With season ticket holders already gifted their ticket to the tie as part of the season ticket renewal package, this fixture was always intended as something of a loss-leader. Unless there is a dramatic shift in the next week, financially, this game is likely to now just be a loss.
10,139 (of which I was unfortunately 1) saw us disgracefully bow out of last season’s FA Cup to Sheffield United in February. It will be interesting to see if this number is bettered next Tuesday. When you take into account the free tickets it certainly should be, a failure to do so would be damning in its verdict.
It may not get that far though. Football fans ever want to view the grass as greener. Were a change in the offing, it would take little to shift the paradigm to optimism. Whether that would be enough to get the undecided back to Cottage would remain to be seen.
Indeed it is those undecided punters that hold the key here. Us season ticket holders are a sunk cost. We’ve already paid up for the year and our emotional investment runs even deeper. We’ll travel come rain or shine, both physical and metaphorical, to see our Fulham at Craven Cottage. Whilst this may not feel much like the Fulham we all know and love right now, we’ll still be there…well, maybe not for Doncaster, that remains to be seen.
Perhaps there was an over-reliance and under-appreciation of the proportion of “tourists” at the Cottage. I’m not referring to overseas Fulham fans, but rather neutrals and those to whom the attraction was the Premier League and Fulham was simply the most accessible vehicle with which to gain entry. Our club’s core values espouse this accessibility. It may be a bit cheesy, but we are the Fulham Family. Being a family club is always something I have viewed with great pride about Fulham. Our ground, our supporters and our football all championed a higher virtue that made it easy for others to take to.
With supporters getting increasingly antsy and the football increasingly worse, Craven Cottage, as charming as it is, will not be enough to get people through the turnstiles.
The answer unlikely lies with ticket prices, though as shown above they do illustrate the extent of the problem. Indeed, if we actually consider that average Premier League ticket prices were probably closer to £40, the drop in ticket and match day income this season could be as much as £8 million, or 72% of Ross McCormack.
With away supporters contributing up to 3,000 to the attendance (probably more in Millwall’s case), and there being in the region of 10,000 season tickets (I’m not aware of the actual number so this is merely a hypothetical guesstimate), that leaves about 13,000 potential seats to fill with the so called “undecideds”. At the Cardiff game, there were probably less than 5,000 Fulham fans who were not season ticket holders. At an average of £30 a ticket they will have generated about £150,000 of ticket revenue. If the stadium was sold to capacity, Fulham fans would generate an additional £240,000 in ticket sales per game on top of that £150,000.
At what price though, would tickets have to be lowered to get fans back through the gates on money alone? £20, £10? There must be a large proportion to whom money is not the issue as to why they are not coming.
To recover the same amount of income, £150,000, at £15 a ticket, the club would need an additional 5,000 fans to turn up. Would a ticket discount be enough to get them back and double the pay per game attendance? I’m not sure. At £10 a ticket, it would not be possible for the club to even get to the £150,000 mark, with a capacity crowd only reaching a maximum single game ticketing revenue of £130,000.
However, we could now return to the concept of a loss leader. Instead of at a relatively meaningless League Cup game, were the club to discount tickets to such an extent that people did actually turn up for a League game, perhaps the atmosphere would be such that the team might actually win? If they did, then some of those undecideds might come back at full price. Unfortunately though, even once you’ve got people through the door, the product must be good enough to get them back, and that simply isn’t the case at present.
This point is thrown into stark light when you compare us to fellow relegated sides Norwich and Cardiff. Norwich currently sit top of the table and have averaged 97% capacity so far this season. Cardiff, who like Fulham are languishing towards the bottom of the table (albeit still 7 points better off), are averaging 75% capacity when you compare it to their final Premiership home game against Chelsea. Performance at this level really does impact on getting fans through the turnstiles. With success breeding full houses and, in turn, full houses often breeding success, Norwich are currently sitting pretty, while Cardiff and Fulham both face uncertain immediate futures.
So what can be done?
Well, not a lot from the commercial standpoint. You have to feel for those held responsible for selling the tickets, their job has been made increasingly difficult of late. Whilst communication counts for a lot, without a sustained upturn in performances and results, no amount of giveaways or price reductions will make a substantial impact when it comes to attendances. The rolling out of a “letter from Emerson Hyndman” this week was the latest in a series of ticket selling initiatives, and while putting the young players front and centre is certainly the most optimistic way to communicate, with all the chopping and changing on the field, 18 year old Hyndman has almost become the only viable marketing tool at the club’s disposal.
If reports in today’s Mirror and The Times as well as in tonight’s Evening Standard are to be believed, a change may very soon be in the offing. As bizarre as a leaked story about a one game stay of execution away at one of the best teams in the division is, it is emblematic of where we are today. Whilst better attendances are important, keeping the crowd that are there onside should not be ignored. As the aforementioned article today’s Standard also mentions, there is a groundswell of support for Kit Symons to play an increased role at the club.
Any new manager would need to be an appointment to unite the supporters. Whilst there would be palpable relief in the aftermath of any change, the next appointment is of paramount importance. After several years of wayward wandering, it might be time for the appointment of a member of the Fulham Family to the top job. The fans need something to cling on to, and a Kit Symons and Danny Murphy dream is perhaps all we currently have left.