Increasing capacity at Blundell Park

Cod Almighty | Article

by Richard Lord

15 February 2023

Rustic charm is the phrase they use to describe something that is well worn but still holds value. There's no doubt that Blundell Park has charm, to those who have always been able to see it, and feel it, and it certainly has plenty of rust. It's seen better days and better times, and that's the magic it still holds for me.

People make pilgrimages to places of worship not because of what's there, but what’s been there. I'm too young (and I take great pride in being able to use that phrase, given the context) to have seen the likes of Tees, Waters and Drinkell represent the Mariners. But when I step into what this club has called home since 1899 it gives me a chance to breathe in and imagine what it must have been like in its heyday, whenever that might have been.

It's not just a football ground; it's a home. We say "home games" or "home advantage" so regularly that its power and true meaning has been diluted. Home matters, because it's where we feel most comfortable and most secure. Home is familiar, friendly, and (hopefully) ours, forever.

That's why it’s so difficult to walk away from it.

Whether we should or not isn't the debate being argued here. At the recent fans' forum, a question was put to the owners, Andrew Pettit and Jason Stockwood, about increasing the capacity of Blundell Park given how attendances have risen on the back of a sharp increase in season ticket sales.

"Our average attendance is 6,500," says Stockwood, "so there are another 2,500 seats that aren't getting filled. Once we start nudging up to 8,000 or 8,500 every week, that's when we'll have a bigger discussion. But I think we're some way off that."

It's sound logic. It's the simplest answer to a straight question, but the topic is nuanced.

The official capacity of Blundell Park has been shifting and reducing all the time. Even now it varies, depending on your source. The best I can find is anecdotal from a comment Debbie Cook made on the DN35 podcast last year, placing it at a touch over 9,000.

If 1878 Partners are waiting for us to nudge up to 8,500 every home game, they could be waiting forever. I don't think it'll happen — but not because the demand isn't there. It very well could be.

The issue is to do with the quality of those vacant 2,500 seats. Town's FA Cup fourth round replay against Luton on 7 February drew a crowd of 7,051, so just under 2,000 seats were unoccupied, most of them appearing to be in the away end.

A quick glance around the stadium isn't the best way to judge these things as the empty seats are sporadic and harder to see among what, for us, is a big attendance. You also have the issue of fans buying those seats, but not actually attending the game. More on that later.

A better way to measure whether we're nudging towards 8,500 may be to declare how many of those seats are sold, rather than how many of them are sat on when match day arrives. When I went to buy a ticket for the Luton game, there certainly weren't 2,000 seats to choose from on the ticket portal.

Here's an example of what I face, as an exile who can only make half a dozen home matches each season.

Travelling back for home matches, for me, is more of an event because it's become rare (much rarer than I'd like). So, when I do, I prefer to go with as many people as possible, either fellow exiles who live not far from me, or friends who still live in North East Lincolnshire. Sometimes both.

However, due to record-breaking sales in season tickets last summer, getting four or five good quality seats together in any stand is nigh-on impossible. The Main Stand is our only option, and many of those come with a restricted view.

If we can't sit together, it spoils the day out. It's got to the point where we sometimes don't even try if we think the match will draw a big crowd.

Currently, if the club want to fill those 2,500 spare seats, they’re effectively appealing for people to come as individuals, not as groups of friends or families, and hope they accept seats with restricted views.

I have a five-year-old son who I'd like to bring to a match one day soon. I'd like to do it with his grandparents, and my wife, but again, getting five tickets together won't be easy with both the capacity and season ticket sales remaining as they are.

The club could have an extra five fans through the turnstiles if the capacity were increased to allow that kind of purchase to happen. Instead, it's waiting for random individuals to make last-minute decisions on attending the game, and sitting alone, separate from their friends, some with restricted views, to fill gaps. The club wants to attract families and win over young fans. As things stand, I fear it may be looking, and waiting, in the wrong place.

Stick with what we have, and hope individuals fill those gaps, or open things up and make it more attractive to larger groups and families. I'm no expert, but I'd like to think the latter option has some merit and could benefit the club greatly in the long run.

I didn't make the effort to attend the Luton game. On reflection, with nearly 2,000 spare seats going, there was plenty of space for me and a couple of friends. The reality, though, is that far more than 7,051 tickets were sold for that game, and that's the challenge we're faced with when we use the online ticket portal.

We will never achieve 9,000 because on any given day, on average, up to 10% of fans who bought tickets for the game won't turn up — through illness, holidays, childcare, weddings, stag dos and hen dos, and then you have exiles who bought season tickets knowing they wouldn't be able to attend all home games.

I believe 8,000 is a more realistic sell-out figure for the Mariners, and that is also dependent on how many fans the opposition bring. But even nudging up to that is hugely dependent on improving the buy-back ticket initiative and appealing to those who are happy to go to matches by themselves.

Increasing the capacity of Blundell Park perhaps shouldn't be a discussion parked for another day.