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INSIDE WANDERERS: The fight to boost crowds can be a losing battle

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karlypants

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
Football clubs have tried every trick in the book to boost crowds but, invariably, only the ones who win most weeks seem to succeed.

Tuesday night’s gate of just over 13,000 against Reading was described as “disheartening” by Wanderers chairman Ken Anderson in his most recent column, and given the stops pulled out by the Whites to bring in a big crowd, I can sympathise.

He had volunteered himself for a pre-match Q&A for ticket holders, three players had been put up for a signing session at Bolton Central, and tickets had been reduced to a category D low of £15.

While some may still argue the price could be even lower, it is difficult to see what more they could realistically have done to encourage people to come down to the Macron.

It is important Wanderers don’t lose heart. A lot of bridges have been rebuilt with supporters this last few years, and that good work must be allowed to continue. But bringing more through the turnstiles is much more complicated than clever marketing gimmicks.

For all their improvement, Phil Parkinson’s side remain second bottom of the Championship with two wins from 18 games. It is difficult – particularly at this time of year – to make people look past the league table and part with their cash.

Fans tend to fall into three categories. The first would spend their last penny going to games. Anderson would have seen some of those faces as he chatted prior to kick-off in the Bolton Whites Hotel.

That core support hasn’t changed in 20 years, maybe more. They took equal pleasure from watching Phil Neal’s team in the old Fourth Division and Big Sam’s galaxy of stars in Europe.

The second group are just as passionate for the cause, and may well hold season tickets, but you are a lot less likely to bump into them at a Tuesday night away game at Portman Road .

A younger and more vocal demographic, they are probably the most telling indicator of how well a team is doing.

Finally, there are those who keep an interest in Wanderers but attend games more as an occasional luxury than a necessity. Times are tight – and there are more and more football fans falling into this category, whether clubs like it or not.

Anderson was appealing more to groups two and three when he made his rallying call for more support – concerned the gate was nearly 10,000 down on the last day of last season in League One.

Historically-speaking, crowd numbers have found their level. The Whites have played 32 seasons in the second tier and have only twice averaged more than 20,000 fans – in the golden Ian Greaves era between 1977 and 1979.

Over the course of those 32 seasons the club has actually averaged 13,629 supporters in the Championship or its equivalent.

Anderson and many of his contemporaries are caught in a Catch 22 situation. Bigger crowds generate more money to invest in the squad, and help achieve greater success. But crowds only tend to increase when a team is successful.

“Tuesday night’s attendance was the lowest this season, so it proves lowering the price is not the answer,” the chairman reasoned.

Wanderers pick certain games – Brentford, Reading – for ticket promotions and have also ear-marked Birmingham City later in the season as a Category D pricing structure. But they must protect their season ticket value or the economy goes out of the window entirely.

Dropping ticket prices is a dangerous game, and the process is difficult to reverse.

Bradford City have created a great atmosphere at Valley Parade by offering cheap season tickets, yet should they get promotion this season it would be interesting to see whether the policy continues out of League One.

My hunch is unless you tap into an oil well, like Huddersfield Town’s surprise promotion to the Premier League last season, such gimmicks are hard to sustain.

There is no short-term fix to boost crowds. All Wanderers can do is offer good value for money and an experience that makes fans want to return. A lot of that is linked to the result – which, for all his resourcefulness, even Ken Anderson cannot affect.

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