A PICTURE paints a thousand words – and I’m throwing in the same again for free. Here’s a very telling graphic plus my own analysis of what appears a direct correlation between Boro’s attendance figures and the Teesside dole queue.
In recent years we have talked a lot on here about the price sensitivity of tickets and the role of recession in depressing gates, and we have tried to make anecdotal links between the current climate and previous bleaker times when Boro were in trouble. So here’s some concrete evidence to add meat to the bones of the debate.
The unemployment figures are from the Office of National Statistics and relate to the seasonally adjusted annual average unemployment rate in the Northern Region over the past 40 years. The attendance figures are Boro’s annual average over the same period. Let’s crunch numbers…
ON A bleak night in February 1985, just 3,477 demoralised fans turned out to witness Boro slip to a 2-1 defeat to Oldham at a moribund Ayresome Park.
Four days later the crowd lurched lower still to hit rock bottom. A meagre 3,364 saw Willie Maddren’s ailing side slump 1-0 to Notts County, the lowest ever league crowd at Ayresome in almost 100 years of professional football.
That season a club sliding towards liquidation recorded 14 gates under 5,000 and posted a sparse average of just 5,135, the worst since stepping out of the Victorian quaintness and sepia tinted parochialism of the Northern League for the modernity of the Football League in 1899.
That sickening season in the mid-80s was bleak. With the few remaining stars flogged off in the Charlie Amer fire sales, mounting debts spinning out of control and gates in freefall, the future of the club looked gloomy. There was a real stench of death about crumbling Ayresome Park.
But while the crowds were hitting an all time low, unemployment figures on Teesside were rocketing. Just look at the blue line soar painfully, relentless upwards on the graph.
Remember, Teesside’s heavy industry was starting to be slowly dismantled in the first signs of a seismic structural shift in Britain’s economy.
Engineering giants Head Wrightson’s at Mandale had finally closed the previous year after years of withering and the rapidly shrinking Smith’s Docks at South Bank was to follow quickly in 1986 leaving thousands of highly skilled Teessiders signing on.
The twin powerhouses of the local economy, British Steel and ICI, the foundations of our “Infant Hercules” were locked into a frantic spiral of job cuts that would throw tens of thousands more on the dole with a corrosive knock-on effect in related firms and a ruinous ripple down the high streets and through the estates of an area dependent on them.
And with Margaret Thatcher’s government pursuing a ruthless slash and burn policy of public spending cuts, thousands more jobs were being pruned from local authorities and health and education in an area always acutely vulnerable to such seismic convulsions in Whitehall.
In 1985 Teesside looked like it was shutting down. A generation of youngsters had left schools and went straight to sign on and collect their UB40 – including me – while whole layers of the highly skilled recently unemployed joined the “diasBoro” and were scouring England and Europe and beyond for work, many never to return.
Teesside’s response to the hardship inspired both gallows humour and small screen zeitgeist hit Auf Wiedersehen Pet (and to a lesser extent The Black Stuff) at the time, although that was stolen and repackaged as other regional stereotypes. But that’s just Boronoia and I digress.
As the recession ravaged Teesside a string of local names in the retail sector went under – Frankie Dees, Lowcocks, Gaskins, Nimans, even the fabled Boro Fish Bar – and the impact was also felt at the Ayresome turnstiles. With belts being tightened, days out at the match, especially when the team was so woeful, was the first casualty.
Just as Boro’s gates scraped dangerously along the bottom plunging the club into crisis, Teesside’s unemployment figures peaked as the proportion of the workforce signing on hit a post-War high of 11.8%.
The peak and trough on the graph at this point is the starkest illustration possible of the direct correlation between Boro attendances and dislocation in the local economy.
But there are other inescapable spikes and dips too. There seems a direct relationship between the dole queue and the click of the turnstile.
In the short but sharp recession of the early 1990s Teesside faced rapidly rising jobless figures once again, a wave of house repossessions as mortgage rates soared and the structural shift from industry to the service sector had accelerated and had hit the local economy hard.
As the unemployment rate nudged back up from 7.1% (which was painful but we had grown used to it) to the double digit damage of 10.4% between 1990 and 1993, crowds fell back quickly from a bubbling Bruce Rioch top flight high of 19,999 to a dismal and divided Lennie Lawrence limp finale of 10,400.
And that was at a time when Boro were riding high. After the climb from the coffin Boro had enjoyed two successive promotions then after the dip in the last days of Brucie, there was a play-off push and a promotion and a renewed ability to sign players. It should have been a period of at least stability in gates but in fact the average was almost halved.
