Tim Fisher, CEO of CCFC Holdings Ltd, the parent company that controls Coventry City Football Club on behalf of the Cayman Island based hedge fund, SISU, appeared fairly relaxed about the situation when questioned in the summer at the specially arranged fan forums. When the proposed relocation to Sixfields went ahead, he predicted attendances of around 6-7,000 if the club were doing well and around 3,000 if results were poor. Fisher’s popularity ratings amongst Sky Blues fans is at an all time low after the conduct over the summer, but he has a background in banking and economics and so must surely be far from the incompetent clueless fool that many depict. Where did his figures come from, and why did he get it so wrong?
Football fans have pretty unbreakable bonds with their club, that collectively form the basis for a clubs set of ‘hardcore’ fans. City till I Die. As the late Eddie Thomson, chairman of Dundee United, wisely noted
You can change your wife, your house, your car, but you can never change your team. Chairmen come and go, boards come and go, but the fans remain.
A team is for life and this saying applies equally to any woman and her husband. In Argentina the cliché has been evolved to accommodate local cultural values
You can change your wife, but your club and your mother, never.
Who actually came up with the original concept and when, is unclear – probably some wise old boy at the bar before an inconsequential game years ago, his moment lost in history. The sentiment is that support is unwavering. And if taken as face value, for those with financial interests at heart that now control clubs, we have the perfect consumers. Unbinding loyalty to the badge. You can change the shirts year on year and they still sell. You can change the clubs name to incorporate wild animals into their title, inviting ridicule amongst rival fans along with widespread sympathy, but the turnstiles will still turn. You can ignore centuries old traditions and make the Bluebirds play in red, but if the quality of the football is there, the cash till will still ring. There will be murmurs of disapproval but the majority of supporters on the whole get over it. They are ripe for picking.
However, the reality is that support amongst the majority of football fans is far from this simplification. Allegiance may be unwavering, but there are a significant number of football fans that are not part of the hardcore that regularly and habitually attend and spend. A large proportion are more fickle, a more relevant description being that of ‘armchair fans’, often derided by core supporters as ‘plastic fans’. Chelsea fans, amongst other of course, constantly hear
Where were you, where were you when you were shit?
directed at them at away games. These are the supporters that will return when the club is doing well, or for important cup games and local derbies. The majority of football fans fall into this second category – every weekend less than 3% of the population actually go to watch professional football. American Academics that study fan behaviours call those less committed fans as BIRGers – Basking in Reflective Glory fans. For City fans, the Ricoh was almost a sell out for one game last season – the Johnstone Paint Trophy semi-final first leg against Crewe. Where do all these BIRGers, the ‘glory hunters’ or ‘plastic fans’ come from?
Alan Tapp, an academic based in Bristol that specialises in marketing and consumer behaviour, conducted an in depth study on a Midlands based club looking specifically at the behaviour and attitudes of fans over a period of four years at the turn of the century. The club he studied had an average attendance over that period of 21,000 and he concluded that three distinct categories of fan types could be deduced:
8,000 Hardcore – Mainly Season Tickets Holders
8,000 Committed Casuals – drawn from around a total of 15,000 fans
5,000 Casuals. Carefree Individuals with less committed ties to a specific club.
He found that of the even amongst the hardcore of 8,000 season ticket holders, this group was not as static as expected and would fluctuate between seasons, with a ‘leakage’ of around 1,000 fans that chose not to renew the following season, being replaced by a similar number of committed casuals, thereby keeping the numbers fairly consistent. Tapp’s research, published in 2004, has been expanded upon and refined by others in the field of marketing and brand loyalty more recently, but his core concepts are likely to have informed the basis for Fisher’s figures on attendances. Rather than plucked out thin air, Fisher is likely to have used recent research to underpin his predictions. Data is king for a hedge fund and the clubs database will have formed the basis for Fishers assertions.
