Football: Proof that money dulls the passion

Mike Rowbottom analyses the findings of the biggest-ever football supporters' survey
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The Independent Online
The largest-ever survey of football fans in this country confirms that the habits of those watching the domestic game are evolving in parallel with those changes taking place on the pitch.

The third FA Premier League Fan Survey, released yesterday, gained 20,470 responses to 58,000 questionnaires, of which 17,214 came from season-ticket holders.

Football, on this evidence, still has a crucial importance for many supporters - one in four described it as "one of the most important things in my life". But there is an indication that some of the followers are becoming increasingly semi-detached - passion giving way to leisure.

Among supporters earning pounds 10,000 per year or less, three out of four said football-watching was "one of the most important things in my life". Of those earning pounds 30,000 or more, a small majority described it as "just another thing that I do".

The survey also identified a number of better-paid fans who were using a season ticket as a cushion, knowing there would be a press for certain matches. "They may want to see as few as 12 or 13 home games, where they can be sure of seeing Vialli or Manchester United," said the report's author, John Williams of the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research. "It does have the effect of excluding other types of supporters who might have attended on an ad hoc basis. Clubs seem to be focusing on a lucrative section of the population," Williams said. "But I have no doubt there is a section of supporters who don't connect with football clubs as their parents did."

Rick Parry, the Premier League's chief executive, acknowledged the "potential danger" of undercutting the fan base. "But," he said, "I don't think clubs will be depressed about their increasing numbers of affluent supporters."

New ticketing and seating arrangements at clubs have affected the naturally occurring social divisions within crowds. Whereas previously those who wanted to let off steam and use bad language might congregate behind the goals, they are now being obliged to sit alongside others for whom such activity was distressing.

Williams pointed out that issues such as bad language were a major concern for many supporters, but that opinion was sharply divided on the topic, with some objecting to it and others complaining that stewards and police interfere too much.

While ruling out the likelihood of establishing "optional offensive language areas", Parry said the Premiership was looking at experimenting with "singing areas". Accompanying band music, of the type Glenn Hoddle is currently trying to encourage on England's behalf, is also seen as a positive option.

This year's figures point to the continuing absence of non-white, ethnic minorities from the ranks of spectators. Although the current national (1991 Census) figure for the population of non-white ethnic minority communities in Britain is just under five per cent, the 1996 sample reports just 1.1 per cent non-white respondents in all and 0.9 per cent non-white season ticket holders. Arsenal lead the table, but even they only have 2.1 per cent non-white season ticket holders. At the other end of the league come Manchester City, Southampton (both 0.3 per cent), Blackburn (0.2) and Newcastle (0.1).

"Blackburn Rovers seem to attract little local ethnic minority support," the report said, "despite recent club successes and a substantial (mainly Asian) minority community in the town, while Manchester City also has a poor return here, especially given the multi-racial nature of the Moss Side area of the city in which the Maine Road ground is located.

"In this last case, poverty rather than ethnicity per se may be the stronger barrier to season ticket purchase, though it is also perhaps significant that City and Blackburn were two clubs in the Premier League to have few, or no, black players in their first team squads in 1995-96."

The number of female fans within the game remains, as last year, around one in eight, with most season-ticket holders being found at Nottingham Forest, Coventry City, Sheffield Wednesday and Wimbledon.

The latter club turn out to have some intriguing characteristics. The Dons appear to be a club which many people adopt, rather than grow up with. They top the list in terms of new fans, who represent nearly 25 per cent of the sample. They also have the highest proportion of season ticket holders who attended university or polytechnic - 38.6 per cent, narrowly ahead of Manchester United.