Commentary Box: Edge of your seat?

IN RECENT weeks, I have visited Brighton and Swansea and I stood and watched out of necessity. As soon as the referee’s whistle started the game, the fans in my section stood up and had no intention of using the seats they had paid for.

Fine, if you like terracing, but having parted with £30, I wanted my seat and owing to a damaged knee, I actually needed to sit down. Up and down the country, fans insist on persistently standing, but the authorities have been reluctant to change the current legislation. Many are in denial that some form of standing is what people are calling for, especially younger fans who want to create a better vibe at English (and Welsh) grounds.

At Swansea and Brighton, club stewards could do little, if anything, to combat the issue – there were clearly people who were unhappy about having to stand, especially those with smaller children who had no chance of seeing the game with hundreds of people standing in front of them. Standing has been prohibited in the Football League/Premier since 1994, but there are now moves to change that, with increased pressure to install so-called “safe standing” zones.

KPMG’s Football Benchmark  noted that the tragedies of the 1980s have been driving the narrative around standing and highlighted Germany’s Borussia Dortmund (BVB) as a good example of how grounds can be adapted for flexible use. BVB, the world’s best supported club in terms of crowd numbers, convert their stadium for UEFA games thanks to “rail-seating” on their giant terracing normally used for Bundesliga games.

Germany has never banned standing and it has paid-off with the highest attendances in European, indeed global, football. But tragedies like Heysel and Hillsborough are still relatively fresh in the memory and the latter is rarely out of the news. “Since the troubles of the 1980s, stadium design, technology and crowd management approaches have certainly moved on from an age where crowds were packed into football grounds with often outdated provision for safety,” said KPMG.

France are currently experimenting with the reintroduction of standing accommodation and in the UK, Celtic have been using “rail-seating” for two years. There has been pressure on the Football Association to bow to the demands of fans who want to stand at games. Surveys suggest that as many as 70% of Premier League fans want to see standing back in their grounds.

Bringing back standing, either in the form of traditional terracing or more conservative models like “rail-seating” could increase crowds, although replacing current seating configurations with the rails might just be “like for like” in terms of numbers. It is also very unlikely that clubs will be allowed to introduce areas that go for quantity rather than quality of fan experience.

At the same time, installing new seating that can become safe standing areas will require investment and the cynics among us will undoubtedly anticipate clubs passing on the cost to their fans. Optimistically, KPMG says: “The possibility of admitting more spectators may contribute to clubs making football more socially inclusive through more affordable ticket prices in standing areas.”

At present, though, charging seating prices for sections that require people to stand (one man stands up in front of you and that, effectively creates a wave of plastic seats tipping-up as everyone behind them jockeys for position to see the game), is a winner for the clubs. Lower prices mean that they will have to create scale within their stadium to ensure revenues do not drop.

Ideally, a stadium should have both forms of accommodation – standing for younger folk to create the ambience at English grounds that has been somewhat lacking in recent years and seats for the rest. If clubs want people to get to stadiums early, share in the experience, spend money and enjoy it, comfort and safety have to be at the forefront of their planning.

It is probably a matter of time before something shifts in the UK – Tottenham’s new stadium will include “seating incorporating barriers” and in the new Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds (the Green Guide), such seating is featured. KPMG concludes: “With the ongoing trials in France, the government review of its all-seater policy in England, the continued success of standing in Germany and the imminent publication of new best practice guidelines, this is certainly a period of change in the stadium landscape in some of Europe’s top leagues. Many issues – with spectator security at the top of the agenda – are at stake and the continuing shift in the regulatory position gives club Chief Executive Officers and other stakeholders plenty of food for thought.”

Meanwhile, some clubs need to give serious thought to how they can control the persistent standing in areas where people do not want to be leaping in and out of their seats for 90 minutes. “Safe standing” is one thing, but “safe seating” should also be an issue.

Photo: Celtic’s safe standing area – courtesy of PA.

A special thanks to the Swansea steward that helped in moving me to an area where people sat in their seats.

To see Football Benchmark’s paper on safe standing, click here