By Colin Bradbury
In October 1929, economist Irving Fisher looked at the soaring New York stock market and proclaimed that, “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” The first of a series of catastrophic market crashes hit eight days later, and within three years the Dow Jones Index had fallen by 90%. Unsurprisingly, Fisher’s reputation never recovered.
What on earth am I talking about, I hear you say, and what has it got to do with Plymouth Argyle? Bear with me.
Home Park has been bouncing this season. The average attendance so far of 15,411 is almost 6,500, or 72% above the average for all Argyle’s previous League One campaigns since 2003 (excluding the 2020-21 Covid season). Even more remarkably, it’s also 2,400 (18%) higher than the average for the six Championship seasons from 2004-10.
And the large cherry on top of the cake (pizza?) is that ticket sales for next weekend’s Papa Johns Trophy final at Wembley have hit an incredible 38,000.
It all looks very encouraging, and if he was around today, our hapless American economist might be proclaiming that attendances at Home Park had reached a ‘permanently high plateau’.
Argyle have played in front of sell-out crowds several times this season, meaning that more tickets could have been sold if they’d been available. Inevitably then there’s a growing clamour to take the plunge and increase stadium capacity, leaving the Argyle powers-that-be with a dilemma. After all, no business wants to leave money on the table.
However, adding new capacity would be an expensive project, and not one that could be reversed should average crowd sizes drop off. There’s plenty of emotion around this subject, with some in danger of getting carried away by what has all the makings of a very successful season. There’s nothing wrong with talking about ‘ambition’ and ‘vision’, but the dustbin of history is full of clubs that have gone bust after making emotionally driven financial decisions.
The focus of Argyle’s owners and management team is on the long-term financial sustainability of the club, and they are not in the habit of making knee-jerk reactions to short-term events. So, maybe it’s time inject some boring old logic into the discussion to see how Home Park’s capacity could be boosted and ask whether it would make sense to do so.
The only viable option for adding seats without prohibitively costly and lengthy construction work appears to be ‘filling in the corners’ at both ends of the Mayflower Stand. That would involve building the equivalent of blocks 6,7 and 8 on the end of the Devonport stand, and blocks 16 and 17 on the end of the Barn Park stand.
The result would be around 2,000 additional seats in total. Assuming the current actual capacity at Home Park is 16,734 (the attendance at the Portsmouth game, the highest of the season so far), capacity with the corners filled in would be just over 18,700.
The first step in working out whether that would make financial sense is to estimate the return on investment – how much extra revenue the work would bring in relative to the cost.
The crowd at Home Park before the match against Charlton Athletic in March 2023 (Photo: Colin Bradbury / Cornwall Sports Media)
Putting a number on the cost of the project is an exercise in guess work. But looking at the cost of the Mayflower redevelopment at Home Park, together with similar recent projects at other EFL grounds, suggests that £4 million might be a reasonable estimate.
On the revenue side, the maths is pretty simple. Factoring in that some seats are occupied by full price-paying supporters, some by season ticket holders and others by those paying concessionary rates, the average yield per seat, per match is probably around £15. So, if all 2,000 additional seats were sold for every one of the 23 home games, that would bring in £690,000 extra revenue per season.
It’s unlikely that the new seats would be 100% occupied for all matches, so £500,000 in additional ticket sales over a season feels like a more realistic figure. Which means it would take eight years for the club to recoup a £4 million investment to fill in the corners. On the face of it, that’s not a particularly compelling case for opening the chequebook.
There are other arguments against filling in the corners at this point. Spending money to increase capacity to 18,700, almost 3,300 above this season’s average attendance so far, looks hard to justify. Perhaps the average attendance would have been higher if more tickets had been available for the most popular fixtures, but the overall impact on the average of an additional 1,000 fans at a handful of matches would have been relatively small.
Another popular argument is that Argyle will need higher capacity if promotion is secured. But even if Home Park is hosting Championship football next season, the case for investing in new stands is still not an open and shut one.
