Nick Townsend: 'Chickens coming home to roost for elite'

Norwich chief accuses leading clubs of laziness over TV, ticket prices and affordability
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The Independent Football

The Premiership has entered the terrible teens and suddenly, like the cute child once such a favourite with the aunts and uncles who smothered it with affection, it has metamorphosed into a little monster, with dire warnings issued as to its future. Some, inevitably, are revelling in its perceived discomfort, with headlines suggesting a doomsday scenario. The spectre of "meltdown" was even raised in one report, which seemed to be overstating the point. Repeat frequently enough that a sport is a turn-off and it tends to become so in the nation's psyche, even when the evidence is not entirely consistent with that verdict.

What is required is some leadership, to place the issue in perspective. Perversely, the Premier League's chief executive, Richard Scudamore, has been largely invisible. However, he did tell the Times yesterday: "Since the Premiership was established [in 1992], we have seen a 67 per cent rise in gates, while TV income has increased from £40m to £550m a season. We are entering a phase when you have to pedal hard just to stand still.

"Do I sense there are some floating voters who are moving on or their attentions are elsewhere? Yes I do. But we have been addressing that. We set up the attendances working group 18 months ago. The aver-age number of goals is lower than for five or six years, but I remember a time last season when there was a spate of 4-3s or 4-4s and everyone said we wouldn't get anywhere in Europe if we couldn't defend. We tend to be too hot or too cold and people want the porridge just right. I think that will happen over time."

His words, though, cannot detract from the fact that the Premiership is no longer the seller's market it once was. At the five Premiership games played last Saturday, an aggregate 27,000 seats were empty. To emphasise the problem further, the 29,184 crowd at Portman Road on Sunday - albeit for the East Anglian derby - was greater than at four Premiership grounds over the weekend. Indeed, the Championship is now being acclaimed as a potent source of goals, entertainment and increasing crowds.

Having been in denial, those implicated in such an apparent malaise - the chairmen, managers and players - have now embarked on a mass confessional, though the suspicion is that it will take more than three Hail Marys to return the Premier-ship to the force it was. Entertainment, or lack of it because of managers' caution, ticket prices, varying match times, over-exposure on TV; all have been attributed as a root cause of Premier League crowds having declined by 4.5 per cent in the first month of the season.

Neil Doncaster, the chief executive of Norwich City, a Premiership club only four months ago, can view the problem from both perspectives. A lawyer by trade and a sober judge of football affairs by instinct, he believes "this has been a problem waiting to happen".

He adds: "There's been a great deal of complacency among the bigger clubs in the Premier League. They haven't really had to worry about trying to build attendances or stretching prices [offering large concessions at certain times, including to children, to encourage them in the first place] because the Sky money keeps rolling in year after year, and it's so much greater than you'd ever get from ticket sales. There has been this laziness, frankly, to be creative with pricing, affordability and accessibility, and the chickens are coming home to roost."

The Canaries are, well, chirruping. Maybe not on the field, but they present a template that larger clubs would do well to emulate. Doncaster concedes that Norwich have been partly forced into such measures by circumstance. "With our relegation in 1995, and financial collapse the following year, the new board had to rebuild what was a shattered relationship between the club and its fans," says Doncaster. "Part of that was to rebuild attendances from what was a relatively low figure. That last season in the Premier, our season-ticket sales were under 9,000. Now in the Football League we've got over 20,000 sales. It shows how far we've come. That hasn't happened by accident.

"I don't think there are any quick fixes, it's about working hard for the longer term. We've built attendances through stretching prices, being family- and child-focused, making sure we cater for the fans of the future by getting them emotionally involved at a very early stage through cut-price tickets. Once you've done that, you can be creative with the prices."

The Middlesbrough manager, Steve McClaren, recently criticised his club's fans who had spurned the opportunity to watch their team's Uefa Cup match against Xanthi, which is somewhat like the producers of a West End show condemning patrons for not turning up rather than questioning how good the performance is. Doncaster agreed. "I don't believe in commenting on individual clubs, but generally it's a cop-out to blame supporters."

Last Tuesday, Norwich attracted the biggest Carling Cup crowd of the night, purely because of their pricing policy: £1 for children, £11 for adults. "The reality is that you are competing very favourably with a night out at the cinema for the family, and that's the way you have to look at it," says Doncaster.

He also argues that the Championship is currently flourishing because it is very competitive. "No one has any idea which clubs will finish in the top two and the play-offs. That's a massive influence. For football to remain successful it's essential to have what economists call 'competitive balance'. As soon as that is reduced substantially then people are going to get turned off. I think about the Harlem Globetrotters and, increasingly, Chelsea look as though they are putting on that kind of exhibition, but fundamentally it's not what people want. It's very nice to see on an occasional basis within a competitive league, but I don't think anyone would call it [the Premier League] competitive."

He added: "What caught the attention last year, frankly, was not the Premiership title. That was pretty much over by the end of March. What saved it last season was the battle that we, West Brom, Palace and Southampton were caught up in. It actually added some excitement to what was in danger of becoming a sterile product. If we don't get that this season, we've got a desperate state of affairs."

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