It has long been a bug bear of mine that Arsenal announces official attendances which so often are clearly not accurate. The scores of empty seats at many home matches are clear proof that things are not what they seem.
It's become a bit of a running joke among supporters and everyone seems to have accepted it. But I've got so annoyed with the ‘tickets sold = attendance’ policy that I decided to try and do something about it.
So, armed with a trusty sword of truth and shield of justice, I did what every great conspiracy theorist-in-the-making does and fired off a freedom of information request.
It went to the Met Police, that bastion of fair play and trustworthiness, who eventually delivered what I asked for: the actual attendance figures supplied to them by the Club for every home game last season.
The real attendance stats
The figures (based on the official stadium capacity of 60,338 stated in the 2013/14 Premier League Handbook and which can be downloaded from the image below) make for stark reading:
* on average the actual attendance was 5,998 lower than that stated by the Club
* on average 6,550 seats were empty per game
* the worst attended match was Fenerbahce at 44,779, which was 15,559 lower than capacity and 11,492 below the official attendance
* the best attended game was Liverpool in the league at 57,341
* the real average attendance was 53,788 compared to 59,786 announced by the Club
* a total of 173,945 seats went unoccupied at home games last season
(For reasons only known to themselves, the Met have not published my request and the data on their website, which they appear to do with most other FOIs. But if anyone doubts their validity, the FOI reference was 2014050000832 and Arsenal have said the numbers are ‘broadly accurate’ which I’m taking to mean ‘accurate’. If you want to download the sheet visit )
Hopefully the chart and numbers speak for themselves but I’ll highlight a couple of points that struck me.
Firstly, it isn’t ‘big games’ that necessarily draw the biggest crowds. The Chelsea (Premier League, not League Cup) and Bayern Munich matches were only the 18th and 19th best attended last season while Southampton, Norwich and Fulham were 5th, 6th and 7th.
Secondly, non-weekend matches are generally more poorly attended: Saturday and Sunday games comprise nine of the top 15 attendances compared to only three of the bottom 14. Does that mean weekday travel could be improved or just that supporters are inevitably going to struggle to get away from work / school / college in time?
Thirdly, television coverage appears to be a non-issue. I can’t see a pattern based on whether matches were screened on terrestrial or digital television but I’m open to any suggestions that I’m missing something.
Why oh why
The numbers trigger two ‘why’ questions: why does Arsenal announce the tickets sold figure as the attendance, and why do up to 6,000 people not turn up to every game?
My working theory going in to this exercise was that the Club uses the ‘tickets sold’ number to overinflate the true demand for tickets, thereby helping to justify charging some of the highest prices in the world. It also encourages season ticket holders to renew and avoid potentially missing out on tickets on a match by match basis because they think demand is *so* high. The counter point to that argument is that matches are selling out so surely demand is there. But when you consider there are approximately 45,000 season ticket holders (leaving about 12,000 tickets for match-by-match purchase if you assume 3,000 away fans), there will be many more people who have paid for a ticket that they want to get rid of than those actively deciding to go to a particular match.
However, having looked at things in more detail, I think the real answer to the first question is that a) it’s probably just easier and quicker to give that than the real attendance and b) it appears to be common practice. I dropped a quick email to a dozen current Premier League sides. Of those that responded, only Spurs said their policy is based on actual attendance. Burnley, QPR and Everton all base it on ticket sales. It was by no means a scientific exercise but it at least shows Arsenal isn’t the only club who practice the policy.
What Arsenal say
At this stage I got in touch with the Club to get their side of the story. They strongly rejected the suggestion that the policy was an attempt to deliberate mislead supporters in connection to ticket prices.
Their statement said: “We are clear in all our communication that the figure we are announcing reflects the number of tickets sold.
“The club are comfortable with using ‘number of tickets sold’ as the measurement for attendances, and believe it is a reliable and relevant one. We have no plans to review this at present.
“It’s worth making the point that the Club work hard to ensure that Emirates Stadium is as full as possible on matchdays, through our Ticket Transfer and Ticket Exchange systems.”
I would dispute the point about them clearly stating that attendances reflect tickets sold. The media are apparently told it explicitly on match day but I don’t see any evidence of it in the programme or Club magazine. It also doesn’t state it on the Club website (though equally it also doesn’t say it is the attendance, it just gives a number which floats around on match reports).
I didn’t ask the Club to explain why they think an average of 6,000 supporters do not turn up having bought a ticket as I think it is an impossible question to answer. The more important point is what they are doing about it and in highlighting the Ticket Transfer and Ticket Exchange schemes the approach they are taking is clear.
What more can be done
The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust asked a series of interesting questions at the last supporters’ forum and the answers also show the Club is looking at improving those systems, with the prospect of a ‘seat utilisation’ scheme in the offing. I would take that to mean incentivising people who do actually turn up or make use of their ticket. That could include rewarding supporters through cup final ticket prioritisation, as Tim Payton, the AST secretary, suggests in this blog. Tim also raises another good way of improving the Ticket Exchange system, by allowing tickets to be bought/sold for less than face value.
There is clearly a problem with the Ticket Exchange system. At the time of writing, there was supposedly half a dozen tickets available through it online for the Crystal Palace game but when you click on them they say they are no longer available. The buying process is extremely user unfriendly and the selling process must be the same – you can guarantee there will be more than half a dozen empty seats on Saturday.
Some other points I would throw in to the debate about getting people to the ground are trying to address the non-weekend travel issues, assuming that is a problem for people as the chart suggests. If the Club successfully pressed the authorities to put on a few more late trains would that be enough to convince people to come to games?
I think the Club could also put more effort into its supporters’ clubs. If the volunteers running them were given more backing, they might attract and keep more members and in turn be able to run more transport to and from games.
Admitting the problem
Whatever you reckon the solution is, the first step is for the Club to acknowledge how serious the problem is in the first place and I think that means abandoning the ‘tickets sold’ policy on official attendance, or at least giving the true attendance as well as tickets sold.
Fundamentally, Arsenal is redefining the word ‘attendance’ and it is misleading. Other clubs do it as well but Arsenal has always claimed to stand for higher values than everyone else and it should do so again here. I hope getting the real attendances into the public raises the profile of the issue and goes some way to convincing the Club they need to rethink the policy. Only then can they talk honestly about how to fill all the empty seats.
PS: On a historical note, the Club also confirmed that the supposed record attendance at the Emirates Stadium (against Man U in 2007) was based on tickets sold. Hope the club historians have their asterisks ready.