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Chinese Super League breaks attendance record with derby-heavy fixture card

The Chinese Super League set an all-time attendance record last weekend with a total 197,548,  fans watching eight top-flight fixtures –  the highest number to watch a single round since professional football was re-launched in China in 2004.

Thanks to two city derbies and several other teams with strong followings playing at home, an average of 24,694 turned out. The Guangzhou derby was the highest attended fixture of the round, with 56,300 cramming into Tianhe Stadium – some 16,000 more than Evergrande’s home average. This fixture was the second-highest attended game of the year so far, second only to Jiangsu Shuntian v Guangzhou Evergrande, which attracted 58,792 fans in July.

CSL Average attendances

2004 10,838

2005  10,284

2006 10,611

2007 15,112

2008 13,444

2009 16,059

2010 14,581

2011 17,651

2012 18,740

2013 18,905 (as of Aug 18)

Matches refer to top division league games only

Beijing Guoan, one of the leagues most consistently best-supported sides in recent years, attracted the next highest crowd with 41,131 individuals being treated to a surprise 4-0 demolition of Dalian Aerbin.

Shandong Luneng, another of the league’s best established sides, had 30,168 fans turnout to watch their one-nil victory over Hangzhou, whilst in Nanjing, Jiangsu Shuntian another team with growing support in recent seasons, had 24,592 turnout to watch a 2-1 win over struggling Changchun.

Elsewhere in the Yangtze river delta, the Shanghai derby between East Asia and Shenhua saw one of the biggest crowds of the year for a game anywhere in the city, as 23,887 made it to Shanghai Stadium to see the away team win 1-0.

The average could have been even higher had two of the league’s worst-supported sides, Qingdao and Shanghai Shenxin not been playing at home, both teams failing to attract five-figure crowds for their matches.

Contrary to many international media reports, crowds at Chinese football matches have been on an upwards trajectory for the past half-decade, after several years of disarray in the opening few seasons of the CSL, which was launched in 2004 as a re-brand of the old Jia-A league. And in the past two years, big money has been poured into the CSL to bring in high calibre foreign players, putting even more bums on seats.

Despite the fact there is little doubt crowds are on the rise, there is significant evidence of both under and over-reporting of attendance figures in the CSL. Announcements of the official crowd figures made over the Tianhe Stadium tannoy towards the end of Guangzhou Evergrande matches are routinely ridiculed for being clearly inaccurate. ‘s Guangzhou-based correspondents claim that the stadium, which holds 58,000, appears to be practically full for most games, yet Evergrande’s average attendance this year is just 39,000 according to CSL figures.

Tianhe stadium’s attendance reporting is also not restricted to CSL games. According to an unofficial Evergrande twitter account, During last week’s AFC quarter-final with Qatar’s Lekhwiya, the attendance was officially announced to be 41,000, but the ACL report of the game put the attendance at 52,000. Guangzhou sources claim the police put an attendance limit of around 40,000 on the stadium.

Over-reporting appears to be blatant at Shanghai Shenxin’s Yuanshen stadium in Pudong district. Pictures of an almost-empty stadium have been posted online several times by fans of not only local rivals Shanghai Shenhua, but also Jiangsu Sainty, openly mocking officially reported attendances. Whether these inflated figures include tickets which were sold or given away, but went unused, is unclear, but what seems obvious is that there is simply nowhere near as many people inside the 16,000 capacity stadium as officially claimed.

Shenxin’s figures don’t make much sense when looked at in the wider context of professional football in Shanghai. On their first derby of the season, Shenxin attracted barely 8k fans against Shenhua, with most of that number in blue and supporting the away team. Yet on several other occasions, with no Shenhua fans to boost the crowd, games against other sides have attracted more than 10k fans. Remember, for the vast majority of CSL games, away supports seldom number more than a few hundred fans, except for teams based in the same city. And looking further at the derby picture, the Shanghai public have voted with their feet in terms of which two teams represent the most authentic derby. In the two fixtures between Shenhua and Shenxin, around 8,000 fans made it to Yuanshen stadium, and 12,000 to Hongkou. But in the two fixtures between East Asia and Shenhua, the crowds for both matches were around the 23k mark. In actual reality, Shenxin’s average crowd is most likely around the 3-4 thousand mark, in keeping with every other team that has used Yuanshen stadium as a base, excepting Shenhua.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.



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