On the one hand, it’s very likely that the huge positive changes at the club in the last 10 years mean that Argyle would pull in more than the average 13,000 spectators achieved in the Championship years (2004-10).
On the other, it’s sobering to realise that the average attendance in the Championship so far this season is just 18,528. Take out the massive outlier, Sunderland (whose 38,708 average is 10,000 above second-placed Sheffield United) and that average drops to 17,651. Only a few hundred above current Home Park capacity.
Recall as well that with the exception of Rotherham, all current Championship sides have played in the top-flight of English football at some point in their history and therefore to a greater or lesser extent, have that legacy fan base (which Argyle lacks). Even so, of the 24 teams in the Championship today, 14 don’t attract sufficient supporters to fill a stadium the size of an expanded Home Park. In short, then, there is no solid case for expecting average crowds at Home Park to soar above current capacity simply by virtue of promotion to the second tier.
The Green Army in full cry at the match against Bolton Wanderers in August 2022 (Photo: Colin Bradbury / Cornwall Sports Media)
Another consideration is that promotion to the Championship would bring additional costs as well as increased revenue.
Annual wages for a League One player are around £109,000 compared to £400,000 in the Championship. For an 18-man senior squad, promotion would raise annual wage costs from around £2 million to £7.2 million. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Since player contracts expire at different times, costs wouldn’t shoot up immediately. On the other hand, recruiting new players would certainly be more expensive in the Championship than League One.
This would be offset to some extent by the increased Solidarity Payments that Argyle would receive from the Premier League as a Championship club, but this all shows that promotion is not a one-way financial street. Whatever, Argyle would certainly need to keep cash in reserve in order to compete in the second tier, and spending to increase stadium capacity would likely not be top of the list of priorities.
Speaking of finances, some argue that Argyle has the cash in the bank, so why not spend it on increasing capacity? It’s true that the latest set of accounts show a cash balance of £6.8 million, which is extremely healthy for a League One club. However, Argyle has always stressed that financial prudence is the club’s core philosophy.
That is particularly relevant when there are so many other balls in the air at the moment. In early March, the club announced that it had secured the Brickfields site in Devonport, with plans to ‘install superb facilities for our ambitious youth Academy’. Some £11 million of the required investment will be provided by existing Argyle shareholders. In February, plans for an enhanced fan zone outside the Mayflower stand were submitted, while in December last year, the purchase of Goals Plymouth, next to Home Park, was completed with the view to consolidating the club’s training facilities.
It appears that the club has other more immediate priorities at this point than building two new stands. And, of course, if Argyle fail in their promotion quest this season, any lingering thoughts of filling in the corners would surely be banished. Adding 2,000 more seats for another season in League One would make very little sense.
There are then plenty of reasons to caution against rushing to fill in the corners. Increasing capacity would only make sense if there was clear evidence that the trend of rising attendances is likely to continue.
The good news is that there is definite long-term potential for Argyle to build a permanently larger supporter base. We looked at this back in February (read HERE) and concluded that the large population in the Argyle catchment area, combined with a lack of competition for spectators from nearby clubs means that there is considerable upside for Home Park crowd sizes. Add to that Argyle’s consistent efforts to reach out to the community in Plymouth and more widely through Devon and Cornwall, and average crowds in excess of 20,000 over the medium-term are certainly within the realms of possibility.
It’s also worth pausing to consider the long-term implications of the monster Papa Johns Trophy final ticket sales. While no sane person expects 38,000 people to be clamouring for tickets to Home Park week-in-week-out, before simply dismissing the Wembley sales as a mere one-off, here’s something to ponder. Opponents Bolton Wanderers have sold around 14,500 more tickets than their average home attendance so far this season; Argyle, in contrast, have sold 22,600 more than the average.
That’s 22,600 people who don’t regularly come to Home Park, but care enough to spend a not-inconsiderable amount of money to buy a ticket and to travel to London. It’s not too far-fetched to suggest that this reflects a latent interest in Argyle that could one day turn into bodies coming through the Home Park turnstiles.
It might not happen this year or next, but it surely won’t be too long before those corners will need to be filled in.