Time to follow Italy? Are Scottish football stadiums too big?

Time to follow Italy? Are Scottish football stadiums too big?

By Graham Ruthven

Around the early years of the 1990s, Scottish football clubs, by and large, believed that they needed more seats. Not necessarily for their own fans, but for visiting fans, particularly visiting fans from Glasgow. These were the SPL boom years, with the giant travelling support of both Celtic and Rangers illustrative of this time in the Scottish game.

 

It was only natural, then, that so many clubs sought to take advantage of this by expanding their grounds, in many cases developing the away end above all else. In 1995, Kilmarnock opened the 4,500-capacity Chadwick Stand, with Aberdeen opening the giant 6,000-capacity Richard Donald Stand two years previously. Easter Road, and a number of other grounds around the country, also underwent development around this time too.

 

But perhaps the best example of this rapid growth can be found at Fir Park. Motherwell spent £2.2 million building the humongous South Stand, which is used purely to house away fans. The two-tier structure, which boasts a capacity of 4,856, is a landmark in its own right. It gives the ground a lopsided look, with the stand visible from all over the town. Very rarely is it ever filled, even when The Big Two visit.

 

 

These structures stand as monuments to another era in Scottish football, an era that ended a long time ago. Celtic and Rangers still take, by far, the biggest travelling support around the country with them, but there is no longer the need for giant stands to accommodate them. In 2018, Motherwell would never have spent £2.2 million on a two-tier away stand.

 

Of course, the Taylor Report was a factor in the fast-tracked over-development of stadiums around Scotland, with terraces outlawed at top flight level and safety standards raised across the board. It wasn’t just in Scotland that this happened, but south of the border too. The difference is that while English football grew into its new, super-sized stadiums, the Scottish game was left with many of them as white elephants.

 

Making the most of our biggest assets – fans

 

The purpose of pointing this out isn’t to highlight Scottish football’s flaws, nor is it to bemoan the common sight of empty seats at Scottish Premiership games. Scotland boasts one of the most engaged footballing fanbases in all of Europe, with a higher percentage of the population attending matches every weekend than most other nations. When context is applied, the notion that Scottish football attracts low attendances is something of a myth.

 

But what isn’t a myth its that we could be doing a better job of packaging and presenting our national game, whether it is to fans attending games, to viewers on TV or sponsors looking to invest in our sport. In many cases, there are grounds that are no longer suitable to host the great and good of Scottish football.

 

Take Aberdeen as a case study. The Dons’ average attendance has slowly, but surely, creeped up in recent seasons, sitting at around the 16,000-17,000 mark. Yet they only sell out Pittodrie two or three times a season, suggesting that the current maximum capacity of just over 20,000 is too much. Their new stadium at Kingsford, though, will have a capacity of 25,000. Is there really such a need for the extra seating?

 

 

Hibernian provide another example of a club who, in hindsight, probably over-expanded their home ground. The Leith club boast the fourth-highest average attendance in the country, but as is the case at Aberdeen, they too struggle to sell out. Easter Road, with its capacity of over 20,000, is a little too big for Hibs.

 

This is a problem they faced, and still continue to face, in Italy. Juventus, for instance, played at the giant Stadio Delle Alpi, a ground they rarely, if ever, managed to fill. So when they built a new stadium, they opted for a much lower capacity, going from a ground of 69,000 seats to one of 41,000.

 

To many, it seemed counterintuitive, but Juventus grasped the importance of packaging their product. Now, their home games are among the most atmospheric in Europe, with tickets at a premium. There’s a buzz about attending a match at the Allianz Stadium. It’s the hottest ticket in town and the move to the new ground has coincided with the sporting and commercial success of the club as a whole.

 

 

The Bianconeri set a precedent with their stadium switch and now the rest of Serie A is looking to follow their lead. Almost every top Italian club now has plans to move into their own smaller stadiums in the not so distant future as the sport in the country undergoes a transformation. For years, Italian football has been derided for its stagnant match experience, with the image of Serie A as a whole taking a hit as a consequence.

 

Scottish football isn’t anywhere near that level. The sight of empty seats at our stadiums might be common, but it isn’t an epidemic. In Italy, the lack of match atmosphere, the lack of buzz around games, was having a real and tangible impact on what was being served up on the pitch. This is not the case in Scotland.

 

Following an Italian precedent

 

But that doesn’t mean that lessons can’t be learned from the precedent that has been set in Serie A. Going back to the case of Aberdeen, might it be better to build a smaller stadium at Kingsford rather than one that would appear to be too big for them to fill on a regular basis? There’s a lot to separate Aberdeen and Juventus, but on this perhaps the Dons should look to the example set in Turin.

 

Some might argue that we should be trying to fill our stadiums rather than making them smaller, but given how Scottish football already punches well above its weight in terms of supporter numbers, is that realistic? The SPFL is already viewed as one of the best leagues in European football at engaging fans, after all.

 

 

So perhaps smaller stadiums are the way forward for the Scottish game. It might not be a pressing issue for most clubs, but those who are looking to up sticks and find a new home could maybe take a different approach. Both Aberdeen and Dundee have plans to build new stadiums. They should take into account more than just how many tickets they can sell on the big occasion when the big teams visit.

 

For too long Scottish football has packaged itself poorly. But efforts are being made in this respect. Things are getting better. At New Douglas Park, they now put up a canvas shield behind the goal. Those watching on TV can no longer see the double-decker bus. Rangers now regularly put on a fan zone for home games, with clubs across the country now grasping the importance of the match day experience.

 

The next step would see the construction of a new generation of Scottish football stadiums specifically designed to package and present our national game in the best way possible, and give the match-going fan the best experience possible. The early 1990s was a long time ago, yet monuments to that time in Scottish football still stand at stadiums around the country. Bigger isn’t always better.

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