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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
Editorials:
Attracting supporters
By Peter Wilson
 
Watford are very fortunate to have a Chief Executive in Tim Shaw, who whilst being a "businessman" is also a supporter at heart. Recently, hard decisions have had to be made, particularly in light of the demise of ITV Digital and the poor showing of Watford on the pitch last season. You sense that Tim genuinely struggles with reaching the hard decisions that his Watford-supporting heart is torn by.

In the Coventry match programme, Tim dwells on the dwindling numbers of Watford fans this season. After averaging 14,000 or so last season, the average attendance this year is hovering around the 11,000 mark and Tim questions where the missing fans have gone. After all, at the Play-Off final only three years ago, the Hornets took over 37,000 to the big match. Tim questions not just the decline in the average but also what Watford fans can do about it. Good questions, but not easily answered.

Firstly, looking at the average numbers from a away fan perspective, Watford have suffered in their first three matches at home from a number of factors outside of their control. Our first visitors were Millwall, who following problems at their home play-off game have introduced a membership scheme for their fans. Reading the Millwall Rivals website before the game, it is obvious that the membership scheme has hit their supporters very hard. Producing documents, passports or other ID information to join up has caused a deal of resentment amongst fans, and rather than join up, a large number of Millwall's fan base have decided not to participate in the scheme. Probably, Millwall brought half of their anticipated number due to this new scheme's introduction. The away following was probably 1,000 or 1,500 down on previous seasons.

The second game against the MK Dons - or, in BSaD speak, Wimblestein - was always going to be a small crowd. When an away team can only muster less than 200 supporters, it is hardly going to generate a big crowd or a great atmosphere.

Our recent game against Coventry was televised by Sky and consequently a number of fans would have stayed away to watch the game either at home or in a pub. Whilst I don't have the statistics to hand, for smaller clubs like Watford, TV coverage does impact on attendances. Indeed, whilst Coventry are near the top of the Nationwide table, their following appeared down on previous seasons - no doubt a direct consequence of TV coverage.

Turning to home fans numbers falling, there are a wide range of issues as to why this has happened. From conversations with friends who have not renewed their season tickets this year, the main reason appears to be disenchantment with the Vialli regime. The football played at times was dire and often Luca's explanation didn't coincide with what the fans saw on the pitch. Watford fans adored Graham Taylor for talking to them straight - sometimes we didn't like it, but he would say we were crap if we played poorly. Luca, unfortunately, skirted the issues and poor performances were often excused by bizarre explanations..."the stars were not in alignment..."

Another key component is the recession and its impact on disposable income. Whilst it might not be obvious, a large number of people are currently without employment or are on low salaries. Watching football is an expensive business, whether buying tickets, programmes and food or staying at home to watch it on TV. Watford have been magnificent in holding season ticket prices to fair levels, but even so, shelling out 280 for a Rookery season ticket is still a substantial sum for many. After all, the price of a season ticket is equivalent to a cheap trip to Spain or Greece for a summer holiday.

The final but less tangible reason is that the club seems distant from many. The Vialli factor of course impacts here, but the financial problems, the sale of the Vicarage Road freehold and departure of players and the ex-manager have not been handled as they could have. Most consultants hired by an organisation often identify one of the reasons as "poor communication". At times, stories have leaked out of the club which are not true or, in the case of the sale of the freehold, were spotted by others and put up on the internet - before any official communication from the club.

To be fair to Tim and the Board, they can argue strongly that given the current circumstances any news released to the press about the club is portrayed in as "worse-case" scenario as possible. The articles by the Times about Watford being on the brink and the Evening Standard's recent assault on the club have no doubt left the club wary about the media. The bad press, coupled with the poor communication, has played a role in alienating some fans from the club who perhaps want to see "our" Watford back.

One thing is certain - that should results improve and performances improve, people will return to the Vic to see what Ray Lewington and his team are cooking up. After the magnificent performance against Coventry, Watford indicated what they are capable of doing in no uncertain terms. No ifs or buts, Watford can play fantastic football and score some breathtaking goals, making a trip to the Vic one of the most enjoyable things any fan can do.

Where Tim talks about fans inviting friends and fellow fans to games, that's a given, but this should also compliment the club activities. Watford's community programme and allocation of tickets to schools and colleges is second to none. However, how do they follow up on fans who don't renew season tickets or visit the Vic on a more frequent basis? The club has a massive database of such fans, how do they use that more effectively to identify the "missing" fans and bring them back into the fold?

If the club put as much effort into attracting the missing fans as it does into flogging credit cards, insurance and electrical goods, it could be onto a winner. Customer attraction and retention strategies are all well and good for commercial businesses outside of football, but are seldom used by the club to attract new and existing fans. For example, Tim wrote to fans to renew season tickets when the take-up was sluggish - a welcome step but was this ever followed up? Could the club call or write to lapsed season ticket holders and see whether they are interested in renewing and play a part in watching Lewington's Watford?

As for the fans, we are going to play an increasingly important part over coming months. A Supporters Trust is currently being set up by fans, primarily to safeguard the club as a centre for professional football within Watford. The sale of the freehold of the ground has genuinely shocked a large number of fans, who want Watford to stay at the Vic. Obviously, six million pounds is a huge sum of money to raise, but through a Supporters Trust, we can have a non-profit making body owning the ground and being actively involved in the club. Moreover, if fans through the Trust can get information direct from the club and the Boardroom, communication between fans and the club can be dramatically improved.

Tim is right, the club does deserve to have a bigger following than we've currently got, but if results are good, the fans will return. Yes, fans should play an active role in bringing other supporters new and old to the Vic, but we should work closely together to do so. Fortunately, we are a million miles from the Wimblestein/AFC Wimbledon scenario and there is plenty of scope for fans to work closely with the club to turn around the current situation.

Elsewhere on BSaD, there are details of next month's Supporters Trust launch, it is an important meeting and I hope a lot of fans can attend. What our Trust can do and whatever help, financial or otherwise, people can offer can be discussed. With an average crowd of 11,000 so far this season, let's not see Watford fall back into the dark days of the Petchey regime. We have come so far since, it will be a crime to let Watford FC decline through our lack of care.

(28/08/02)