Football: Fan's eye view No 160 Torquay United
Saturday 02 November 1996
Imagine this. A team, playing its 13th game of the season, surpasses the number of victories it achieved the preceding season. The match, at home, is witnessed by a crowd lower than for all but two of the previous season's games. Yet this is the story at Torquay United. The crowd for the recent game against Doncaster was 1,843. Last season, best forgotten, saw 20 crowds of over 2,000.
The knee-jerk reaction highlights increased admission from pounds 6 to pounds 8 (to sit or stand). But last season's prices were the lowest in the League. Justifiably, maybe, given the performances. Prices would have been even lower had the club maintained its promise to charge pounds 4 if the team did badly. This policy perished as Torquay fell with the autumn leaves.
The club's explanation for now charging pounds 8 is novel: the original figure was pounds 7.50 until a fans' forum voted for the extra 50p. J M Keynes, standing in front of me, calculates 3,000 at pounds 6 is more than 2,000 at pounds 8. This isn't a bad theory considering decent Torquay teams normally draw 3,000 crowds. JMK's view - we are dead in the long run - means he is yet to consider next season's prices.
We need to be mindful of the impact of away fans. Grafted on to 2,000 home fans, visitors bringing 50, rather than the last lot's 500, reduces the crowd by 20 per cent. This can hide true trends but not, I feel, in this case. There are definitely fewer of us.
Live television? You've heard it before, but lower division clubs are most susceptible. And while midweek European games barely affect the Premier League and First Division, crowds drop throughout the Third Division.
At Torquay the balance sheet's significance has been greater than the League table for years. The annual pounds 200,000 sale to a big club is good business; but selling four pounds 50,000 players to other Third Division clubs represents lack of ambition.
Torquay is a club associated more with its owner, Mike Bateson, than any player or manager. I have supported and op- posed, understood and misunderstood him, offered defence against his detractors and disagreed with his acolytes. After six years I'm that confused I can now only judge him by the team's results. At the moment he is OK.
But there are those who bitterly recall some of last season's events: home terraces given to Plymouth supporters after a solemn promise was broken; MB's contemptuous attitude culminating in a laddish magazine parading an "our supporters are complete dickheads" quote; his award of a new contract to his son-in-law, arguably the least popular player in years.
This dissatisfaction gave rise to the rumour that Stevenage's leading scorer was runner-up in our player of the year award. Most adopt a more charitable attitude now, with the exception of feelings towards a certain player. The Plymouth decision, for example, was hard to swallow but there were safety, and possibly, economic considerations.
Nevertheless, I suspect 1,800 of us can understand why another 500 or so are staying away - but does Mike Bateson? Strangely, had there been a fixed pounds 7 charge throughout last season we'd probably now be playing to crowds of 2,500 or more.
Economics and logic (as applied to football) are, after all, inexact sciences. Pricing may not be the only factor but a review would be more than an economic gesture. Whoever said a winning team attracts the fans?
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