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Wednesday, 27 January 2010 11:06

The harsh reality of empty stadiums

Huge problem casting shadow over game in Portugal

Empty Belenenses StadiumPortugal can be proud of what its national team and clubs have achieved over the years, competing and often beating the world’s best despite the small population and a lack of economic power.

But increasingly this success is being put under risk owing to a major problem undermining the domestic game in Portugal – fewer and fewer fans in the stadiums. Sergio Santos investigates.
It is expected that a second-tier league such as Liga Sagres will always be beaten by the European elite in terms of attendances. However, according to a study by football site Futebol Finance, Portugal not only lags behind the likes of the Premiership, La Liga and Bundesliga  but also behind the more obscure Swiss League and even Germany’s 2nd tier.  
The problem is not new; we’ve heard about it for years, but there hasn’t been an actual plan to address it to date. Having followed the league for as long as I can remember, I believe the problem lies in 3 main aspects:

Kick-off times

TV deals dictate that matches have to be played at times that are far from attractive. If Uniao de Leiria plays against Pacos de Ferreira on Monday at 21.30, who’s going to watch it? With both teams boasting a modest following and people having to work the following day, there’s barely any incentive to go to the stadium! Unlike Spain, where late night games are also common, people here have a different lifestyle. Walk through the streets of Madrid at 23.00 and you’ll see couples having dinner, groups of friends hanging out and drinking beer and even traffic jams! Here it is quite different, so there’s no real point behind these awkward kick-off times. In that regard, the Portuguese League should adopt the Premiership model where matches are sometimes played at noon but rarely after 20.00.

Big three domination

Compared to other leagues, the rivalry between cities and regions is not as intense. The vast majority of people support one of the big Three – FC Porto, Benfica or Sporting – and only Vitoria Guimaraes and Braga somehow escape that trend. Just by analysing the attendances so far it is possible to see that matches involving Benfica are currently responsible for 40% of the total attendances! The Eagles also fare well in the European ranking with a respectable 17th position, but such asymmetry in the domestic league is detrimental to the future of Portuguese football.

Bad planning

I also have to criticize the poor planning and decision-making of the people who designed venues with large capacities when not even 50% is filled. Apart from the higher maintenance costs, it is different to play in front of 3,000 people in a 30,000- seat stadium than in a family-sized 5,000-seater. In a smaller stadium, there’s no embarrassing echo and both fans and players are brought together! Therefore, Nacional’s decision to stick with a more compact stadium is very commendable.
Addressing these points is not straightforward and requires a joint effort by the clubs and the league. As much as I’d like to see match times change, I don’t see that happening anytime soon because TV deals are an important source of revenue for most clubs. And when you have no money, you have no bargaining power either.
Every now and then I hear about the alleged ‘prohibitive’ ticket prices, but I don’t think that is a real problem because most clubs offer paying supporters very attractive packages. Of course smaller clubs sometimes inflate their ticket prices for a big match, but that is only a reflex of their inability to attract people on a regular day.

Home-grown solution

There’s still something clubs – especially smaller clubs – can do if they are really serious about of attracting more people to the stadiums and that’s putting a bigger focus on home-grown players. Nurturing young talent can be a cheaper way of building a competitive squad, but more than that, it adds something to the club identity because supporters can more easily relate to the team. When the majority of a squad comprises players who have come through the ranks, there’s a big chance that someone has a friend who knows someone that plays in the starting XI and that brings people to the stadium. Shifting towards that strategy would be a win-win situation for those clubs that look abroad for ready-made, but often more expensive players.
There’s no quick fix to solve this problem, but the well-documented downfall of Farense, Salgueiros, Campomaiorense and Estrela da Amadora should make people think about what can be done to steer Portuguese football in the right direction. Having more people at the stadiums would be one big step forward.
by Sergio Santos

From Oporto to the world, Sérgio Santos is an aspiring football writer who provides insight into the often overlooked Portuguese league. You can follow his blog at http://fourfourtwo.com/blogs/theportugeezer
Comments (3)
My view
3 Wednesday, 06 October 2010 09:54
Went to Porto for the weekend, flights booked months ago, hoping to catch some games. Days before the trip, Guimaraes v Porto is moved to 21:15 on Monday - WTF??? We went to Rio Ave v Maritimo and that was that, here in England games are moved for TV but usually with months of notice. There is uproar when games are moved late as people need to make arrangements to travel. It's unrealistic to travel Thurs-Tues just to catch a game.
No Easy Answers
2 Tuesday, 05 October 2010 13:46
Great article, and boy this is a tough topic.

