Concerns are growing – where is everyone?

9:05am Saturday 28th April 2012

By Peter Martini

DON’T say it too loudly but these could be worrying times for York City Knights, if not the Cham-pionships as a whole.

I’m not necessarily referring to on the pitch, although five league losses from five does not bode well for Chris Thorman’s men.

No, I mean off the field, and it takes nothing more than a glance at attendance stats to see how.

Furthermore – and this really should prick the ears of anyone who cares for York sport – it takes nothing more than a look back at what happened to York RLC a decade ago to consider the possible ramifications.

York’s attendance against Halifax in 2006, when the Knights first played in domestic rugby league’s second tier, was nearly 1,500. The attendance against Batley, towards the end of that relegation season, was 1,248. The club’s average gate that year was 1,700.

The year before, when York won the third tier title, their league average was just short of 2,000 – and that included games against the likes of London Skolars, Blackpool and Gateshead, who brought only a handful of fans. Happy days. People even dreamed of Super League.

Compare those figures to this year.

Last Sunday, against Batley, the crowd was a paltry 691 – half the 2006 figure. In fact, The Press understands there were fewer than 200 pay-on-the-day spectators, when season tickets, sponsors and concessions are omitted.

When Halifax, one of the bigger clubs in the Championship, came to town a few weeks ago, the attendance was 967 – two thirds the 2006 figure. And that included a decent travelling support.

And there’s more. These two gates – 691 and 967 – are the highest in six games so far at Huntington Stadium this season. Shocking.

Against Sheffield in the Challenge Cup a fortnight ago, the attendance was a mere 551. Okay, season tickets don’t count for knockout cup games and gates depend significantly on the draw, but the last time York hosted a Championship club in the cup was in 2008, against Halifax, and that attracted a four-figure crowd.

Double the recent attendance.

All this basically suggests that up to half of York’s rugby league fans have stopped attending Huntington Stadium matches.

But it’s actually worse than that.

When Challenge Cup ties are omitted, this year’s average so far for Northern Rail Cup group games and Championship matches is only 699 – little more than a third of the 2005 and 2006 figures.

It shows that more than 1,000 people are not bothering to come any more.

And yet it gets worse. When including the woeful gate of 346 that greeted the third round cup tie against Hull Dockers a month ago, and the 551 against Sheffield, the Knights’ average this term is 616. Yes, only 616.

Now compare that figure to the last few seasons of the ailing York Wasps.

In the curtailed 2002 season, the Wasps’ average was 492 over six games. Those included a cup tie against Villeneuve, when no travelling support was present, and the record low of 280 against Chorley (which ironically witnessed the club’s first win in 13 months but was their last-ever home game).

In the old club’s last full season, 2001, when heavy defeat followed heavy defeat, the average attendance was 624.

That’s more than this season.

That’s right, the Wasps, on their death bed, had a bigger average gate than the Knights have at present.

Anybody worried? Are stay-away York rugby league fans concerned? Are followers of York sport as a whole bothered? Or, as suggested by some smug comments on The Press website from gloating football fans, could many not care less? Indeed, are some football fans so keen to have the planned new stadium all to themselves they’d like to see the back of the Knights?

These deeply concerning figures actually come just a few weeks after the Rugby Football League issued a statement hailing the attendances on the opening day of the Championship season.

There was cause for encouragement, with an average approaching 1,700 for the five Championship games, plus 1,500 at the new-look North Wales Crusaders’ inaugural match in Championship One.

But a few weeks on, and that bluster seems a little windy especially here in York.

Featherstone, Halifax and Leigh, all with Super League franchise aspirations, boast good gates. Barrow appear to be the exception to the rule in Championship One, with regular gates above 1,000.

However, a once proud Hunslet club attracted only 419 a few weeks ago. Indeed, York’s somewhat paltry figure of 967 against Halifax was the highest Championship crowd on that particular day. Swinton’s average is also lower than York’s.

Even considering that, the Knights certainly can’t be encouraged.

Indeed, the Press revealed last Saturday that the club’s budget had plummeted 30 per cent this year compared to 2011. Surely that was a warning – though it largely fell on deaf or disinterested ears judging by Sunday’s attendance figure.

