How many people go to watch a cricket game at Lords or the Oval? What is the average attendance at rugby games? What about athletics? In all these sports, nobody cares too much about what the crowd figure is, although the amount they pay will obviously matter to their bank managers. Football has always been hung up about attendances and gate receipts. Perhaps it is because it was one of the first truly professional sports. Go back to Victorian and Edwardian times and read the Sportsman or the Athletic News and frequently, the attendance will be mentioned in the incredibly long and detailed match reports that used to typify sports reporting from the 1880s right through to the first world war. In those gaslit days, a gathering of 10,000 or more people may not have been such a regular occurance. If you think about it, any gathering of 10,000 in one place, in any age, is considerable. Imagine walking past a football ground during a game that has 30,000 people crammed inside – that’s a lot of folk in a small, confined space.
Sea of humanity
A few years ago, I arrived at Wembley in the evening for a rock concert (Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood if you must know) and a match had just ended – it was FA Cup semi-final weekend. As we walked across the road in front of the tube station, the crowd was being shepherded into position. We looked down beneath the bridge and saw thousands of faces. “What’s that?,” my son asked, perhaps a little fearful. “That, my boy, is a sea of humanity. The masses coming home from football.”
It was a dramatic image, but captured how so many people are drawn to the game. But why has football, down the generations, always placed enormous importance on declaring the attendance figure? It’s become an essential part of the culture of the game, after the result and who scored the goals, the next question is always, “big crowd?”.
Attendances have always been open to corruption. Many years ago, when trying to get into West Ham’s Upton Park, the turnstile operator grunted at me and a friend, “two for a quid”, which meant both of us went in for one and a half and a half times the price of admission (and the turnstile clicked once as we squeezed in), with the operator making a few bob. This was a widespread practice across football before the CCTV age.
FA Cup gates are a case in point. Basically, when the money is shared, some clubs appear to understate their attendances. It’s debatable whether this practice has played its part in the perceived decline of the FA Cup and other cup competitions. In days of old, the gate receipts for FA Cup games were also declared in the press alongside the attendances.
I counted the crowd in a qualifying round tie of the FA Cup last season and totted-up 425. Then the gate was announced as 225. That represented 200 shaved off the crowd, although some may have been passes. That said, most non-league clubs claim that it is “all pay” at cup games. The aforementioned game was drawn and the replay also hit 225, although once more, the reality was close to double that figure. Tit for tat, as they say. So both clubs knew they were being “ripped off” but chose to merely perpetuate the problem.
Conversely, some clubs – again, at non-league level – inflate their league gates to achieve more credibility.
Opium for the masses
I believe there’s another historic and more calculated reason why match attendances attained their status in the folklore of the sport at an early stage of its development. Doubtless there were skeptics when Association and Rugby went their separate ways. As the public schools moved away from the game they had dominated in its early years to Rugby, professionalism took over. You can easily visualize that Association was looked down upon in much the way that professional cricketers had to be referred to by their names rather than initials. Gentlemen v Players and all that.
Football sought credibility and acceptance beyond the thousands of working men who watched the game. Newspaper proprietors, a powerful breed in those days, were undoubtedly keen to align themselves to a sport that attracted growing numbers. So, too, industrialists, who in turn provided support to people like newspaper men. Why not publicise that Bolton Wanderers had 10,000 people at their ground on Saturday afternoon, news that would underscore the importance of the game as a mass marketing tool? And while Association, the sport of the sweaty, cloth-capped proletariat, drew bigger and bigger crowds, the educated sons of empire were taking cricket to the colonies or playing their own brand of football with a strange-shaped ball. Association had become the opium of the masses and they wanted the world to know it.
The growth of football’s audience was dramatic. In 1888-89, the first Football League season, gates averaged 4,600. By 1899, that figure had risen to more than 10,000 and when the first world war broke out, crowds were in excess of 22,000 for the top flight. After the post-WW2 boom when top division gates averaged 38,000 at their peak, a decline set in, slumping to sub-20,000. In 2013-14, the Premier averages more than 36,000. No matter which way you dice it in England, football remains the modern day equivalent of Rome’s “bread and circuses”. Incidentally, the record crowd for a Roman event is the 300,000 that attended the Circus Maximus in an early BC year!
The wisdom of crowds
It is not inconceivable that attendances and their size acted as a benchmark for the development and growth of the game and its universal acceptance. The sport triggered off a new sub-economy. It hasn’t really changed that much. The popularity of the Premier in England has created a seller’s market with stadiums near full and some clubs enjoying best ever attendances. Much lower down, a non-league club’s progress and ultimate success is often gauged by its appeal at the turnstile. And when a benefactor throws money in, creating instant success on the field for a small-town or even village club, his inevitable frustration comes when attendances do not keep pace with what is taking place on the pitch.
Attendances, in short, add substance to the event. They make 90 minutes of kicking the ball around the field seem worthwhile. A poor game in front of a poor crowd makes for a grim afternoon. A big crowd can help spur on the protagonists. The attendance figure is data representing the collective experience of “the crowd”. Atmosphere is created by people, not by a stadium. Many would argue that a crowd can make footballers play better. It’s not always the case, but this is fundamentally why attendances are so integral to the fabric of the game.