IN SPINAL Tap there is a moment when the spandex clad hairies explain that their tour being downsized from massive stadiums to cosy 3,000 capacity halls is because they “are being much more selective about their audience.”
That is where we are now with Boro. The once trendy football phenomona has been forgotten by the fickle fashionistas now the glamour has worn off and is now left with just the downsized hardcore audience. Less than 25,000 for a Premier League game at the prime time of a non-televised Saturday afternoon? Don’t worry, Middlesbrough isn’t a big football town anyway.
The 24, 959 crowd for Blackburn Rovers was the third worst ever for a league game at the Riverside. Portsmouth, the game before, was the second worst behind the 23,189 at home to Charlton in February 2002. Those marks will go this season. We’ve still got the ratings-killers that are the Robins, Watford and Bolton to come.
Boro now have a massive problem. Yes it a nationwide issue and fans everywhere are walking away from over-priced turgid football where multi-millionaires with limited talent mark time in a league they can never hope to win but at Boro the gates are falling further and faster than anywhere else and at a time of unprecedented success.
The lads from the estates who once formed the beating heart of the Holgate are now watching the game from the really cheap seats, pint in hand in the pub, shouting and swearing and smoking with their mates. And you can’t blame them. What is the alternative for them? Paying walk-up prices of ÃÂ£30 to sit in a sterile atmosphere where the only way they can talk to their friends scattered around the ground is by text.
The Rovers and Portsmouth marks will become the norm this season. For a club that five years ago rarely dipped below 30,000 regular gates of 24,000 will mean a major financial readjustment. That and a lack of small screen action may mean that soon Keith Lamb’s prediction that Teesside will get “the team it can afford” could start to become a reality.
The club will have to bite the bullet and look at far more creative pricing and marketing strategies. This summer Boro reacted to an impending collapse in season tickets sales by slashing prices for juniors and that has been a resounding success and has held the core figure at a respectable 22,000 – although it has disguised a problematic desertion of full whack paying Red Bookers in their 40s and 50s.
But that is not where the main battleground lies. The most loyal fans will always go. It is the floaters, the casuals, yes ‘the part-timers’, who make or break a club. They can make the difference between breaking even and raking it in and between an average atmosphere and a bouncing one. Boro must regain the hearts and minds of that layer of 10 to 20,000 fans who would go in the right circumstances and at the right price.
It is not just an economic issue. Smaller crowds do mean less revenue but the TV cash can compensate for that. But smaller crowds also dent the atmosphere, undermine the feel-good factor and send out signals that all is not well. A buoyant crowd is a narcotic that attracts fans to games as much as the football. It is an integral part of the product.
The club must act quickly to arrest the slide before it leads to a meltdown and pushes Boro’s crowd down towards its ‘natural’ level below the 20,000 barrier.