Update 18/12/13 It’s funny how things change. We’ve slipped to League 2 since I wrote this, the PST own the club, Lampitt is long gone, and most clubs outside Championship would kill for 14/15000 gates. But there was a time when people wondered why we weren’t “packing the park”. This was one answer.
I’ve seen a lot of things said online about the nature of Pompey’s support in recent times, varying from glowing praise from outside the city for the doggedness of it, to disbelief within it that Fratton Park isn’t selling out in these desperate times. There are different angles from which we can look at this: people have changed since the days when we had 20000+ gates in Division 4; and the game itself has changed at all levels in the last 20 or so years.
I wasn’t at the Boro game because I was ill, but I have a friend who took my ticket instead. He is an old supporter, has been through the divisions with the club since the 70s, and has been there through all sorts of traumatic upheavals at the club and in the wider game. He had a season ticket up until we reached the Premiership, but the expense of renewing put him off then. Since then he’s been in jobs which require so much weekend working that there is no point having one, and he gets to the occasional couple of games per season home or away. For me as a season ticket holder, while my own wife usually works Saturdays, every now and again she doesn’t and on those occasions there is no question of me going to the game – that’s taken 4 games out this season for me.
Families these days don’t have the regular 7.30-4.30 or 9-5.30, 5 day-a-week jobs. The shift in the economy away from manufacturing towards services, from shops not opening on a Sunday to 24/7 commerce, the on-going recession and the need to watch every penny, all these things stack up against people like my friend who would still describe himself as “working class”. But it is now almost a meaningless phrase and many of the “working class” aren’t working. The reasons the old class labels lack their old descriptive power these days is that there is no such thing as a typical type of employment, or working pattern, for any of us any more. The notion of “the weekend” itself and the activities typical of it do not have their old place in the collective view of life.
I have other friends who have kids, but they no longer live with the mother. Add to the complications above the need to book time to see your own children and the often fractious relationship with an ex, and there is another hurdle to overcome. It’s far less easy to “indoctrinate” a son or daughter with the Pompey religion if they spend most of their time away from you, and when you are with them you have to decide where in a long list of priorities taking them to a football game lies (and that’s before we consider the often eye-watering expense). If you’re a season ticket holder in an all-seater stadium and you want to take your kid, you have to mess around with tickets to find room for them. I know the staff at Fratton Park are always helpful (when the office is actually open – it’s hard to think of another business that makes it so hard for its customers) but it is a pain in the neck.
At the other end of life, many of us also have elderly parents as life-expectancy has stretched, and between the pleasure of their company and their increasing needs in old age, there is another use of our time which will trump football.
The family unit has changed completely to the norm of 30 or 40 years ago, many would say it has in fact fractured, and family members don’t have the sort of regularity in their life they used to. My childhood experience of football with two older generations of my family at most games has been swept away, and it is never likely to return.
The way the game has changed more or less confirms that pessimistic view of the future.
Expense is a main factor, whether for season tickets or for match-by-match pricing. Everybody told David Lampitt the pricing structure and payment methods demanded for this season were ridiculous, apparently including people within the club who knew their stuff, but nothing could be done. That fiasco turned off a couple of thousand people per game compared to last season in one go. As a result there have been a host of confusing offers to win people back, the confusion detracting from the actual good value on offer in many cases. The problem is that it is the hardest thing in the world to win back a customer you have gone out of your way to offend. And if your pricing structure is unclear, new customers will not take up your good offers.
Price is a problem across the game, but few clubs in the last dozen years have screwed their supporters as efficiently as Pompey. It was expensive under Milan before promotion, but in the Premiership we could fill Fratton up at high prices, having only a 20000-seater to fill. We never got to the challenge of filling a 30000+ stadium, which has proven difficult for many clubs of a similar stature to us in the game. The days when someone who went once-in-a-while could go and stand on the terrace with his mates who had season tickets have been wiped out by all-seaters, and consequently the once-in-a-while has become hardly-ever for many. Clubs with seats to fill have to work bloody hard to do it.
A consequence of maximizing revenue from our 20000 has been that families, children, and the less-well-off have all been driven out. Many people who replaced them came for Premiership football and haven’t stuck around for the delights of the Championship. It was a telling point that by the time we had been in the top flight again a few years, less than half our core support lived within the city boundaries. There is a whole generation of kids in Pompey who have never got into the Fratton habit, because they were excluded or priced-out during what were supposedly the “good years” – in fact they were years that saw the average age of our support rocket. It could take as long as we were in the Premiership to rebuild the younger end of the support, and it will certainly cost money, assuming there is still a club with custody of Fratton Park after the end of the season.