The club had an average attendance of just under 11,000 in the 2012/13 season, prior to the relocation. First we need to deduct away fans that traveled to the Ricoh from the average, taken to be around 1,000. If we use Tapps model as a basis, the Sky Blues would have around 4,000 hardcore, 4,000 committed casuals and 2,000 casuals that form the basis of support. Yet the season ticket sales for 2012/13 was in the region of 5,800 which if we deduct corporates, which the club funds as part of sponsorship deals with ‘partners’, we can estimate that around 5,500 purchase, around 35% higher than expected from the model, which would have been cause for optimism. The club has a larger than expected hardcore following relative to overall attendance figures. The club will have statistical data on those individuals that renew season tickets years on year and will have made an allowance for the leakage of the percentages which were unlikely to renew, likely to be around 800 in a ‘normal’ close season. The club will have estimated a greater net loss of season ticket holders for the coming season, of course – fewer if any would have been expected to replace those that leave due to the relocation to Sixfields. Some of those lost are likely to have been assessed as expected to become committed casuals – they will turn up if the results go well – or for semi finals of the JPT – but will not show full commitment by purchasing a season ticket.
Fishers lower end prediction of a minimum of 3,000 assumed that around 50% of the long suffering season ticket holders would remain, either taking out season tickets or becoming committed casuals. If results went well, Fisher expected the other half of the hardcore support to return, along with a proportion of the established committed casuals, providing the basis for the prediction of crowds of around 6-7,000. The additional numbers would also see a return of more long-term ‘committed casuals’ that have followed the club in recent seasons. The quality of the football and results would override concerns about the imposed relocation, levels of investment in the squad and the ambitions of the owners.
But what appears to have occurred is they have seriously underestimated the number of hardcore fans which care so deeply about the club they now refuse to travel – part of the Not One Penny More (NOPM) movement against the owners, particularly to ‘home’ games in Northants. Away support at this stage is fairly consistent with those that traveled last season. This show of support through non-participation has been massively under-predicted by Fisher. His forecast was based on the assumption that fans would eventually travel – 35 miles is not that far physically for a committed football supporter, but the psychological distance was substantially devalued.
Instead of around 50% (2,750) of these supporters showed their commitment by purchasing a season ticket, it looks as though less than 500 fans have actually purchased. A block of some 250 season tickets were showing as being sold shortly after the tickets were first made available for sale, with the widely held assumption that these were purchased on behalf of the club for corporate sponsors, players wives and families and guests of the club. On such low total sales, these become more significant than on average attendances of 21,000 for example. After two ‘home’ games with total attendances of around 2,000, the Coventry Telegraph reported that the club believed
Roughly 1,000 Coventry fans attended the first fixture [Bristol City] compared to 1,500 for the latest. [Preston North End].
So far this season, the club have been involved in some pretty high scoring games, form that would be consistent with a club pushing for the play-offs (if the FL had not imposed a points deduction) and are represented on the field by local lads that have progressed through the ranks, assisted by a few experienced older players from further afield. This is the stuff many supporters in the lower leagues want from their team – a hint of possible success and a team full of local, well organised, talented players working hard for each other. And yet instead of the 7,000 predicted under such circumstances, around 20% of the expected attendance has turned up so far. It is early days and things may change, but only 500 committed casual fans have so far been convinced. The team is on a high and fans are not traveling. Will Fisher assumptions, that currently look to be catastrophically wide of the mark, have any repercussions for the clubs eventual return to the city?
Portfolio holders and investors in SISU’s funds could now be asking uncomfortable questions to find out how the analysis was so spectacularly wide of the mark. Those investors simply investing in funds without the full knowledge of what exactly SISU were using their money for will now be acutely aware of what they are investing in, particularly after the negative publicity the company has received over the summer, attracting such widespread criticism in its handling of the situation both in local and national media. It seems likely that investors will be asking some serious questions particularly over the proposed build of a new stadium in Coventry. Any numbers given for fans returning to the new stadium are likely to be received with considerable caution, that could undermine willingness to release funds for the proposed build, due to be completed at some point, as yet undisclosed, in the next five years. If predictions for those that were prepared to travel were so wide if the mark, investors are likely to view any predictions on those likely to return whilst SISU remain in charge with skepticism. One of the problems SISU may face is convincing investors to back the scheme when even hardcore fans will soon have gotten used to not going to the game. Habits are difficult to break, but once broken by force, how easy will they be to relearn? A lot can happen in five years. Once a life outside of football is established, perhaps many will discover that the sky is still blue away from the game and simply get used to do other things at the weekend. If the club ever returns home, these disillusioned supporters may, at best, simply become the unreliable, uncommitted casuals of the future. Only time will tell.