By Ed Sokolowski
Apologies for the length of this piece – I’m not a writer by any means, and I don’t intend on doing it for a career. Hope it’s readable and interesting enough, and at least provokes a thought or two.
With the recent discussions concerning the planned boycott of the home leg of the Champions League game against Genk, it seems an appropriate time to question the more “long term” problems that will result from continually rising ticket prices. As a supporter in the 18-25 age bracket (I’m 23) it’s hard to not feel slightly disconnected from the club when I’m at a point in my life where I’m free from the commitments of education and I’m also yet to settle down with a family/mortgage.
With the freedom to work as much as required to fund the excursions of domestic away days and European aways, on top of my home season ticket, I’m also under less ‘social responsibility’ to come home to see the wife/study for exams/feed the dog/etc. Having been extremely fortunate to have had a season ticket for over 12 years courtesy of a supportive father, I’ve had a fairly reasonable first hand impression of how much of our support is made up.
Even as a 10 year-old snotty nosed kid, it was pretty easy to see that I was one of a lucky few of that age that was taken to football regularly by my dad. Of course, even in 1998, the cost of football wasn’t exactly cheap, especially when considering the additional costs of travel/food/memorabilia. It was therefore no surprise that when the club finally introduced the “family scheme’s” there were noticeably more kids around on a match day.
I remember at the time having no desire to relocate away from the MHL to sit in the family sections – as a child, the biggest excitement of the day at Chelsea would be knowing I was a part of the nucleus of the atmosphere. I look back at my memories of scampering on top of my seat to see a corner being taken, and berating away fans to my left with such obscenities that would appal my mother even now as something that was impossible for me to experience anywhere else. I’d be fascinated hearing stories at half time from hardened supporters of yesteryear, be it stories of taking thousands to towns across the country, memories of terracing in the shed or recent trips into Europe following the club.
Family enclosures have meant that it’s slightly easier for those with eager children to take their kids – however, from going as a kid it was a lot more fun thinking you are being treated like anyone else, sitting in a more even cross-section of supporters than sitting JUST with parents and children. As an aside, I can wholeheartedly say I never had trouble seeing the match when everyone was stood up – I’d either stand on my seat, or elders around me would help me see. I wouldn’t have dared asked somebody to sit down, and I much preferred the atmosphere of everyone being on their feet and felt people had a right to do what they wanted with their seat, just as I did.
Having grown slightly older, it became more common to frequent some of the many pubs in the vicinity of Stamford Bridge as well as attending more and more away matches. Now, I’m welcome to have people disagree with this assertion but I think that especially compared with other clubs, much of our support isn’t too family orientated. I don’t see it as a problem in the short-term – ever since I’ve been going to Chelsea I’ve seen many groups of friends aged 30+ who use their days out at football for what it’s best for; an escape from the daily grind of work, by having a few beers and a day out with your mates. I think having a large portion of our support fitting that description, as well the club playing fairly regular European football over the last ~15 years has meant that our support is pretty closely knit. In the short-term, we have a decent support, well reflected in our numbers that we take to domestic aways. My concerns however lie in the long-term.
Much of the older generations of our fans could very easily buy tickets as young adults, due to the relative cost and availability. Football has obviously changed exponentially in the last 30 years and so it should be expected that cultures and attitudes towards attending football will change. It’s common for a large number fans to attend matches when they are at a younger stage of their life – reach a point in their life where family and work commitments mean they have to prioritize and take care of what’s most important – and then eventually when they have children of a certain age, they can start going to football again, be it with or without their children (and largely a mixture of both).
As a 23-year-old, I can think of only a few similarly aged fans – many of which I know not because we’ve grown up together, but because we are the few oddities that go regularly.
I can think of a large number of older (than me!) friends at football who’ve succeeded in fathering kids, but can only take them sporadically largely because of the cost of going, but also in part due to kids generally not fitting into the itinerary of their day out (10 pints of beer amongst other largely adult situations). My greatest fear regarding the clubs support is that when the current generation of fans stop going (or stop going as much/getting as involved in atmosphere etc), there will be nothing but tourists to fill the void. Much of the older support cites the 70’s and 80’s as the heyday of our support and when they enjoyed themselves the most. I wouldn’t suggest in the slightest that football wasn’t more fun in that era, but I think a large part of the nostalgia lies in the support was at the right age to enjoy days out at football to their fullest.
In my view, the club needs to do as much as possible to make it easier for young adults to attend football, and even more importantly REWARD those that do. The younger kids are that can attend football regularly, the more in touch they will be with the traditions and character of the club when they grow up. Without anything to bridge the gap between generations of fans, decades of fan culture and heritage will be lost in the coming years.
Although I think that introducing another age band with reduced ticket prices would massively benefit the club, there is plenty more that the club can do to involve younger support. Beyond trying to squeeze as much money out of fans through ticket sales, I feel that the club has massively missed the mark in what interests supporters. I’d feel fairly comfortable saying most regular attendee’s aged 16-30 aren’t interested in Chelsea branded tat from the megastore – people of that age group are interested in music, fashion, going out, and socializing.
Events organised by the club tend not to go beyond a certain audience – largely dominated by events with formal dress codes, table bookings, 3 course meals with champagne. We’ve recently seen the introduction of the ‘Star on a Stool’ events which have been successful, and more importantly encourage a wider range of support.
It would be great to take these one step further – for the club to organise nights aimed the age group I’ve highlighted. Perhaps to see some of the cult hero’s from the early 90’s, to the cup winning players that played towards the end of the decade. Furthermore, the stadium has recently redeveloped the ‘Purple’ nightclub into a premier music venue – this could be a great venue to engage like-minded supporters with some of the many musicians and bands that also support the club. The Kings Road, as well as Chelsea and West London on the whole is famous for being a trendy, fashionable part of the world – in my opinion the club should do as much as possible to involve fans with the local area. Discounts at local clothes shops, venues, even restaurants and bars for fans with a certain amount of loyalty points would I’m sure be well received by many of those looking for some reciprocation for their support.
These are only quickly thought out ideas rather than an agenda I feel must be carried out – currently, many supporters feel that the club would rather sell the seats of loyal match-goers to London tourists willing to pay a premium for top-level football. Hopefully the club can eventually appreciate the benefits of taking care of all different kinds of supporters, rather than just taking care of the ones who can afford it (and while they can).