The state of Fratton makes it hard to attract anyone. None of the bluster about “great atmosphere” (it hasn’t been all that great for some time) overrides that. It is as difficult to buy a match ticket as it is to make sense of the fare structure on the railways. The Police do their best to frighten anybody who can’t decode the piffle they feed the press (5 arrests at Brighton is a major crisis, according to them). Parking is awful, public transport is the same. There is a pervasive air of sleaze about the club. Some of those things the club can change itself, others it can only influence.
What no club can change easily is the relationship of football as an activity to society. I walk past Milton Park every now and again on matchday mornings or in school holidays and hardly ever see kids playing football on the same bits of grass that would have been teeming with games when I was a kid. Playing football in that way just doesn’t seem to happen, and I cannot believe that doesn’t have implications for kids bothering with football in any form. Kids are doing something else, and given the problems I’ve already described if they are “into” football, the odds of them being Pompey supporters specifically are lengthening.
The adult population has changed how it “consumes” football. It’s possible to stand in a pub on Saturday afternoon and follow the action with Jeff Stelling and the boys – albeit concentrating on the Premier Division. I know a lot of people who used to watch Pompey occasionally who never go near Fratton, but you’ll find them in the pub watching Soccer Saturday, or watching a dodgy satellite feed. The opposition to live 3pm Saturday TV games is a nonsense, the Soccer Saturday phenomenon has wiped countless thousands off the gates in English football anyway.
So many games take place away from the hallowed 3pm Saturday slot that it is now not only difficult for many to guarantee they can get to enough games to make a season ticket a sound investment (especially in the Premier Division), it makes away travel a nightmare (with booking train tickets or accommodation). It has an effect on the more casual supporter. If you can watch a game on TV any night of the week, you don’t have to go to the trouble of going to Fratton, to watch a team you may not feel all that much affinity with, and navigate the social and economic hazards I’ve described above.
Modern life, the economy and TV have weakened the ties between communities and the clubs that depend on them. We are fortunate Pompey have such excellent community programmes, or things could be even worse.
For me, the surprising thing isn’t that we’ve “only” sold 14000 for Saturday, it’s that we’ve sold that many. The figure people often despairingly mention is the 250,000 in the streets for the FA Cup parade. That parade was free, the weather was lovely, it was celebrating a joyous event – it’s not as if anyone was paying £25 to watch Pompey vs Boro. The club does have a hard-core, and very hard it is too, but it isn’t much more than the number of season-ticket holders, about 8500. Anything over that requires care and attention to retain and build on.
There are people who refuse to put any money into PFC to keep such-and-such an overpaid player in a Hummer for a few more weeks, since the expectation is that Birch will liquidate us anyway when the transfer window reopens and the remaining saleable assets have been flogged. It is impossible to fault their reasoning. Were I not a season ticket holder I would probably join their boycott, and save the money and effort for Plan B.
There are people who can’t afford a ticket, despite the staggering generosity of so many giving away extra tickets they have bought. There are people who want to buy a ticket whose imagination has been caught by “pack the park”, but can’t understand why the ticket office isn’t open on a matchday morning, or how they find these kiosks that exist in odd corners instead, or why they could buy a ticket from the club shop a month ago but can’t now, or why on Earth the club thinks an acceptable answer to all these problems is “buy online”.
And sadly there are a great many people who just don’t care enough any more to make any effort. These people attract all sorts of scorn from “loyal supporters”, but the truth is these are rarely people who ever made a conscious decision to “desert”. Their willingness to spend was chipped away little by little, they have seen too many self-inflicted close shaves and great escapes. A great many of them are bitter that the institution they used to worship has been tarnished and betrayed by the owners and authorities. It doesn’t mean their devotion is any less.
If you can read all that, and still think 14000 is a poor turnout, I can only admire your optimism. When one of Hampshire’s lesser teams along the M27 had a fundraising game when they were at their lowest ebb, they only sold 1500 tickets and had to cancel it. You need something more than desperation to be attractive.
Overcoming all the obstacles and getting people back into football at Fratton Park, or wherever Plan B ends up if it comes to that, is a bigger challenge than anything the club will attempt on the pitch in the coming years. It is what every supporter should concentrate on – not league tables, or goals, or what the scummers are up to, or any of that. Whether it is a revived, post-Chainrai club in this incarnation, or a new Portsmouth FC starting all the way down the pyramid, the real prize it is chasing is the soul of football and the soul of this city.