With very few exceptions, Poland's new football stadiums lie empty every week in the country's top leagues. The answer as to why is not down to one or two simple reasons, but a huge cocktail of factors that have combined to create today's gloomy state of affairs.
Here in Wroclaw, where a new 40,000+ seater stadium has been constructed, the problems are there for all to see – in recent times attendances have dipped below 10% of the ground's capacity.
However, Śląsk Wrocław aren't the only team in Poland's top league that are struggling to woo fans. Many teams are constructing stadia capable of holding 15-25,000, only to find that a very modest proportion of the seats will ever be occupied on matchday.
So what's it down to then? Poor quality football? A fear of hooliganism? As it turns out, it's pretty much everything. Here are just a few reasons why crowds in Poland's top league are so low:
Ludicrous league format
For the past couple of seasons the Polish Ekstraklasa have extended the league by an extra 7 games in order to accrue more TV cash. Unfortunately the increase in quantity has had an adverse affect on what was already a relatively poor quality league.
This is primarily due to the new setup, whereby the league is cut into two sections of eight teams after everybody has played twice. At this point everybody's points are then divided and rounded up – meaning sides with a massive ten point advantage will see their lead halved purely for the sake of some late entertainment.
Boring – another tedious 0-0 draw during the Ekstraklasa's drawn-out season
Of course, this system undoubtedly creates a dramatic end to the season. On the other hand though, it means during the regular season, which lasts from July until mid April, teams are battling it out for a measly 1.5 points per match. The end result appears to have been bland and boring games that effectively mean very little – unless you are in the middle of the table and fighting to qualify for the top group.
Players know fine well that the points gained in a massive victory over their rivals will be halved come the middle of April, which creates stale and tedious affairs time and time again. Fans are also aware that the end of the season group is all that really matters, so many of them opt out of buying season tickets and choose to buy a ticket package for the final games instead.
Too many teams in the top league
The highest attendances in the league always involve the Ekstraklasa's big guns – Legia, Lech, Śląsk, Wisła and Lechia. Therefore if the league was reduced to 10 or 12 teams (as is the case in Switzerland and Scotland respectively) we would see more of these big clashes and more fans going through the turnstiles.
Many of the fans of the clubs mentioned above are simply not attracted to contests against the likes of Termalica Nieciecza and Podbeskidzie. A smaller league would also create more excitement at the bottom of the division, where teams would be desperately scrapping it out to stay in the top flight.
Opponents of a smaller league would argue that it could result in a decrease in television revenue, however that could be somewhat compensated for by the creation of an 'Ekstraklasa 2' with end of season play offs.
Another bonus of a smaller league would be the reduced number of fixtures per week, something that would bring improvements to kick off times, which just happens to be the next item of the agenda.
6pm kick-offs can attract crowds as low as the one in the photo above
Stupid kick-off times and too much live tv coverage
There are currently 8 games per weekend in the Ekstraklasa, all of which are broadcasted live on either Canal+ or Eurosport 2.
Each game kicks off at a different time, resulting in some matches taking place minutes after most fans have clocked off. There are kick offs on Fridays and Mondays (and occasionally on other weekdays) at 18.00, which are unsurprisingly loathed by fans. At one Monday evening game earlier in the season, a match between Pogoń Szczecin and Śląsk Wrocław barely attracted more than a 1,000 spectators.
If the league were smaller, there would be no need to play Ekstraklasa games at such an early hour – leaving the unpopular slot free for broadcasting lower league football. It would also be easier to avoid clashes with massive fixtures taking place in Europe's big leagues, which often have an impact on the viewing figures and attendances of Ektraklasa matches.
Śląsk's match against Wisła earlier this year was one of the best attendances of the season
The Ekstraklasa and the broadcasters should also get together to make life easier for fans. So called 'friends matches', involving the likes of Śląsk, Wisła and Lechia, should kick off at a time that actually allows fans to travel. All too often they take place on a Friday night or Sunday evening, which means fans would have to take a day off work to be able to attend. Many fans are more willing to travel to such games as they know they are usually safer than a regular game, and often in the past there have been some great crowds at these encounters.
Poor public transport
This may not be the case for all Ekstraklasa stadia, but it certainly is for Wroclaw at the moment.
A few years ago fans attending Śląsk Wrocław matches could count on extra trams and buses to get to and from the stadium. Unfortunately this service has been discontinued for some time, making getting back into town after the game a rather tedious and tiresome experience at times. The current predicament also creates problems for some of the people living in the area, who may find their tram is so packed with fans that they can't actually get on.