Attendance has always been a problem in Portugal. I believe that the main reason for it, like it has been mentioned, is most people are fans of the "Big Three" and barely keep an eye toward their regional team. Everyone wants to root for a winner and/or for a club with history.
I don't agree with the thought that bringing in regional players would help smaller clubs. How many players exactly could Naval bring in? Aren't they near Coimbra and be competing for that same talent? Same holds true for Rio Ave, who would be competing with Braga, Porto and Guimaraes, no?
The problem is not the nationality of the players, but the way clubs run their marketing and outreach programs. Meaning that they have none. A club has to reach out to the community through events, gatherings, promotions, etc... I don't think that any of that goes on.
I was in Portugal last season, and actually went to a Belenenses match, since Benfica was away. Unless I went and took a look at the schedule, I never would have known there was a game. I just wanted to take in a game and being from the area, I thought it was great. It wasn't the greatest match, but I admit that I actually enjoyed myself in watching them beat Naval 2-0. I also admit if the match had taken place in the afternoon, it would have been much better. It would have been great to go out to dinner after the match and discuss the game and take in the sights. Instead of just going to the Docas for drinks afterwards, I would have sat for dinner and spent more money.
To underline the lack of marketing, I also had the opportunity to go see Setubal play, and was in the city when a game was going to take place, yet you would have never known it.
Plenty of clubs have a lot of Portuguese players, yet you don't see them filling the stadiums. The fact is that clubs themselves don't do anything to promote themselves, their players, or try to integrate themselves into their communities. This holds true for the "Big Three" as well, since they feel as if they don't have to.

I always thought that the pricing was expensive, but after being there I thought it wasn't that bad. Maybe it's because I'm used to the prices in the US. I do agree that clubs need to and should hold better promotions in order to get people in the stands. How about a child gets in for free with an adult. Block off a section for families. Buy three, get one free. Are there game packages available?
I bought great seats, seven in total, for the Benfica thrashing of Setubal last year, but I'm glad I didn't bring my daughter. Eventhough there isn't alcohol being sold, next to me was an idiot screaming obsenities for no reason at all. It was simply idiotic in how he and his buddy just screamed, not cheered, about everything. Not necessarly a friendly atmosphere, and this was with Benfica winning easily. Keep in mind that I wouldn't bring my daughter to an NFL game either.

The revenue sharing isn't going to work. It doesn't work in Hockey, and to a lesser extent the MLB. The Pittsburgh Pirates owner is basically pocketing the money he gets from the Yankees instead of making his club better. He could care less if the Pirates win or lose, since he's making a nice profit just from the luxury tax revenue. By the way, the Pirates attendance is bismal as well.

I know that people use the excuse that all the games are on TV anyway, but that's the same situation in the US. Yet the big clubs still fill the stadiums at home and on the road. Lesser clubs don't, but the big US cities have a huge pool of people to get intothe stands. Portugal smaller clubs, just don't have that. What is the population of Aveiro, that Beira-Mar has to work with? They play in a beautiful stadium, and although currently only filling it 17.7% to capacity, they are 5th in attendance with an average of 5,299.

The fact is that Portugal is a small nation of only 10 million and not everyone is a football fan. It's ok to have the "Big Three" along with a few other mainstays, Guimaraes and Braga. The key is for those mainstays to compete for a Champions League spot every so often, and have other clubs rotate in competing for an European spot with those mainstays. My biggest concern is that Portugal will become the "Big Two" because of the coefficient.

There is no easy answers, and the way the world economy is, I don't think that there are any easy solutions either. There are plenty of empty stadiums in Italy and Spain as well. The only country that seems to be doing a great job in filling teh stands is Germany.
Benfica should be punished
1 Monday, 04 October 2010 12:51
Benfica has the most supporters and even wants to hurt the small teams by withdrawing from the league cup. Dispicable behavior

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