Valley of Dreams?
The club, as is well-documented, is in the process of seeking planning permission to increase the capacity of the Valley from 27,000 to 31,000 and ultimately 40,000. Judging from Peter Varney's comments this should be celebrated. Wouldn't it be great, all other things being equal, to be able to accomodate more fans than say Spurs and Everton? Well yes, of course, but all other things are not equal, and more importantly it is an unnecessary and misguided development in my view.
When assessing the viability of a stadium expansion, there would seem to be three key issues to address. First, what is the current demand for seats, and how is it being met? Second, what are expectations for future demand and how can it be met? And third, what are the financial risks of proceeding with any expansion? I would like to address each in turn.
Charlton have 24-25,000 tickets available for home fans at each game. The vast majority of these are sold in advance in the form of season tickets (though notably season ticket sales have been falling recently). If there was clear excess demand for tickets, then the minority of tickets available for match-by-match sales should sell out quickly. Infact, the club is currently forced to resort to various promotions to sell just a few thousand tickets, and on more than one occasion has failed to sell out. The club is currently advertising a special offer for the vital Birmingham game which kicks off in just three days time. The attendance versus West Ham was 25,952 and less recently, the attendance versus Wigan was just 23,453. Even more surprisingly, the Chelsea home game did not sell out until just days before kick-off. If you cannot sell just a few thousand tickets for the Chelsea game weeks in advance, then it is clear to me the club does not have an excess demand problem currently.
Successful organisations are forward-looking, so perhaps the club is ignoring the lack of excess demand currently by anticipating excess demand in the future. Peter Varney has raised the point that the club's catchment area is poised for rapid population growth and hence the club should anticipate (and market to) the new entrants to the area. However he misses the point that football is perhaps a unique business. Most people that attend football matches do so because of some intangible personal link to the team and the sport, not because they expect to be entertained. Unlike films or plays, football matches are unpredictable but people attend because they care about the eventual outcome. For those of us that have been brought up supporting a team, this is of course its very essence. However to a neutral all of this is irrelevant, not least when the club is asking for £30+ for admission. Sport in general is not meaningful unless one cares about the outcome - often this emotional involvement can come from a financial involvement (witness the explosion in sports betting).
More importantly however, if Varney's theory holds then one should expect that those parts of the country which have experienced depopulation should have seen their local teams experience declines in attendances. Cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Newcastle have all seen material decreases in population over recent decades, yet their football teams have, if anything, seen an increase in attendances. Indeed their slow decline can probably in part explain the increase due to the importance of passion implied above - during difficult times, the local club becomes the focal point for local pride. More generally it is notable that, within certain ranges, club attendances are remarkably stable. Ironically, Charlton is one of the few clubs that has seen material and consistent increases but these now seem to have plateaued and are based more upon our 'friendly atmosphere' and low ticket prices (relatively speaking), rather than a sudden awakening of passion for the club's fortunes. For further evidence of this phenomenon, you only have to witness our diabolical away support which is perhaps the worst in the Premiership.
Charlton is perhaps the ultimate 'community club' and it is something that all decent fans are proud of. However, they will never in the short or medium-term make a meaningful impact on attendances in the absence of material (and hugely unlikely) falls in admission prices. My passion for Charlton knows few bounds, but I wonder if I would myself baulk at attending every game if forced to pay ready cash at the turnstile instead of handing over a season-ticket, paid for in advance on a magic credit card. Then you have to ask yourself how Mr New-to-Greenwich is likely to weigh up the possibility of attending Charlton vs Portsmouth.
The third point relates to the financial implications of expansion. I am not privy to the ways the club intends to finance expansion, but assuming it involves some additional debt, this would seem imprudent given the football industry's notoriously poor visibility of future cashflows and revenues.
Indeed, there is an important point which I believe the board is missing entirely. Infact I think it is so vital that I wrote to Richard Murray about it in some length. In short, I believe that the limited capacity of the Valley is boosting attendances, and moreover that its expansion would cause a material decline in attendances.
I do not believe that Charlton have 20,000+ devoted fans. Instead we have perhaps 12-14,000 devoted fans (as evidenced by our typical Cup attendances) and a further 6-8,000 'fairweather' fans who feel obliged to purchase a season ticket to ensure they are able to attend the handful of games that are meaningful to them (Chelsea, Arsenal, Man U etc..). If the club goes ahead with its plan to add 4,000 and ultimately 13,000 additional seats, those 'fairweather' fans will be confident in their ability to purchase tickets for the glamour games, and will resist buying a season ticket. As a New York-based fan essentially 'wasting' £450 pa on a season ticket, it is fair to assume I wouldn't be renewing mine in the context of a stadium expansion.
There is an unfortunate confluence of events occurring currently which tell me that the club's stadium expansion could well lead to several unintended consequences. There is, in short, a combination of the club's poor form (especially at home) combined with a generalised apathy for football, set alongside a gradual deterioration in consumer confidence and all analysed within a rose-tinted view of the impact of demographic changes.
The Valley is almost the perfect compact Premiership stadium, and we are able to fill it on a fairly regular basis. Perhaps some improvements to the ageing Jimmy Seed Stand would improve the aesthetics, but given that it houses away fans, who cares? Instead I can visualise the team running out in a half-full but spanking new stadium (just like Coventry, Derby, Leicester, Wigan and Sunderland) but where the very absence of any atmosphere discourages those potential supporters from attending in the first place.
If it ain't broke, then why fix it?