Last Thursday night the Camp Nou played host to one of the biggest matches of Barcelona’s season so far. A place in the final of the Copa del Rey was up for grabs and the Catalan club had been drawn against Valencia, the most exciting and the most difficult opponent they could have faced in the semi-finals. The first leg was to be played at Barcelona’s ground, with Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Andrés Iniesta and even Philippe Coutinho all expected to be unleashed. So why did only 50,959 people turn up at a stadium where the capacity can reach 99,000?
Barça coach Ernesto Valverde was asked that very question after the 1-0 victory. “I don’t know what more can be done to encourage people to come,” he started. “I suppose the kick-off time [of 21:30 Spanish time] doesn’t help, as people have to work. Plus it’s winter.”
He was certainly onto something. At just 6°C and with the rain falling down, two hours sat shivering in the stands of the Camp Nou wasn’t going to appeal to many. The late kick-off time was another deterrent, never mind the fact that the draw for the Copa del Rey semi-finals had been made just six days previously, leaving hardly any time for supporters to make arrangements to attend.
However, poor attendance at the Camp Nou is not a problem unique to this Barcelona-Valencia cup clash. The average attendance for the 2017/18 season is 64,218, the lowest in the past decade and way down on the 77,527 of last season – and this isn’t including the match against Las Palmas on the day of the Catalan independence referendum which was played behind closed doors. Not once this season have more than 90,000 fans attended a match at the iconic stadium, with the highest total so far being the 89,514 of the first leg of the Supercopa de España against Real Madrid, a match notable for the high number of tourists – not all of them supporting the home team – present. Even the juicy Champions League battle with Juventus only attracted 78,656.
Filling the largest stadium in Europe has never been an easy task for Barcelona, but the attendance is particularly low this year and there are multiple reasons why.
One of them has to do with the drop off in tourist numbers as a result of the terror attack on Las Ramblas in August and the apprehension the Catalan independence issue has caused. Tourist visits to the city are down 13.9% and this has had a knock-on effect at the Camp Nou ticket offices, as well as at the club museum.
Understandably, these two issues aren’t only putting off the tourists, but some locals as well. Just 56,480 fans were in the stands in the first home match after the August attack, even though the visit of Real Betis was a fairly attractive one and played at a fan-friendly kick-off time. “Maybe there is less appetite for enjoying football because people are preoccupied by other things,” club vice-president Jordi Cardoner said in an interview on the subject.
Then there’s the issue of ticket prices. While the club still look after their season-ticket holders fairly well, the prices for an individual match are some of the most expensive in Europe. For a LaLiga fixture this season, the very cheapest ones are €39 and that’s only for the matches against the newly promoted sides or other less attractive teams, like Alavés or Deportivo La Coruña. For a match against a mid-table team like an Athletic Club, prices start at €49. As for the Copa del Rey, while special deals were on offer for the early rounds, the cheapest for the Valencia semi-final last week was €29 and there were a very limited number of these available. For most seats, the price was between €40 and €60 and these were hardly going to sell out when there were only six days to shift them. Perhaps seeing Barcelona live has simply become too expensive, even for tourists. For many locals, it most certainly has. Those who used to go see a dozen games a season a decade ago can now only afford a few matches a year, rationing their trips to the stadium like Charlie and his Willy Wonka chocolate bars.
There is one other important reason for the low attendance figures and one which means the average could be a little higher by the end of the current season. Fans want to see attractive match-ups and so far there haven’t been too many at the Camp Nou, with Barcelona having gone away to Atlético Madrid, Athletic Club, Valencia, Villarreal, Real Madrid and Real Sociedad in the first half of their LaLiga campaign. That means all of these teams will visit before the summer, which should pump up the average.
It’s still, though, very unlikely that Barcelona will be able to match the average attendance stats of seasons gone by and there are real problems needing solved. Internally, the club is currently compiling a report to work out exactly what can be done to gets bums on seats again. With stadium redevelopment set to increase the capacity even further in the coming years, there’s a major need to find and attract people to the stadium.