In my last post I alluded to the slow and painful decline that Coventry have experienced since relegation from the Premier League back in 2001. For me the decline that the club has experienced recently is particularly unique given how slow and hopelessly our team’s fortunes have faded. One of the most maligned issues concerning the club is attendance figures, the slow sapping of lifeblood from the club has left many supporters created a sense of apathy, both from those who no longer go and those who’ve chosen to stick around.
I’m putting this decline into perspective alongside other former Premier League teams who were relegated in that similar pre-parachute payment era and have since experienced third tier football. The teams I’ve chosen are Nottingham Forest, Leicester City and Southampton all of whom I believe could be characterised as similar ‘sized’ clubs (in terms of city size and former Premier League status).
Looking at Coventry City
The graph above is a comparison of attendance figures (in blue) and league position (red). The graph starts in 99/00 to show what the attendance was like in a ‘normal’ non-relegation Premier League season for the club. The lack of attendance drop-off between 99/00 and 2000/01 when we were relegated suggests that top-flight football in itself and not the on-pitch quality was keeping fans at Highfield Road.
The first season in the second-tier is the sharpest drop-off in average attendance in the time period on that graph (which includes 2012/13). Until the move to the Ricoh Arena in 2005 the average attendance figures for three seasons in a row fell to around 14,500. Whilst many look back to the days at Highfield Road as the halcyon days of passionate support for the club, those few years showed that Highfield Road could be equally as soulless as the Ricoh Arena.
Dispelling this idea that the Ricoh Arena is intrinsically soulless further is to look at those early few seasons at our new home. The sharp increase between 04/05 and 05/06 displays what a shot in the arm the Ricoh was to the club in terms of pure attendance figure. Although it’s highly subjective I’ve also looked at the proportionate capacity to try and gauge whether this sense of echoes rattling around a half-empty cement bowl stands up to analysis. In the final season at Highfield Road the stadium was on average 62% full, in the first and fullest season at the Ricoh that proportion was up by around 3%. In the third season at the Ricoh Arena the proportional average attendance figure fell below that final season at Highfield Road and has fallen further ever since.
During our time at the Ricoh Arena, we have only finished higher than the previous season on 2 occasions (08/09 and 10/11). Interestingly both of these seasons were during the SISU era, albeit that in 2010/2011 we only finished one place higher than before. Despite the Ricoh boosting attendance in terms of overall figure it had little effect proportionately and very little impact, if at all, upon league finishes.
Given this lack of success it is perhaps no wonder that fans our staying away. Ever since relegation from the Premier League we’ve only achieved a higher league position 4 times in 13 seasons. This feeds into the idea that the move to the Ricoh has overall been a missed opportunity to revitalise the passion of the support that was dwindling post-Premier League relegation. A season or two in the play-offs would have had a much bigger impact on the atmosphere surrounding the club than simply moving to a bigger and more modern stadium.
For a large part the inability to capture the imagination of the Coventry public during those first 2-3 seasons at the Ricoh has been down to financial mess that the club put itself into in order to move there in the first place. The managers Micky Adams and Iain Dowie during those early years both were put under pressure due to a lack of resources to properly compete at the top level. You can say what you like about the qualities those two managers possessed but both had their moments where it looked like they could put a good team together but continually having to manage a reducing budget hindered what they could achieve with the club.
Since those early years at the Ricoh attendances have been on a downward trend with there being no tangible improvement in playing standards. In the final season in the Championship attendances had fallen 15,118 which was the first time at the Ricoh Arena they had fallen below the attendance levels for that first season in the Championship. Last season was the second biggest drop-off in attendance levels, now at just under 11,000, just over a third of the stadium’s capacity.
In Comparison With Other Teams
So Coventry haven’t achieved anything since relegation from the Premier League except relegation to League One. Attendances fell steadily in the Championship despite the move to a new stadium. Since being relegated to the third tier they’ve taken a sharper drop. But I think this needs to be put into perspective, it’s understandable that a club who’ve dropped two divisions over a period of time will experience a drop in attendance levels but how sharply? And also is Coventry’s longer period of on-pitch decline a bigger contributing factor in falling attendances than simply being dropping from the Premier League to League One?
- Last Relegated From Top-Flight: 98/99 – Attendance: 24,415 (79.9% Capacity)
- First Season Back In Second-Tier: 99/00 – Attendance: 17,196 (56.2% Capacity)
- Relegated From Second-Tier: 04/05 – Attendance: 23,565 (77.1% Capacity)
- First Season In Third-Tier: 05/06 – Attendance: 20,257 (66.2% Capacity)
- Last Season (Second-Tier): 12/13 – Attendance: 23,082 (75.5% Capacity)
Nottingham Forest provide an interesting example, firstly as their attendance levels are not too dissimilar from Coventry’s own Premier League levels. What’s most interesting though is that their average attendance during their relegation from the Championship was actually larger than when they were first relegated to that division. That can be partially explained by Forest’s on-pitch performances during their time back in the second-tier, where they regularly challenged for promotion. In fact, Forest finished in the Championship play-offs just two seasons before they were last relegated to the third-tier.
The drop-off from Championship to League One in terms of attendance levels is relatively low. If you look at the team’s on-field performances and level of investment in the team, both of which were very strong, you can see why fans felt enticed to keep coming to the City Ground. Forest are able to keep their ground full now that they are back in the Championship because of continued investment in the team and exciting performances on the pitch.