Laying on a huge fleet of trams and buses obviously costs a lot of money. Even so, it would make sense to have a few buses waiting outside the ground that head for the centre as soon as they are full. That way anyone going to the stadium would be able to get home quickly and it would alleviate the burden on MPK's regular services.
Another possible solution would be to run a train before and after the match, as there is a train station just a 5 minute walk from the stadium. This service would be fast and practical, as well as being very useful to fans traveling to and from other cities in Lower Silesia.
Many casual fans simply cant be bothered commuting all the way to Stadion Wroclaw, so to attract them the transport must improve.
A lack of family atmosphere
Despite numerous attempts to woo families, some clubs in Poland need to do more to encourage kids to matches. Many teams, including Śląsk, offer very cheap tickets for families. That alone is not enough though, as kids are always looking for more to keep them occupied.
In the past T-Mobile had a special kids zone at Stadion Wroclaw equipped with a Playstation 4 and FIFA, which seemed to work quite well when it was in operation. This, on top of autograph sessions, giveaways, competitions and mascots, help in this regard too. Admittedly some of the clubs are doing this from time to time, nevertheless it must be done ruthlessly to get families going through the turnstiles routinely.
Śląsk and other clubs have made efforts to attract families, however more needs to be done
More kick off times during daylight hours would be another help, while improving the public perception of Polish football is another important goal here.
Radical politics and a fear of violence
A crucial ingredient in this mix is of course Poland's hardcore fans. Some argue that without them, there simply wouldn't be anybody in the stadium. On the other hand, there are plenty of observers who believe they are holding Polish football back.
That seems to be the view of the Polish national football association, who banned organised chanting at national team games ahead of Euro 2012. The decision was met with extreme criticism by ultras groups, pretty much all of whom encouraged their members not to go to the games. The pull of the national team reaches out far beyond these groups though, and Poland matches have regularly sold out despite their ticket prices being significantly higher than Ekstraklasa fixtures.
Another full house – Poland's match against Scotland sold out, despite prices being up to 6 times higher than a league game
Since the change, the atmosphere before during and after Poland games has been jovial and positive – in stark contrast to the aggressive and violent tone that is so often present during Ekstraklasa fixtures. The down side of that is that the games occasionally have a 'picnic' feel and don't have the same passion, however both the home and away fans know that they can attend the game, have fun and cheer their team without having a cordon of police surrounding them. The same can't be said in the Polish league, where away fans often have to travel in organised groups escorted by the police at all times.
That said, the hardcore fans aren't all bad, and the ultras groups frequently create awe-inspiring demonstrations of organised displays that are a spectacle in themselves – something that is very much welcome in a rather dreary Ekstraklasa game. The trouble is though, that these displays often boil over and get out of hand – flares are thrown onto the pitch and opposition stands, while seats and toilets are broken and unsavoury political chants are uttered.
The Polish football association and the Ekstraklasa therefore must somehow find a solution whereby the fans can cheer on their team and do displays, as long as things don't get out of hand. Seeing smoke bellow out from countless flares and hearing firecrackers explode is putting off potential new fans, which is inevitably results in lower crowds.
They seem to have got the balance right in the German league (although there have been incidents there too), however creating the same situation in Poland will prove easier said than done. Many of the ultras have contacts right at the heart of the country's football clubs, allowing them to smuggle in pyrotechnics and even earn profits for themselves. A prime example is in merchandising, as fan made t-shirts bearing club emblems often outsell official merchandise – something that also hurts the revenues of the football clubs themselves.
The aggresive and battle hardened culture that is ingrained into Polish football is also causing some young fans to follow English teams, who prefer jovial banter and chants based on pop-songs (not to mention the better football).
Poor quality football
Last but by no means least is the simple fact the quality of the football is rather poor. The boring games and lack of talent can nonetheless be attributed to the low crowds, as the potential extra revenue that teams could earn from bigger attendances would allow them to build better training facilities and buy better players. That would in turn improve the product on the pitch, which could potentially bring in even more new fans to Poland's stadia.
So perhaps if the Polish football association, the Ekstraklasa and the broadcasters all got together to take action, Poland's football scene could be rejuvinated. At the moment though, it appears that the only way is down – despite the fact that so many teams now have shiny all-seater stadiums.