Carlisle United Might Be Looking For Answers In The Wrong Places
It’s been a sorry start to the season for Carlisle United both on the pitch and in the stands. After three years of steady progress up the League One table, the club are struggling to dust themselves off from the tumble that left them lodged in a disappointing seventeenth last term.
There is cause for concern on the terraces too with the Cumbrians hemorrhaging fans almost as readily as they are shipping goals. Manager Gregg Abbot sees falling attendances as an inevitable product of wilting league performances, but in an increasingly corporate football landscape such a reductive outlook feels unsatisfactory, and recent trends suggest the 2013/14 season may be the trickiest yet for clubs reliant on a local following.
Abbot’s team have left a sorry mark on the table so far this season. With three games down United have registered a goal-difference of minus twelve having being stuffed in consecutive games by Leyton Orient, Bradford and Coventry, and are being kept mercifully from the foot of the table by the 10 point penalty imposed on the Sky Blues in the fallout from their own financial meltdown. At five years, Abbot’s tenure at Brunton Park is one of the longest in the Football League but after three seasons of climbing the table last year’s lower mid-table slump represented a blow – one that the current crop have struggled to bounce back from.
Abbot reflected last weekend that the players “will have to work harder to win back the fans that have gone missing” after Coventry left Brunton Park with a 4-0 win, citing average attendance figures from last season that had slumped dramatically on 2011/12. Sound reasoning from a man whose been in the job long enough to know a thing or two about spotting trends, but the days when healthy league form necessarily drew supporters en masse through the turnstiles are behind us. A glance at the record books show that Carlisle’s most industrious period of league form has coincided with a dramatic fall in attendances since 2008, with those missing fans that have been troubling Abbot numbering close to 2,000. Four years ago, the Cumbrians survived in the third tier by the skin of their teeth – a struggle that an average of 6,300 supporters turned out weekly to witness. Last season after a brief dalliance with the play-offs, those numbers never got near to 4,500.
That there is a problem to be addressed is hard-wired, especially for a club that takes around 35% of its income at the turnstiles, but the numbers suggest Abbot is wide of the mark in thinking that he can woo fans back via results alone. Outside of the top two divisions, resources are thin on the ground and for the most precious commodity – the paying fans – competition is fierce. Carlisle Managing Director John Nixon has already expressed fears that the aggressive expansion of the top divisions is tipping the structure of domestic football towards a critical imbalance: “There’s an awful lot of cash going into the top level of the game. They have whip hand… The Premier League are trying to run English football and it could drive us towards regional or part-time football.” £60million of a £4billion media agreement is likely to filter down to the third and fourth tiers in solidarity payments over a three year period, whilst the £23million a year doled out to each relegated club threatens to create a feeder-pool of clubs inaccessible to those lower down the pyramid.
As media channels and stadia at the top expand to accommodate a greater share of the football audience, a holistic approach to building between the Abbots and Nixons of the League has never been more central to the game’s survival. A 15 game unbeaten run for the Cumbrians (an unlikely scenario given that the club haven’t managed three consecutive wins throughout the former Bradford midfielder’s 5 year tenure) is unlikely in itself to re-direct the interests of fans from the soap-operas at Newcastle and Sunderland, especially as BT and Sky trip over themselves force their product under the noses of fans during every waking, working and leisure moment. But a more creative approach to the market might. Plymouth Argyle are in the early stages of a project to turn Home Park into a family-friendly leisure outlet of which the football club will be just one facet, whilst gimmicky publicity stunts at Macclesfield and Farnborough have made up for with initiative what they lack in class or sustainability.
Not that selling off playing time to well-to-do fans is the answer to Abbot’s frustrations, but the hope that the Cumbrians might yet play their way back into the consciousness of distracted fans is anachronistic and can only hold the club back. The drop in attendances since 2008 represents a loss of around £700,000 a year, and as Nixon is keenly aware “fans can stay at home, having paid for the TV, so they watch football there. They don’t want to come to a draughty stadium to cheer on a team at the bottom of League One.” The medium term problem faced by the club is that fans seem to feel similarly about a club performing well in the third tier, and BT have based a three year business model around just that assumption. A bloated media industry is putting the squeeze on the lower leagues in ways they were never designed to be able to handle. Adaptability is key as another season ticks over and United will have to learn quickly that it’s not all about what happens during ninety minutes.