- Last Relegated From Top-Flight: 03/04 – Attendance: 30,983 (96% Capacity)
- First Season Back In Second-Tier: 04/05 – Attendance: 24,137 (74.8% Capacity)
- Relegated From Second-Tier: 07/08 – Attendance: 23,508 (72.9% Capacity)
- First Season In Third-Tier: 08/09 – Attendance: 17,983 (55.7% Capacity)
- Last Season (Second-Tier): 12/13 – Attendance: 22,054 (68.4% Capacity)
Leicester are another interesting comparison to make, the first reason for this is that Leicester moved to their new stadium at a near enough time than we did. They also put themselves under severe financial burden to do so and ended up in administration during 2002/2003. However as Leicester didn’t have to pay such high rent and went into administration before 10 point penalties, it was an opportunity to clear out their debts and start afresh. This meant that they regained their Premier League place in 2002/03 despite being in administration not long before that time, although they were relegated the next season.
Leicester are in a lot of way the parallel universe version of Coventry City. Not only in the new stadium comparison (in the centre of the city, not on the outskirts) but also the fact that they took administration early instead of trying to move heaven and earth to avoid it. Had it not been for Carlo Nash, we could have been relegated to the third-tier instead of them. Also during the early seasons at their shiny new stadium they gained promotion, boosting attendance figures, whereas we continued to struggle except in new surroundings. Leicester seem to be a lesson in taking your medicine early rather than trying to deny your symptoms.
The high proportionate figures reflect this early success at the Walkers/King Power Stadium despite being fairly quickly relegated to the third-tier following relegation from the top flight in 03/04. However it should be pointed out that their current attendance levels are still below those early seasons at their new season perhaps suggesting that the relegation to the third-tier has had a longer-term impact on their support.
- Last Relegated From Top-Flight: 05/06 – Attendance: 30,609 (93.6% Capacity)
- First Season Back In Second-Tier: 06/07 – Attendance: 23,613 (72.2% Capacity)
- Relegated From Second-Tier: 08/09 – Attendance: 18,149 (55.5% Capacity)
- First Season In Third-Tier: 09/10 – Attendance: 20,108 (61.5% Capacity)
- Last Season (Top Flight): 12/13 – Attendance: 30,874 (94.4% Capacity)
Southampton’s recent double promotion perhaps makes them a less relevant comparison for a more recent perspective but their much faster plight from Premier League to third-tier helps us answer that question concerning speed of fall. They also built a new stadium, except they remained in the Premier League during its early years. When they left their old stadium, The Dell, their average crowd was 15,115, which was lower than us in the Premier League at Highfield Road, but was around 5 seats short of the ground’s overall capacity. I also find interesting as Southampton were very similar in terms of on-field performances during to us, perhaps no surprise that we both have had Gordon Strachan in charge. At their new St. Mary’s Stadium and in the Premier League their average proportion dropped from 97.8% in their first season there to 93.6% when they finally succumbed to relegation in 2005/06.
Their three season stay in the second tier saw their attendance levels drop from 23,613 (72.2%) in their first season down to 18,149 (55.5%) when they were finally relegated. A fairly significant drop-off during that time, perhaps reflecting a certain amount of fickleness amongst our friends on the South Coast. Compared to Coventry, the drop off from top-flight to second-tier is actually larger than our own by 2-3% and their relegation proportionate attendance from the Championship into League One is around 5% higher than ours. Given the similarity in drop-off but over a shorter time-scale, it slightly puts paid to the idea that a long decline has a greater impact on attendance figures rather than poor performances alone.
What’s telling though is that their attendances increased following relegation from the Championship. This can perhaps be explained by Southampton’s takeover during that period by their Swiss sugar daddy Markus Liebherr which helped drive up optimism despite falling to such a low ebb. Perhaps what is having a bigger impact now upon Coventry’s attendance level isn’t so much a lack of success but a lack of optimism for a brighter future.
So answering those questions set out above. Firstly, it is quite clear that clubs who end up in the third-tier from the Premier League do experience noticeable declines in attendance levels. However the declines experienced by other clubs have not been as severe as Coventry City’s. Forest saw an overall fall by 13.7%, Leicester’s was 40.3% and 32.1% for Southampton. In comparison, Coventry have seen a fall in proportionate attendance levels from top-flight to third-tier of 54%. However all four figures vary quite significantly and suggest that a wider ranging study might be needed.
Answering the second question concerning the speed at which Coventry fell though is another interesting one. It took Southampton just 3 seasons to go from Premier League to League One and their proportion of attendance fell 32.1% over that time period. Leicester took 4 seasons and fell 40.3%, perhaps a trend is emerging. Forest though took 6 years and only fell by under 14%. Coventry’s 13 year fall from grace saw a 54% fall. It appears that whilst there is something to be said about a slow fall impacting attendances more than a quick one, there are other factors at play.
My closing point though is that optimism and not this long drawn-out period of decline seems to affect attendance levels more. Only Nottingham Forest averaged lower proportionately in the Premier League than Coventry did. I would attribute this to the fact that Forest were experiencing perhaps a hangover from their glory days and the prospect of being top-flight strugglers wasn’t enticing. That Coventry averaged lower both proportionately and in actual attendance figures back in the third tier reflects a lack of optimism for a brighter future. Generations of under-achievement and, more importantly, under-investment have left many feeling that our decline might just be terminal.
Why do we get fewer and fewer season ticket holders each season? Many have argued that is has been a lack of excitement on the pitch which has turned fans away. Additionally there is a value-for-money argument to be made. However I would put the continuing fall in attendances down to a lack of genuine belief that things can get better at the club, when the Ricoh was first built more people turned up, when people realised it was the same old Coventry City they were watching then they started to stop going.
The JPT area final against Crewe displayed the potential for fans to get excited when a decent opportunity for success arises. With the team losing it proved to many that Coventry City weren’t worth investing your time and money into, the crowd for the following league game fell by over half. Perhaps for once this summer the club can take its long-needed medicine of administration and emerge stronger. If we want fans to return to Coventry City on a regular basis there needs to be hope that the club is now on an upwards trajectory.