Arrested Development

Despite the effects of Spain’s crippling financial crisis and the lack of a coherent plan when it comes to scheduling fixtures, the Spanish football fan is a hardy breed. Reports of a mass exodus of spectators from the country’s stadia have been greatly exaggerated, with attendances generally holding-up. 

These scare stories were prompted by some dreadful attendance figures in the first couple of weeks of this season, which led some doom-mongers to prophesise the financial meltdown of some clubs. In truth, the figures were distorted by the early start to the season and the RFEF’s tinkering with kick-off times, and in recent weeks the league has witnessed a return to normal service. 
A full house at the Camp Nou, but it's not always thus
However all is not rosy in La Liga’s garden. Given the unparalleled levels of success witnessed at club and national level, you would think that there would be something of a boom in paying spectators. Instead, attendances have remained pretty static and you have to look long and hard to find evidence of any initiatives to entice fans into the stadiums to enjoy this quality product. 

So what are the official attendance figures for La Liga? That’s a very good question. You see the study of Spanish attendance figures has always been a bit of a hit & miss affair, with the rounding up of figures and estimations of the size of the crowd being the norm for many years. Even now, reported statistics vary from source to source.  In January 2012, our very own Forza Futbol informed us that in the five year period from 2006-11, La Liga averaged 28,400 spectators per game. Depending on whom you wish to cite, the 2011-12 season saw an average attendance of between 24,300 and 29,600. Yet another example of how Spanish football administration seems to be stuck in the dark ages.
Lies, Damned Lies & La Liga Attendance Figures
The usual suspects dominate the attendance table as they do the Clasificación, with Barcelona edging out Real Madrid on average by a few thousand fans per home game. There is then a sizeable drop to the levels witnessed by Atlético Madrid & Valencia, before a smaller drop brings in the likes of Sevilla, Real Betis & Athletic. The occupancy rate of a stadium has long been considered as a yardstick for measuring the loyalty of a clubs fans, but even here the statistics are skewed. Few would question the loyalty of Atléti’s & Betis’ fans, but they regularly cheer on their heroes in stadia that are just two-thirds full. 

This begs the question, are some of Spain’s stadiums just too big? With the exception of the seemingly endless Clasico’s and some select Champions League matches, Barcelona usually plays in front of 20,000 empty seats at the Camp Nou. Oversized stadiums are not the soul preserve of 1970’s & 80’s architects. Just a few miles to the south west of the Camp Nou is Espanyol’s beautiful new Estadi Cornellá-El Prat, which regularly fails to fill nearly half of its 40,000 seats. A sobering thought for the likes of Athletic Club and Valencia as they develop their own, larger super-stadiums.
San Mamés Barria - Too much, too soon?
So are there any signs of Spanish clubs rising to the challenge and showing initiative in attempts to generate additional revenue? It’s well documented that the money from TV coverage is weighted hugely in favour of Real Madrid & Barcelona and that the remaining 18 clubs have to fight over the remaining half of the pot. Regrettably, the majority of clubs have responded by simply hiking up the price of tickets. The average cost of a ticket in La Liga is now €54.00, making it the most expensive league to watch football in Europe. The typical price for the cheapest tickets is around the €30.00 mark, but these tend to be for the less attractive fixtures and so far away from the action that breathing apparatus is a necessity.

If you want to watch the big two in the provinces then best take out a bank loan. When Barcelona came to Pamplona earlier this year, Osasuna decided that €90.00 would be the going rate for the cheapest tickets. Whilst this might seem like sharp practise, it is not a patch on the clubs that apply the “Dia del Club” scheme. This nice little earner allows home supporters to buy a season ticket which excludes the visit of Real Madrid & Barça and sometimes a local derby. In short, if you want to watch the best you have to pay like the rest. Deportivo and Rayo Vallecano have such schemes, whilst Granada ran one last year before dropping it at the start of this season.
Whatever next? Common sense prevails at the Vicente Calderón
Some clubs have recently seen the light and decided that it is better to fill the stadium with a high percentage of discounted tickets, than play in front of open seats. Thanks to a piece of the senseless scheduling by the RFEF, Atlético Madrid faced with the possibility of a greatly reduced crowd for their home match with Malaga. Atléti bit the bullet and offered tickets from €15.00 and were rewarded with a crowd of 43,000, who in turn were rewarded with a last minute winning goal. A few other clubs have tried similar initiatives, such as Valencia offering tickets at €10.00 on a couple of occasions last season. Villarreal should also be applauded for their support of their unemployed fans. 

Sadly, these examples are few and far between. Many clubs seem to lack the wit and imagination to integrate with the local community and offer cheaper seats to school children, who are potentially tomorrow’s fans. The lack of any loyalty scheme or 2-4-1 offers is dated, short-sighted and above all, damaging. There is so much to applaud and admire about Spanish football, however its administration and marketing are simply not up to scratch. Most club presidents are detached and seemingly content with sitting on their hands, and continuing with a policy that sees their clubs most loyal supporters pay for their idleness. A change will have to come soon, or there is a real risk that there won’t be anything worth changing.