Blueprint for boosting the Israeli soccer experience

No fan can assume they will be entertained at any game even if they have paid high prices for tickets - and a low-level match up can excite.

Last weekend Hapoel Ramat Gan hosted Hapoel Ra'anana in a crucial Premier League relegation battle, but instead of getting behind their local team fans of both sides stayed away in their droves.
The unofficial attendance figures published in the media claimed 500 people paid to get into the game, although the real number could have been far less.
This is by no means a rare phenomenon ­ there have been numerous occasions this season where attendances at top division games have numbered 500 or lower.
In some instances, such as Hapoel Acre's 1-1 draw with Hapoel Ra'anana in November, the reported total was an embarrassing 100 people ­ around the same number who go to most amateur matches in England.
We nearly had that many people come and watch me and my teammates on a weekly basis when I played for Kenton Maccabi FC in the fifth division of the London Maccabi Jewish soccer league.
It actually wasn¹t even the fifth division, there were six including a Premier League and Kenton was bottom of the league for the entire 2001/02 season, often losing 8-0.
So, if we were so bad, and had no chance of promotion, why did anyone bother to come and see us play?
The answer lies in a sense of community spirit, something clubs in the Israeli top flight must strive to understand if they are ever going to have a chance of turning empty stadiums into thriving arenas.
Local soccer can act as a significant bond which holds a community together, providing a focus of pride and joy in times of sporting success and a talking point in less successful periods.
It can also unite the community's youth, allowing them to train together and become fit while dreaming of representing their town or city at a senior level.
The depressingly low numbers of supporters attending games in this country has been a major talking point this season, but little, if anything, has been done to buck the trend.
Considering the wide coverage in the Hebrew language media it is safe to assume that local soccer is seen as an important part of Israeli culture, but this is not reflected in the real value of "bums on seats."
In an effort to promote the game amongst the grass roots, the Israel Football Association should be doing all it can to encourage fans to turn off their television sets and get down to the stadiums.
Three elements must be challenged in order to reverse the slide ­ a lack of communal connection, unacceptably high ticket prices and bad quality facilities.
If addressed correctly, all three could result in a massive increase in the number of families going to games, with parents bringing the next generation of fans in a roll-on effect.
Analysts have often blamed the bad quality of Israeli soccer for low attendance figures, but this is a poor excuse.
No fan can assume they will be entertained at any game even if they have paid high prices for tickets, and at the same time there is no reason why a low-level match up can't excite.
I stayed up till 1 a.m. to watch the much-hyped Real Madrid vs Barcelona "Super Classico" on a Saturday night a few weeks ago, only to be severely disappointed by the mostly boring soccer on offer.
On the other hand, my entire family were on the edges of their seats last Saturday night as Hapoel Haifa battled back from a goal down to take the lead against Ahi Nazareth in injury time only to see Nazareth goalkeeper Josline Mayebi score from a corner in the 94th minute and tie the scores at 2-2.
Haifa coach Shlomi Dorah's wild celebrations after Yero Bello powered in what appeared to be the winner in the second minute of time added on were a memorable sight.
Unfortunately the 15,000 capacity Kiryat Eliezer was nearly empty, with only 2,500 people able to witness the exciting finish.
At any soccer match, the fans are essentially made up of two groups ­ the diehard supporters who have season tickets and go to every home game, and the rest.
It is these non-season ticket holders clubs must target in order to get the numbers up.
In countries where there is a local soccer tradition, most notably England, top clubs sell tens of thousands of tickets to every game while even the lower league teams ­ such as the club I support, Bournemouth ­ attract at least 4,000 fans week in week out.
Israeli teams should have no problem bringing in these figures by promoting themselves as a representative of the community.
I have often been surprised by the lack of commitment to their teams by fans of formerly prominent clubs like Hapoel Petah Tikva and Maccabi Netanya.
And many clubs, such as Ashdod SC whose stadium is based in the middle of a large residential area, have large potential fanbases.
A real locally focused PR campaign could be an impetus for change.
The question of ticket prices is also extremely important. The average Israeli has far less disposable income than his British counterpart, so ticket prices of NIS 80 or 90 are way out of their price range when they know they can watch games on television.
Last weekend a number of top sides, including Maccabi Tel Aviv and Bnei Yehuda, halved their ticket prices with incredible success ­ 13,000 and 12,000 people attending the two games even though they were both at the same stadium so are aimed at a similar audience. Hopefully this experiment will lead to more affordable prices across the board next season.
But arguably the most important factor is the matchday experience. Too many stadiums are dirty and dilapidated ­ not the kind of places a father would like to take his son on a day out.
Instead of wasting money on expensive players, the clubs should first address these core issues and only then will a revitalization occur in Israeli soccer.