05 February 2014

Of ticket-prices and decibels at Arsenal Stadium..

At recent matches at the Emirates, we've been treated to the distinct notion that our away-fans, such as Coventry's, support their club more enthusiastically than our own fans do at home. Toss in the recent row over ticket-prices and allocations for the FA Cup matches with Tottenham and Liverpool, and then the fact that a BBC report shows that Gooners have to pay the highest "cheapest" season-ticket price in the Prem, have the option of buying the most expensive season-ticket and can also request the honor of paying out for the most-expensive match-day ticket in the Prem—oh, and face a pending 3% rise on prices for 2014-15—and there's bound be to some gritting of teeth and rending of garments.

Rail-seating. Brilliant idea.
It stands to reason that, the higher the prices go, the harder it is for regular folk to get to a match. Once there, having forked over a pretty penny for a seat, one can feel a bit harder done-by to leave that seat in order to grab a pint down in the concourse, away from the action, where a gent can express the passions that the pint has provoked. What we're left with, then, is a fair number of the chardonnay-and-canapĂ© crowd who might just as soon sing, chant, and shout as they would wax their own limousine, but let's not tweak any noses. Suffice it to say that those who can afford to fork out the kind of cash to attend matches are, by and large, a bit more sedate in their support. As such, large swathes of the stadium are then filled with polite if diffident cheering, half-hearted chanting, and long stretches of quiet. Even when roused from this cryonic torpor by a goal or near-miss, the flurry is short-lived, and the soporificity settles once again (I know that "soporificity" isn't officially a word).

Growing up in America, I was used to sports whose fans behaved in largely that way. Watching baseball and American football meant that we are more or less accustomed to sitting still until something dramatic happens, cheering for a minute or two, and sitting back down. There were two exceptions to this, at least in Chicago. The Blackhawks (hockey) and the Bulls (basketball) shared the old Chicago Stadium, a claustrophobic edifice from 1929 with terrible sightlines and amazing acoustics. It may not have been what Francis Scott Key had in mind when he penned "The Star-Spangled Banner," but, no matter who came to sing it before a Blackhawks game, you couldn't hear a single note of it through the din and delirium of the crowd. It would stay like that for most of the game. God forbid we scored or a fight broke out—absolute pandemonium would ensue, deafening noise.

I was only lucky enough to attend a Bulls game during their first championship run of 1991, sixth row seats, in fact. The Bulls reeled off 10 points in a row to reclaim the lead, and the crowd noise when the 76ers called time-out crashed down on my shoulders like a waterfall. Almost literally. I could feel the sound-waves pouring down on my shoulders. I shouted but couldn't hear my own voice. Some 18,000 fans were screaming their fool-heads off. Most of them had paid through the nose to be there, but it was the playoffs, after all. The point here is that, between the Hawks and the Bulls, there was once a time when a quaint, archaic stadium combined with affordable prices created a passionate, energizing atmosphere. It's not quite the same in the new stadium. Different acoustics, higher prices, a wealthier, less-besotted fan-base...sound familiar?

Which brings us back to Arsenal. Like the Bulls and Hawks, the Gunners may be victims to their own success, as the cachet of attending a match may draw in those who don't blink at a ticket-price but who are less enthusiastic or vocal in their support of the club. I won't attest to depths of loyalty. What's to be done? On one hand, Arsenal Stadium is the second-largest in the Prem, behind only Old Trafford. That capacity should allow the club to continue to generate healthy revenue from gate-receipts even if ticket-prices could be brought down. On the other, healthy gate-receipts mean more money to spend on player transfers and salaries, and the better the squad is, the more money it can earn through endorsements, advancement in the Champions League, broadcasting, and others sources.

However, in the wake of the new Puma deal, which will bring in an estimated £30m a year, Gooners are still being asked to pay the highest prices in the land, prices that will go up next season. If we bring home silverware during the current campaign, perhaps all will be forgiven. If we don't? Well...

It seems like something has to give. Either clubs like Arsenal become the playthings of those wealthy enough to pay for the pleasure, whether it's of owning the club or or attending the match, or clubs like Arsenal find a way to make attending a match both more affordable and more enjoyable. If I had to pay£26 for a cheap seat, I would like to waste my money by not sitting in it for a damned second. When I first discovered British football, I was stunned that fans were singing and chanting the whole time, even when their side was losing. This was pre-Hillsborough and other tragedies, of course, and the safety regulations instituted since then seemed to make sense. As we've learned more about those tragedies were mishandled and apparently covered up by the police, it's perhaps time to revisit some of those regulations.

Chief among the options would be rail-seating, already in use in many German stadiums including Dortmund's Westfalenstadion. One-third of seats there are rail-seats. 27,000 people can then stand, markedly boosting their ability to chant, sing, and shout themselves silly. You can squeeze in a few more seats per row, which (theoretically) would allow the club to bring down prices a bit. And hey, if one-third of fans at Arsenal Stadium are making noise, how might that boost the lads' spirits down on the pitch? Maybe a section of rail seats in the North Bank to create a resounding volley of "We're the North Bank". Maybe another bank of them in Clock End for the reply "We're the Clock End." I get goosebumps just thinking about it...