U's Chairman, Robbie Cowling, has issued the following statement.
It’s been a few months since I have made a statement but with a quarter of the season already played I thought it was about time I updated you all on a few things.
A lot is being made of our low attendances this season but I thought I should share some of the real numbers behind those attendance figures rather than the numbers being touted in some ill-informed messages that seem to be designed to undermine the hard work of the club in these difficult times.
Attendances at Colchester United games are not where we would like them to be but they are nowhere near as bad as they look.
To put things into perspective I have compared the start of this season to that of the 2018-19 season which was the last full season before the pandemic.
For the 2018-19 season we sold a total of 1,171 season tickets whereas this season we have sold a total of 1,075. That’s 8% down which I think is a great effort by our fans considering we are still in the middle of a pandemic.
For the first 6 home league games of that season we averaged 3,253 attendees and for this the first 6 home league games this season we have averaged 2,473. That’s a massive 24% down and on the surface it looks very alarming.
However, the following variables must be taken into account:
- Under our COVID protocols we allow our season ticket holders to decline matches and that accounts for a total loss of 408 attendees. It’s an average of 68 fans a game but is increasing game by game as the infection rates increase. Only 52 declined their Northampton tickets whereas 88 declined them for the Bristol Rovers game. In the 2018-19 season there was no such option and season ticket holders that did not attend would have been counted.
- I have been very strict this season with complimentary tickets. For the first 6 games of the 2018-19 season we gave away an average of 245 complimentary tickets per game and that has been dramatically reduced to just over 100 a game.
- The midweek games always have the lowest attendances but these have been the worse hit. However, iFollow offers a streaming option for the midweek games and for the 2 games we have played this season we sold 229 and 225 iFollow passes respectively. We know that multiple fans watch single iFollow streams so that probably accounts for at least 400 viewers at each of these games.
- On the plus side we have also sold an additional 1,699 iFollow passes to Papa John matches and the away games that have been played on a Friday.
For this season I had hoped for no worse than a 20% reduction in ticket revenue and with so much uncertainty I made financial arrangements to cope if we received no match-day revenue whatsoever.
Therefore, with the excellent attendances at the pre-season friendlies and the additional revenue from the streamed games we are well ahead of where we hoped we would be. Of course we would like to see even more fans at the games but we also understand that not everyone is comfortable coming to games at the moment and we look forward to seeing you again when you do.
I accept that the matchday experience does not include all of the aspects we would like it to. However, once again it’s nowhere near as bad as is being portrayed by fans.
Like all clubs we are having to strip back what we can provide. Having been locked down for nearly 18 months we have had to recruit and train a lot of new staff and at a time when it is really hard to get hospitality staff. Those staff have been brilliant but before every fixture some are having to let us down at the last minute due to COVID restrictions. We have struggled to get products and suppliers, through no fault of their own, are sometimes letting us down right at the last moment too. For example, we haven’t been able to get a supply of drinks in PET bottles from suppliers at the moment and this is likely to be an ongoing problem. We have got around the problem by buying cans but to comply with the regulations these have to be decanted into a plastic glass. Most of the fans are understanding and supportive but some just kick off about these changes which are really out of our hands.
So thanks to great work by the staff at the club and with the exception of the very first home match and just a few other areas, everything is up and running as close to normal as we can get it and in many cases it appears to be better than before. For example, the takings on food and drink is up 10% per head despite some claims that we are not opening any bars at all.
The main area that we have regrettably not been able to open this season is the fan zone and that is the result of a decision I took before the season started which I felt was in the best interests of the club and the wider region considering we are a Community Stadium and not just a football stadium. The café area and the Legends Suite, where we created the fan zone, along with part of the West Stand are about to be handed over to the NHS so that they can continue to vaccinate the people of Colchester and its surrounding areas during this winter. This is the area the NHS used last winter and although they have been using the East Stand during the warmer summer months they need somewhere warmer to administer the vaccines when it gets colder. The club are very proud to be helping in some way with the vaccination programme.
The other areas that we have not restarted yet are the matchday clubs and birthday parties for the younger fans and we have yet to hatch a new Eddie the Eagle. Under our matchday protocols we have zoned our pitch area as a Red Zone to keep a fire break between the public and our playing squad. Not all clubs have the same protocols but we can’t afford to lose players to COVID and we are taking every precaution we can to avoid that.
Last but not least our PA system packed in just before the Harrogate match which has stopped us from pumping out loud music before the game and at half-time. This will be fixed as soon as possible and hopefully before the next game.
We have added a pre match Col U TV programme before every match which we distribute to the TVs around the stadium and stream online for those who can’t attend. We have also added touch screens for buying match-day tickets and these have received great feedback.
We are apparently getting criticised for selling all tickets online but it’s important that we are able to communicate immediately with every fan whilst we are operating under the current conditions.
Atmosphere At Games
Our home form has been poor although it is starting to pick up. Just a single win in the first 6 games doesn’t give a lot to cheer about.
However, those that have been attending the games have certainly done their best to get behind the team and to keep behind them even when they are losing. I’m possibly not the best judge of this because I sat in an empty stadium for a whole year so it’s bound to be a lot better than that. But I believe the atmosphere is just as good as normal with fewer fans making an extra effort which is clearly making up for those that are not attending.
We have continued to use the match permit system this season because it was designed to work with all ranges of COVID restrictions if any are re-introduced. It also works well when there are no restrictions. It has taken away the option to select a specific seat but it does allow the specific section of the stadium to be selected.
I’m aware this system is like marmite and is popular with some fans and very unpopular with others. Like everyone else I will be delighted when the pandemic is over. At least to the extent where we can go into a season with the confidence that we won’t have to apply any stadium restrictions.
We didn’t have the confidence to take that step this season and as we head into another winter of uncertainty I stand by the decisions I have made regarding our ticketing policies too. The safety of everyone attending football matches is our number one objective and the club will continue to play its part in the vaccine program, which is the best chance we have of getting back to normal in the long-term and avoiding the government triggering their Plan B in the short term.