CHELSEA’S Champions League match on Tuesday night, when the club welcomed back an old legend in Michael Ballack as they kicked off their European challenge under the leadership of a new manager, should have felt like a grand occasion. A 2-0 win meant it all went passably enough but it was difficult not to notice the banks of empty seats as Stamford Bridge witnessed its worst attendance for several years.
Even cup matches against the likes of Ipswich and Cardiff have attracted 40,000-plus crowds to the ground (as next Wednesday’s visit of Fulham in the lower grade Carling Cup surely will), whereas the Bayer Leverkusen contest brought fewer than 34,000 paying spectators through the turnstiles.
It is always difficult to say exactly why one match is under-attended against another but my instinct is that the stadium would have been much fuller if Chelsea had not decided to increase prices for European group stage matches to £40. Two years ago, it cost a very reasonable £30 a head and Chelsea were rewarded with full houses for every match.
Some fans, annoyed by the price increase, are already planning a boycott for the match against unfancied Genk. Whether it amounts to much – football fan boycotts rarely do, because most supporters are so loyal they would never miss a match – it would seem likely that the attendance for that match will sink below that of Tuesday night.
With most spectators (juniors, pensioners and corporate hospitality aside) paying £40 a head, the receipts for the Leverkusen match would have been around £1.3m. The Fulham Carling Cup match will probably net around £1m at the lower adult prices of £25. So there is a definite revenue gain in charging the higher prices even with the lower crowd figure.
But a less-than-full stadium looks so much worse for the TV cameras (the Leverkusen match was live on Sky Sports), the atmosphere is less big-time inside the ground and the empty seats make Stamford Bridge feel far less like the place to be (which is not optimal when the club is trying to sell naming rights for the ground).
For a club like Chelsea, the qualifying stage of the Champions League has become a touch too predictable also. It would be highly unlikely if they failed to qualify for the next stage, so the interest in the opening group stage is not as great as a few years ago when they first embarked on European adventures.
Chelsea have done well to price their domestic cup matches realistically but if the Leverkusen match is anything to go by they might wish to next season revisit the pricing decision for the Champions League.