Sunday, November 28, 2010

The True Value of the Crowd and the Role of Corporate Hospitality

Whilst it was a cricket match I was in Brisbane for these past few days, the subject of crowds at sporting events as a whole is one which I think is universally relevant.

Anyone who follows cricket at all will know that trying to win matches for any touring side in Australia is an incredibly tough ask. Many of the visiting teams are from equally hot countries so it’s not just the conditions that are the reason. There is another factor, an incredibly intimidating crowd. Whilst at times it can cross the line, all professional teams accept that stick from the opposition crowd is part of the game and something to be overcome. Many home crowds have fearsome reputations and not just in Australia nor in cricket.

No professional footballer relishes a trip to the New Den to face Millwall, English rugby players are no doubt pleased they don’t have to play in Dublin or Cardiff every week. For a couple of years, Ricky Hatton managed to make his home crowd portable and some of the most hostile and fervent behavior I have seen or heard in a sporting arena has been from Mancunians in Las Vegas. You can argue the rights and wrongs of it, but from the point of view of supporting your side, it works. And here is the problem for many teams, the era of corporate hospitality is to a fair degree killing many of these atmospheres as the ‘traditional’ fan is now priced out of the market and excluded from the event.

Roy Keane had his famous ‘prawn sandwich’ rage a few years ago much to everyone’s amusement but he was right. You can call me hypocritical or even call me part of the problem as I am often fortunate enough to receive that same hospitality but there is no denying that the atmosphere is in many cases being badly affected.

Take the atmosphere at the Gabba on Thursday and Friday when Australia had their tails up. It was very intimidating for the English players despite the best efforts of the fun police and the presence of a huge amount of English fans. I don’t get the impression that the Australians feel anything like that at Lords for instance where much of the ticketing is corporate and the members are generally asleep after midday. The WACA is equally raucous and ninety thousand at the MCG will get the hairs up on the back of anyone’s neck.

I’ve only been to Twickenham once (thank God) and I was struck by the general ‘niceness’ of the environment. Sure there is loud singing but seventy odd thousand all singing ‘Swing Low’ in Barbour jackets isn’t likely to put the opposition fly half off his penalty kick. ManYoo have had to deal with a quiet Old Trafford for years now, Chelsea can be dead sometimes and the Emirates seems to be having the same issue. Arsenal are making a packet from matchday hospitality but their home form is dreadful.

When I was taken to Wimbledon many years ago, we watched about forty five minutes of tennis before going down the pub - spoiled? Damn right. You regularly see rows of empty seats at Wimbledon now, the tickets are all sold, it’s just the people who have got the freebies can’t be bothered to sit in those seats whilst many true fans can’t even buy one if they wanted to. It’s actually all a bit pathetic.

Corporate hospitality is not going to go away and coupled with television revenue, it provides the bulk of income for all sports outside of merchandising. Those home teams however who still manage to maintain a good vocal crowd will continue to prosper and places such as Australia for a visiting cricketer will continue to daunt and intimidate - and no doubt I’ll keep accepting the invites……..