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Football is paying the price for its lack of vision as attendances fall

AFTER years of showing only old black and white films, a cinema lands a deal to show the latest Hollywood blockbusters.

Interest grows but not as much as the cinema manager would like. "You wonder if this town deserves a cinema like this," he thinks to himself. But instead of shaking his fist in fury at the locals for staying at home watching DVDs, he decides to see what can be done to make things better. He talks to the regular patrons about what they like and don't like about his cinema, and speaks to others to see what he can do to entice them back. The feedback is good and the cinema manager takes it all on board. He puts in new seats, changes the screening times, drops the price for certain films, and makes sure there is salty popcorn to sit alongside the sweet. And the public duly respond.

Which brings us to the comments made by Terry Butcher last week. The Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager was frustrated that, despite taking the team to second in the league and into the semi-final of the League Cup, they are still struggling to draw a crowd, just 2529 watching their 1-1 draw with Kilmarnock. His annoyance was understandable given he and his players have this season exceeded all expectations, while his future playing budget will likely be affected if revenue through the turnstiles continues to dwindle.

Perhaps, though, Butcher took out his ire on the wrong people. Rather than wondering why the good folk of Inverness don't fancy leaving their warm homes to shiver for 90 minutes on a miserable February night he should be going to his chairman, board of directors, and those running the game to ask them what they are doing to try to make things better. Butcher has done his bit as manager, he now needs help. At least he has, perhaps inadvertently, restarted the debate.

There is a widely held assumption that a team doing well will lead to a stampede through the turnstiles. It is a stance that fails to recognise the many factors that come into play on whether the casual fan decides to take in a match or not. That good football deserves an audience regardless of circumstances surely no longer applies.

Scottish football has never been the savviest when it comes to understanding its consumers' needs but it doesn't take much scratching beneath the surface to discover why matches played in midweek in winter, prohibitively priced, and up against live Champions League football on television do not draw vast audiences.

Inverness charged £26 for fans wanting to sit in their main stand for the match against Kilmarnock, their standard price for a category 'B' game, and they are not the worst when it comes to pricing. (For balance it should also be noted Inverness also have cheaper tickets for under-25s and for their family stand, initiatives that should be encouraged and developed).

Pricing remains the biggest factor when it comes to attracting fairweather fans, something managers – and sections of the media – perhaps do not always appreciate, given how rarely some of them pay into matches. It is, of course, a delicate business as clubs try to balance their books with other sources of income (broadcasting revenue, sponsorship, trackside advertising, hospitality etc) on the wane. Dropping prices does not always guarantee a bigger gate – St Mirren cut admission for their match with Ross County to £10 for adults and still only drew a crowd of 3802 – but cheaper tickets, combined with decent football, is the combination most likely to lead to bigger attendances.

The weather is an undoubted factor, too. There can be little pleasure sitting in freezing temperatures as the wind howls and the rain lashes your face. It is verging on masochism to do so regularly. If a switch to a summer calendar is logistically difficult, clubs should at least give consideration to shutting down during the worst of the winter months. The prospect of going to games in shorts and T-shirts is surely infinitely more appealing than being wrapped up in layer after layer, especially for those taking young children to a game. Treat football fans like adults, too, and let them have a beer at the game, something that would not only add to the sense of an occasion but also bring in some much-needed extra revenue for the clubs.

Fans don't have all the answers but there is no harm in at least asking them what they want. Given current circumstances, perhaps the greatest surprise in Inverness the other night was that so many turned up, not so few.

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