Much of the talk on the terraces and message boards this season has centred around how many fans we get, and how we go about getting more. Somebody once told Kevin Costner “If you build it; they will come”. The JJB stadium is Mr Whelan’s (and our) field of dreams. At the moment they are coming, slowly but surely, but are still at the stage where performances like the one against Plymouth will put them off returning. However the dream isn’t fully put together yet and the final piece of the jigsaw should see ‘they’ flooding through the gates.
The debates about our low crowds, inevitably lead onto suggestions about giving tickets away, reducing prices for certain games and so on. Yet who can genuinely argue that as a club we are growing? Do any of us know less people who go to the game now than we did 10, or even 5, years ago? How many times have you had to explain to someone who Bobby Campbell is or what sort of player Paul Jewell was? Do you think that if our fans’ team was still called “Steady Nigel” the majority of fans would pick up on the reference, let alone get the joke?
Gates will average in 5 figures this season and given our past that’s no mean achievement. The pace of that growth is another matter, but one that should be of more concern to Mr Whelan’s accountant than most fans. The manger and chairman were right to ask the people of Wigan whether they wanted a Premier League football team, history shows that they’ve taken convincing that it’s worth having a professional football team at any level (I don’t expect many of us remember the 30s but think back to the 1980s and you’ll see what I mean). However we shouldn’t let the media fool us into thinking that the commitment and passion of the people who go to games in under question.
The club is in a bit of a catch 22 situation at the moment. The final piece of the jigsaw is Premier League football; Arsenal, Liverpool, Utd and the like would fill the JJB with away support alone, and along with them will come the casual support that we could do with turning into fans. However to guarantee that step up (if you ever can) you need the right players and the right players will be reluctant to turn out for a club with an half empty stadium, no matter what the reasons are.
So maybe “if you build it…” sn’t such a great motto for the clubs marketing department, but what is – “sling enough money at it and something will stick”? I’m no expert on marketing so I’ll steer clear of developing a full on plan for the club, but I do doubt the benefits of attempting to inflate crowds will cheap/free tickets. My experience is that a lot of these end up with people who would go anyway, and a big chunk of the rest end up with people who would have no intention of paying full wack to watch a game. So you end up with a small increase in the crowd at a net loss.
The other angle on marketing is merchandising. Whilst I take the point about needing more; would your life really be better if you had a new mini kit/Da Duke Duvet cover/a pair of knickers with “I’m coming down for the champions” written on them? My guess is not. It would be nice to have new kits earlier, to get the one we actually voted for would be even better. These things may go someway to advertising the club, and keeping fans happy, but would they add 5,000 to the gate?
I’ve rambled on for long enough now and I’m no nearer to a solution. We can trust in the Premier League to bring crowds, but we might need the crowds to help us get there. At work we’d probably have a consultant in to ‘fix’ it; but that hardly seems Whelan’s style to me.
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