Sunday 21 June 2009
Writing in NOLU *105 and in reaction to John Berylson’s comments about the comparatively small attendances at some home games this season compared with US sports, Ant Meads made a point which really caught my eye:
“… the comparison with American sports doesn’t work. The way they are operated on a franchise basis ensures no real local competition for the fan base. Of course Boston Celtics sell out their games when there is no other club for miles.”
Now whatever else you say about Millwall chairman John Berylson, he speaks from the heart. And that’s fine at an emotional club like ours, but how far does the comparison with American sports really carry? Is it a fair comparison even? Nobody is going to argue with him that some of our attendances at The Den this season have been disappointing. That said, historically we have never been blessed with a massive regular support. Rightly or wrongly, that is just the way Millwall. But the comparison with waiting lists US sports clubs is misleading - certainly for as long as we remain in League One or even if we make the Championship for that matter. In fact if we’re going to start comparing, we need to look at America’s national sport baseball – which is as close to football is here in terms of national, historical and cultural importance.
Major League Baseball (MLB) consists of the teams which you are most likeliest to have heard of. Most famously the New York Yankees and JB’s own hometown Boston Red Sox. These clubs regularly draw crowds of 35,000 to 45,000 and as he rightly says, run a waiting list for season tickets. But these are sides which play – and expect to win - a continental competition very similar in size and wealth to the European Champions League. Hardly a straight comparison with Millwall is it? To do that we have to delve down below the MLB into the feeder leagues. These consist of the AAA leagues, which would probably equate to the lower reaches of the Premiership and Championship levels and will consist of teams you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re a bit of a nerd (like me). And then down to AA level – which could be termed a rough equivalent to League One football in English terms. Here you will find clubs that only baseball perverts inhabit. Welcome to my secret world…
Lurking in the twilight zone of minor league AA level, are sides which accept their lot in life as local development clubs for the giants at the top. There is of course neither promotion nor relegation in US sports, so any direct comparison is flawed at best. But let’s take a fairly typical AA side as an example – the Portland Sea Dogs who are coincidentally affiliated to JB’s team the Boston Red Sox. The Sea Dogs play in Portland, Maine – population 64,000, 112 miles north of Boston and America’s 6th most liveable city – like I say, a straight comparison with South Bermondsey isn’t easy…
So what sized crowds do Portland regard as normal? Well for starters their home Hadlock Field has a capacity of just over 7,000. Crowds in the 2008 league season show highs of 7,368 and 6,977 – with lows at 3,000 and a couple of 1,500s. Presumably when their season was a dead rubber. Nothing fantastic then for a club which has the sole market of Portland and surrounding districts to draw on. But even this comparison isn’t fair, because Millwall FC of course do not play in anyone’s ‘most liveable’ city. They play in a corner of South East London competing with at least two MLB sized businesses in Chelsea and Arsenal – and arguably more if you want to include Spurs and w*st *m. Whichever way you look at it, London’s 14 football clubs do not have any of the advantages that their US counterparts do. Perhaps the nearest place to London in American terms is New York City. Both have populations of 8.2 million (Wikipedia) and both are diverse cities that see themselves on a par. So how many baseball clubs play at an equivalent level to Millwall in NYC?
Two? That’s right, ignoring the world famous NY Yankees and moderately world famous NY Mets, who equate to Chelsea and Arsenal in our analysis, there are two minor league baseball teams playing in the whole of the city of New York. Both at A level (League Two in English terms – being generous), they are the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Staten Island Yankees. What kind of crowds do they draw? Figures aren’t that easy to come by, but in 2001 the Cyclones seem to average around 7,600 and in 2007 a club record attendance of 10,000+ is reported on their website. Good for them too, but given that their competition is one other minor league club and then the MLB giants, that’s hardly bedwetting time is it? Also, despite looking hard, I can’t find any reports of waiting lists for season tickets at AA or A level sides.
So what’s my point? To prove John Berylson wrong and make a monkey of our club chairman? No not at all. I am a very firm supporter of JB and will remain so. No. I merely want to show that, though the Millwall crowd isn’t as big as we all hope at the moment, on the back of five awful years and given who we are and where we are, the fact that we have any fans left at all is a cause for celebration. For that we have to thank JB’s financial backing. We do all of course need to get our families and lost mates back to The Den. But let’s not make comparisons that aren’t fair. I mean it’s a good job he didn’t mention QPR’s attendances when they were in League One. Then it wouldn’t have been so easy to take his heartfelt words apart…