Fans get off the sofa and into the football stadiums

There hadn’t been packed stadiums or queues at ticket outlets midweek since the middle of the last decade, apart from championship matches, Cup finals or European matches against major rival teams. Suddenly and unexpectedly, this picture has changed. The astounding increases in the number of fans attending matches indicate a major trend away from television and back to the stadiums. So far this year, there has been a 206 percent increase in ticket sales. Last year, 123,689 tickets were sold for the first five matches. This year, 255,324 have been sold as against 684,549 tickets for the entire last season. One-sixth of the way into this year’s championship, total sales amount to over one-third of last year’s, and this even before a major final has been played. For the first five matches of the year, an average of 51,065 tickets were sold. But this could increase further if all major matches take place without violence. It is not unlikely that by the season’s end, total sales could be higher than the record years of 1992-93 (1,490,061) or 1991-92 (1,799,631). The new Karaiskaki Stadium, according to official figures, is already a huge draw for fans, and not only of its home team, Olympiakos. Next in popularity is the Olympic Stadium (OAKA) and the Pan-Cretan Stadium in Iraklion, Crete. Olympiakos, AEK, Panathinaikos and Ergotelis have attracted the largest crowds in the first five matches. Most have seen huge increases in ticket sales, with PAOK the only exception. According to the Greek Association of Professional Football Clubs (EPAE) officials, the main reasons for the bigger turnout are: – Improved facilities at four stadiums (OAKA, Toumba, Kaftantzogleio and Harilaou). After the rival team, the quality of stadium stands and services are the second criterion for sports lovers – as opposed to club supporters – according to a survey by the Football Group/Doilette firm. – The use of new, upgraded stadiums (Karaiskaki, Pan-Cretan, Xanthi). – Greece’s victory in the Euro 2004 championship has attracted women and younger people (14-22) and brought back to the stadium older fans who had become couch potatoes. – Stricter laws against hooliganism and violence at matches, and measures by the team owners (such as security guards) and police. The absence of violence has contributed a great deal to a calmer climate. – Implementation of plans to link fans and clubs beyond the usual practice of setting aside tickets. Most first-division teams have taken a more technocratic and business-like approach to the sale of season tickets. The AEK phenomenon For the first time in 17 years, AEK has returned to OAKA – with major financial difficulties, ongoing court cases, a new team where idols are a rare breed, and a 5-1 defeat in St Petersburg by Zenith. But the team’s fans went en masse to an apparently indifferent match against Kallithea – marking record sales that approach those in 1985-87. In 1985-86, AEK’s average ticket sales (31,202) were their highest ever. No one in the current management could have predicted such a turnout, since last year the team reached its nadir, with average sales of just 1,946 tickets per game. Generally, AEK’s popularity had been declining since 1999-2000, both in ticket sales and revenue, apart from matches with Olympiakos and in the Champions League. In 2003, an average 5,178 tickets were sold per game, in 2002, 8,247, in 2001, 5,318 and in 2000, 4,668.