The economic downturn has almost certainly played a part in the fall in attendances, which have been in steady decline since 2006. But what else?

Are ticket prices too high? Probably not when compared elsewhere.

Are the likes of York suffering because there are no so-called big clubs left in the Championships after Super League’s rise to 14, with Widnes the latest to leave. Huddersfield, Salford and particularly Wakefield and Hull KR were relatively big draws in years gone by.

It’s fair to assume the fact there’s no promotion or relegation this year means some supporters feel games are of little consequence and so don’t bother turning up.

Relegation will return next year, while the calls for automatic promotion to be brought back, with the Super League licence system scrapped, are getting louder too. (See Crusaders, Bradford, Wakefield and London Broncos’ troubles for proof that licensing is failing, plus York’s crowds for evidence it’s hitting the game below the top tier.) Does it have something to do with the fact there aren’t enough York-based players in the team? There were plenty in the club’s 2004-06 heyday, when their families, friends, workmates, old schoolmates etc would come along to watch.

Is it anything to do with the continuing decline of traditional rugby league supporter bases in the city, such as factories and railway works?

Is it because York as a city has more non-Yorkies than ever before, who don’t follow the local team?

Are the Yorkies that remain more attracted to the glitz and glamour of Leeds Rhinos or Castleford Tigers, and so don’t follow their local team?

Is the club doing anything wrong behind the scenes?

It can’t simply be because the team isn’t presently winning, can it? Every club has fairweather fans, but surely not that many at York are of the fickle variety, are they?

The biggest question, though, is what can be done about it?

Just how does this club return to the honeymoon highs of 2003-2005 – when some crowds topped 3,000; when God-knows-how-many were so “York and proud of it” in the memorable cup match at St Helens; when Norris the Knight pedalled around the running track to the amusement of kids aplenty; when hundreds flocked, dressed to the nines, to end-of-season presentation nights at York Racecourse?

Club bosses can’t just keep cutting budgets ad infinitum.

They can’t keep “cutting cloth accordingly”, otherwise the team will end up playing in skins.

Back in 2002, when the Wasps went kaput, York fans took it upon themselves to do something about it. They need to stand up and be counted again.

ON a ligher note, it’s Player of the Month time, folks. Please email your votes for April to peter.martini@thepress.co.uk or on this website, with the deadline noon on Wednesday.

Whoever tops the poll of readers collects three bonus points for their Press Player of the Year tally.

James Houston joined that leaderboard after being deemed our best player (3pts) in last week’s loss to Batley. Others to add to their tallies were Jack Aldous (2), who thus went clear at the top, and Paul King (1).

The Press Player of the Year standings: Aldous 9pts, Sullivan 7, King 7, Thorman 6, Clarke 5, Ford 5, Bush 4, Tansey 4, Sutton 4, Green 3, Garside 3, Lee 3, Hellewell 3, Turner 3, Freer 3, Houston 3.

Attendances table in Championship

Average attendances for Championship clubs so far this year

(Overall averages in bold; Challenge Cup crowds in brackets – not included in overall averages)

Halifax: 2,181 – Northern Rail Cup 2,206; Championship 2,164

Featherstone: 2,068 – Northern Rail Cup 1,798; Championship 2,338 (CC 4,165)

Leigh: 1,746 – Northern Rail Cup 1,617; Championship 1,883 (CC 1,229)

Sheffield: 1,249 – Northern Rail Cup 885; Championship 1,614

Keighley: 1,112 – Northern Rail Cup 961; Championship 1,213 (CC 2,196)

Dewsbury: 1,109 – Northern Rail Cup 1,024; Championship 1,167 (CC 606)

Batley: 856 – Northern Rail Cup 611; Championship 1,101

York: 699 – Northern Rail Cup 570; Championship 829 (CC 551; 346)

Swinton: 641 – Northern Rail Cup 489; Championship 742 (CC 415; 404)

Hunslet: 385 – Northern Rail Cup 308; Championship 462 (CC 302; 664)

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