Scottish Cup runs on empty as fans feel the pinch
The biggest crowd of the round was just 13,215 at Rangers v Kilmarnock - the lowest attendance at Ibrox in 25 years. Just three years ago, a home game against Third Division basement side East Stirlingshire, at the same stage of the competition, reported an attendance of 34,024.
If you are a supporter of Ayr United, who held Hibernian to a 0-0 draw at an echoey Easter Road, Scottish Cup weekend might have been fun, but even then, staring out at a vast, near three-quarters empty stadium isn't quite what the phrase 'cup magic' conjures up.
The replay at the lovably rickety Somerset Park might promise a more rewarding experience for all concerned, but the news that it is now to be televised live on Sky, while supremely welcome for those who hold the purse strings at Ayr, represents a possible blow to those who imagined Hibs being tossed into a partisan stadium fit to burst with enthusiastic fans.
So where has it gone wrong? Where has the passion for the competition gone?
The Scottish Football Association thought they had the answer in season 2007-08, when junior teams were invited to take part in the competition which then president-elect George Peat conceded was in need of a revamp. "One of the most important ingredients of this competition is the 'romance of the cup' and we're confident that these changes will help foster the unique character and enjoyment of the country's foremost knockout competition," he said.
Interest, however, remains on the wane. The aggregate attendance in the fourth round of the cup in 2008 was 117,106. That figure fell to 77,085 the following year, then down to just 53,423 last year. This year, with three ties still to be played in the fourth round, the figure stands at 55,065.
Gordon Smith inherited control of the competition when he became SFA chief executive in June 2007.
He now looks on again from afar as a radio and television pundit, and attended the match at Easter Road as well as the Rangers v Kilmarnock fixture at a rain-lashed Ibrox on Monday night.
"I think the whole brand that is Scottish football has taken a hit, not just the Scottish Cup," he said yesterday. "League reconstruction and the saga with the referees have taken a toll.
"I don't think the attendances are a thumbs-down to the competition. It's still a great tournament, and it's always been special to me with my grandfather having won two medals for Kilmarnock."
But Smith does concede that the tournament needs a lift, even if he believes the downbeat start to what is traditionally regarded as the most intriguing weekend in the Scottish football calendar is a symptom of a greater malaise in the game.
For a start, live television takes its toll. Three games were covered - Berwick Rangers v Celtic, Dundee v Motherwell and Rangers v Kilmarnock - with only one of those matches still managing to create a demand for tickets.
Then there is the fact that the competition is currently sponsor-less. This itself should not impact on attendances. Being called just the plain old Scottish Cup was not a hindrance prior to the Scottish Health Board becoming the first sponsor to be involved, in the 1980s.Sad to say, but the last few days will not have enticed too many to plough funds into a competition marked not just by empty stands, but closed ones. Hearts did not feel the need to open the Wheatfield stand for Tuesday's night re-arranged match with St Johnstone, while Rangers closed off the Broomloan stand as a consequence of poor ticket sales. Kilmarnock's refusal to allow the Ibrox club to reduce ticket prices needs to be noted, as, also, must St Johnstone's similar objection to Hearts' wish to make the match more affordable.
After Rangers v Kilmarnock, the next biggest crowd of the round was just under 7,000 at Aberdeen v East Fife - ahead of 6,000-mark attracted by home games for Hibs and Hearts - but this figure still resulted in a gnashing of teeth at the Pittodrie club. The same goes for the 4,000 attracted to Tannadice Park for a re-match of last season's final, between Dundee United and Ross County. No-one was expecting even a quarter of the 50,000 who filled Hampden in May, but just 4,041 represented a poor turn-out for the beginning of United's defence of a trophy won so memorably seven months earlier. There is a world of difference between Hampden in the sun and Tannadice in the slush, and the severe winter has been blamed for many fans staying away from games, but it should be noted that, despite the grim conditions, the number of ties postponed at the weekend was no greater than three years ago.
In essence, the key factor at the heart of falling cup tie attendances is the validity - or not - of season tickets. Where once cup ties were part of a season ticket and clubs then shared gate receipts, now the games that used to be plum ties for lower league clubs are no longer included in the package, with clubs reluctant to give supporters access to even one cup game. The bigger clubs ask their loyal fans to put their hands in their pockets a further time, and it is no surprise that many supporters, who have already invested heavily in season books, choose not to pay up again.
"In days gone by there were not so many season ticket holders," one club official said yesterday. "Now they make up a significant proportion of a league match attendance."
The result is that people find it very easy to resist the prospect of watching their team take on perhaps inferior opposition, or, in the case of those all-SPL ties, a side who will likely be faced at least three times during the season in any case.
Few Hearts fans seemed particularly anxious to watch their team take on St Johnstone on a cold, Tuesday evening when they have the chance to watch the Perth side again at Tynecastle at the end of this month, when league points are up for grabs and, of course, when their season tickets are valid.
Hibs fans had the option to supplement their season ticket book with a cup 'top-up' at a price of 55, meaning they are then permitted to watch every cup game their side play at home during the season. The club also made a significant cut in prices.
But many fans remained unconvinced by Saturday's offer of entertainment, although it is not solely football - and the Scottish Cup - which suffered. Edinburgh Rugby could only attract just over 1600 fans to their clash with Scarlets at Murrayfield on Saturday night. "We had hoped for a bigger crowd and it was possibly lower than we had expected," said Fife Hyland, commercial director at Hibs. He makes the point that, between Boxing day Day and the start of February, Hibs are scheduled to play nine matches. "People start picking and choosing, and Ayr was one they felt able to miss," he said. "But I still think the Scottish Cup is important to all clubs. It still has magic dust."
Hyland spoke of the "extenuating factors" which helped impact on attendances, from Aberdeen to Govan. The bid to attract fans to matches has not been aided by the scheduling shift which came in after the change in format. While the old third round normally took place towards the end of January, now fans are expected to troop out in numbers on the first weekend after the Christmas and New Year festivities, when money is inevitably tight and morale often low. Smith wondered why this needed to be the case. "I find it hard to understand," he said. "The SFA have priority. It is up to them."
The SFA are, however, upbeat, with the tournament having been given the boost of one guaranteed sell-out next month, when Rangers host Celtic in the stand-out tie of the fifth round. The governing body did not want to comment on the attendance figures for the fourth round, with games still outstanding. But discussions to bring on board a sponsor are still on-going, noted a spokesman. "Hopefully one will be in place sooner rather than later," he added.