Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The not so faithful border bin liner

The black bin bag protest forecast for Arsenal's game against Blackburn Rovers last Saturday turned out be a non-event, which seems to be par for the course for the slightly fascistic-sounding Black Scarf Movement. I had been looking forward to this, due to fond memories of the surreal Viz cartoon, Black Bag, The Faithful Border Bin Liner.

The idea was to drape the bags over empty seats (an unconscious echo of Greyfriars Bobby, perhaps) to highlight falling attendances at The Emirates and protest that the 6% ticket price rise this season didn't lead to a splurge on new players in the summer (sort of).

Is there a flaw in an argument that hitches these two points together? Surely if attendances (i.e. seats sold) are falling, then the price rise will largely have gone to offset a drop in income. The explanation, of course, is that attendance (bums on seats) no longer reflects sales (seats bought), which is why Arsenal have stopped announcing the "attendance" figure during the game. In terms of seats sold, Arsenal continues to hit around 99%. 8 out of 12 home league games this season have sold over 60,000 (the capacity is 60,361), with the lowest sales being 59,671 for the the thing of beauty that is Stoke City on a Sunday.

The point is that any protest should be directed not at the club but at those supporters (presumably season ticket holders) who choose to skip a game and don't make use of the Ticket Exchange. I know from personal experience that not everyone is able to arrange a sub for every absence, and thus empty seats have become more common for all bar the most glamorous ties. Mind you, I also know from experience that standing season ticket holders would skip games in the past, though this was less obvious due to the fungibility of the crowd (I've been looking for an opportunity to use that phrase). Empty seats in a sell-out stadium are not a stay-away protest.

This casual attitude extends to taking your seats, with many drifting in from the concourses during the first 10 minutes and many (often the same people) popping out 5 minutes before half-time to beat the rush for drinks/pies/toilets. Some have criticised Arsenal for attracting a crowd more suited to the theatre or opera, which is an odd claim given that such venues wouldn't allow you to wander in and out at will. (The related Highbury Library charge is of course a case of rhyme trumping reason).

I suspect the truth is that these habits are largely unchanged over the decades. You simply didn't notice them when most people were standing (and not pissing down the back of your legs), and I recall bobbing up and down to let others pass just as frequently in the North Bank stand at Highbury.

If there has been an increase in this "in-play" faffing about, the cause would certainly be the increase and improvement in the pie and piss facilities. I remember attending a baseball game in Philadelphia in the late 80s and being bemused by the number of "spectators" who spent the entire game pigging out down in the concourse where there were mini-bowling alleys and banks of Space Invaders machines. Mind you, the sport was shit.

The media hype was reheated on MOTD when the ever-perceptive Motty noted that there were lots of empty seats as Titi slotted in the seventh Arsenal goal. What anyone at the stadium would have pointed out is that the goal came on 90 minutes, at which point the rush to the exits had already started, partly because there's always a rush before the end due to the queues for the Tube, partly because we felt confident we couldn't (surely) let a 5-goal lead slip, and partly because it was bloody freezing.

The 7-1 victory has put an end to the "club in crisis" stories in the media, and the accompanying cacophony of sack the board / manager / coaching staff / physio / tea-lady comments online, however this will only be temporary. Though the majority of fans have their grumbles, it's only a small minority that believe we're going to hell in a handcart. Unfortunately, they are over-represented by a media that feeds off confected controversy, and they are over-visible online where blog trolling appears to have become the modern equivalent of scratching your team's initials (or the phone number of a girl who dumped you) on a bog door.

One of the features of the modern game is the way that the cost of being an informed fan (i.e. being in the stadium to get a full view of the game and understand what's happening away from the ball) has sky-rocketed, while simultaneously the cost of entry to fandom has dropped. By the latter I mean that most people can become a semi-informed spectator through live games on TV or via Internet feeds, while the ability to observe and participate in conversations has expanded from the homely confines of the pub to the multiverse of the net.

This is not an elitist argument. It's worth bearing in mind that more people see Arsenal in the flesh these days than ever did in the past.

Unfortunately, intelligent comment remains as rare as Ju Young Park, so where once the angry men of your acquaintance would limit themselves to chuntering about the bus timetable or how the beer tasted funny, now they howl at the moon that "somebody must do something, now!"

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