Football clubs need to excite and entice... or die

As the Premier League's 'Survival Sunday' looms, FourFourTwo.com editor Gary Parkinson salutes the unpredictable...

For once, the Skyperbole may be justified. With a five-way last-day showdown to avoid the two remaining relegation places from the Premier League, there hasn't been a grand finale like it in decades. A more interesting top-flight season than most – a wide-open battle to avoid three relegation spaces (no sub-30pt whipping boys this term), an intriguing race for third to fifth and a fluid midtable between them – has kept the table pleasingly unstratified, entering the last round with only two teams who know for sure which position they'll finish in (three if we assume Chelsea won't lose their current 12-goal advantage over Man City).

Clubs will be feverishly hoping the excitement lasts long enough to tempt cards from wallets this month as they nervously wonder how many fans will be back next season. A Football Supporters' Federation survey out this week warns that 15% of EPL season ticket holders won't renew this summer – a higher churn rate than any of the Football League divisions, with little of the old complacency that others will fill the void.

Former steadfast ever-presents are downgrading to ticket-picking selectiveness; those who went a few times a season are falling out of the habit and finding it increasingly difficult to justify the expenditure. Times are hard, the recession is biting and the all-in matchday cost is rocketing: the FSF cites an 18% inflation rate on last year – astonishing considering the country-wide cutbacks, public and private.

Meanwhile the clubs are making no such cutbacks. As David Conn revealed in The Guardian this week, they're making record incomes – and yet still lost close to half a billion pounds last year. Although broadcast rights are still the main revenue stream for most, they need to hear the turnstiles clicking and the club-shop tills ringing.

But with decreasing spending power and increasingly selective attendance, clubs are finding they won't get bums on seats without winning hearts and minds. With ever more competition for their attention, an increasing number of fans aren't prepared to put up with low-quality entertainment. They need to have faith in the club's future, belief that they will get bang for their buck. The FSF found that 28% of Manchester United season ticket holders and 22% at Arsenal say they won't renew, but that's mainly in protest at (further) price hikes; Aston Villa's 27% refusal rate is surely more to do with a perceived lack of value for money.

No doubt some of these survey responses are a steam-vent for those who will end up renewing anyway; the summer will inevitably work its annual magic and encourage the encroachment of that eternal interloper we call "hope" into the hearts of all fans. But to be tempted to buy these top-dollar tickets, would-be "customers" need to be convinced that they'll see a good match, not a dour attempt to grind out a 1-0 win.

It's not inconceivable that managers, while always "result-oriented", will bear this in mind. Sam Allardyce lost his Blackburn job apparently because the owners wanted sexier football; five months later the home fans watched their visitors play keep-ball while the hosts settled for a draw. Meanwhile 30 miles up the road Blackpool and Bolton fans watched their teams share a seven-goal thriller.

Managers Ian Holloway and Owen Coyle share a unflinching commitment to attacking football. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, Bolton’s average attendances are higher than at any point since they were in Europe, while thousands of Tangerine fans have renewed their season tickets without even waiting to see what level of football they’ll be watching. The Seasiders have won praise this season for their commitment to attacking and it would surely benefit football if it works – and more teams adopt it next term.

Maybe then next season would be even more unpredictable than this. No bad thing.

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