And crowds have dipped again in recent years too, from 28,428 in the last Premier League season to an average of 16,269 last term, a catastrophic 12,000 plunge in three admittedly calamitous seasons.
But while the poor quality of the football on offer has undoubtedly been a major factor in the fall – we’ve discussed that to death – it would be wrong to dismiss the economic context lightly.
Through the Riverside Revolution boom years unemployment on Teesside dropped back and then stayed roughly at the 5% mark before, in the last three years, it has climbed back up to 7.8%. There have been further convulsions in the local economy as the steel, chemical and engineering industries hav econtracted further and even our saviours from the service sector have suffered. Garlands going under was as painful as the blow to Corus. Unemployment on Teesside is again in the national spotlight and as one of the areas most vulnerable to another round of mooted public sector spending cuts there is probably more to come. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/mar/07/bitter-pride-corus-mothballing-teesside
Certainly the club have not dismissed the wider finances of the area. Chairman Steve Gibson often points out that Teesside is one of the lowest waged regions of the country, has pockets of quite severe deprivation – and especially in the estates that were once the heartland of support – with generally significantly higher levels of unemployment and benefit dependency than the national average and as a consequence, Boro is operating on a far lower income base than their rivals.
Even given the fact the club have frozen season ticket prices for six years – given inflation it is almost 20% cheaper now than five years ago – and junior prices have been slashed, the drop in gates has been alarming.
And not just gate income but merchandising and hospitality revenue has taken a big hit. In recent years Teesside has been getting the team it can afford.
When times are hard people start to cut back on luxuries. And when the season ticket renewals arrive and a family of four are looking at £1,000 they face a big decision. With rising unemployment and widespread economic uncertainty it is no surprise that so many households have decided against that particular luxury.
Even match by match, going to watch the Boro is expensive. The dad and lad matchday experience rarely comes in at less than £40 these days, and that is a luxury beyond most families on the dole.
Likewise in the previous slumps. In Maggie’s eighties depression that blighted Teesside the match was an obvious area to trim a budget.
It was the generally young, working class men, those in their late teens and early 20s – the prime terrace years – that bore the brunt of unemployment. While going to the match was relatively cheap if you were working, £2.80 plus the price of a pint or two with mates, it was a big chunk out of a £19 giro.
Plus, maybe just as importantly, this is the group most likely to have jumped on Norman Tebbit’s proverbial bike and leave Teesside in search of work. I know I did. Labour was our biggest export in the 80s and early 90s – it still is now – and that must have a direct impact on gates too.
Of course, you can’t discount the quality of football or intangibles like success and a buzz round the Boro. But success doesn’t automatically lead to higher gates. If times are tight, finance has a far bigger impact. People may want to go to the match but they can’t magic up money that isn’t there just because Boro are on a good run.
For example, Jack Charlton’s promotion season doubled gates and in that first golden top flight campaign they peaked at an average 28,604, but good finishes in a sustained spell of First Division football hat followed was not enough to halt a dramatic slide in gates as unemployment started to rise rapidly in the region.
John Neal took over in 1977 and played some attractive football exclusively in the top flight but nevertheless his reign saw gates collapse from 21,500 when he took over to 13,400 when he left. In the same period unemployment rates in Teesside had rocketed again from 5.6% to 10.7%. The impact of signing on outweighs a the impact of a purple patch for the team.
Similarly, the feelgood factor that had the Boro buzzing after escaping liquidation, after the fairytale return to the top tier and a team of local lads living the dream in a first Wembley appearance should have been reflected in gates for years to come.
But after years of steady decline from a mid-80s high of 11.8% to a still painful but more manageable 7.1%, unemployment took off once more in the recession of 1990 and when Boro should have been reaping the long-term benefit of the Rioch revival and renewed stability, they were struggling as the dole queue topped 10% again.
More recently the scenario has been played out again. After Boro’s Carling Cup win, a highest ever Premier League finish and a second success UEFA Cup campaign, gates actually went down as unemployment figures nudged up from 4.8% in 2004 to 7.7% in 2009, a mark where it still hovers at the present time.
So it seems there is no direct correlation between the perception of “success” on the pitch and crowds. But there most definitely is a visible link between unemployment and attendance.
(*This the 12 inch Crown House vs DJ Giro feat B1C remix of today’s Big Picture Column)
FOLLOW me on Twitter. There’s some great stuff. For instance, my popular #onthisboroday feature which is a collection of transfer flashbacks, memory matches, birthdays and sweeping from the floor of the trivia factory. Today’s factlet is:
2000: Boro sign Mrs Karembeu from Real Madrid for £2.1m & agree to take husband Christian as part of deal #onthisboroday…. which is as good an excuse as any to reprint this: