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CSKA Moscow's challenge: their biggest crowd didn't go to see them

The July 5 concert showed CSKA Arena in the sold-out, big atmosphere that's yet to attend the football.

MOSCOW -- It took the new and impressive CSKA Arena, opened in the northwest of the Russian capital in September 2016, barely 10 months to see its first sellout crowd. Ironically, it happened when its owners, CSKA Moscow, are more than a thousand miles away from it on a preseason tour in Austria.

It was for the Park Live Festival, which took place on July 5. 

The Red Army club, who were the most powerful and correspondingly considered as the most popular Soviet club in the postwar years, started to lose their No. 1 status soon thereafter. Now, some seven decades later, CSKA's attendances have become a reason for a good banter by their arch-rivals Spartak Moscow fans.

Last season, for instance, CSKA's average home attendance figures were only fifth-best in the Premier League. Their 14,454 mark was bettered by Spartak (32,760), Zenit St. Petersburg (18,557), FC Krasnodar (17,332) and what's now known as FC Akhmat Grozny (15,230). Surprisingly, moving to the kind of brand new stadium that all Red-Blue fans had been dreaming of for years didn't have a significant impact. A crowd of 27,352 is still the biggest CSKA managed to gather at the 30-thousand arena, in the Moscow derby against Spartak.

Low attendances, relatively low ticket prices (around $12 on average for a league game) and tough Financial Fair Play requirements force Russian clubs to look for additional sources of income. Hosting a big rock festival has turned out to be the first option.

"Of course, it's an additional source of income for us," said Andrey Zarubyan, CSKA commercial director, to ESPN FC, "but we actually had an idea of alternate ways to raise funds long before the stadium was even built.

"I wouldn't say FFP rules specifically made us do that. It's rather the fact that CSKA are a modern club with a great stadium, and we're happy to host such major events as this festival."

Notably, even the ridiculously high prices for Moscow (let alone Russia) for fan zone tickets didn't frighten off the fans. Roughly 6,500 rubles (approximately $108) is more than seven times the minimal price for a Confederations Cup ticket, the tournament which in the first place was thought to be enormously expensive for most locals to attend.

The fan zone, which was situated on the pitch and covered by a plastic surface, was sold out with about 16,000 fans packed. The rest had to settle for less luxurious but seated places in the stands.

CSKA's decline in popularity can be reversed over time. A strong season would help.

"I can't give you the exact figures according to the terms of our contract with the festival organizers," said Zarubyan. "But if we compare such festival with an average Premier League match, the former brings more income for the club."

"Of course, after hosting our first not-football-related event, we're planning to have more. But we also have to make sure it corresponds well with football and the World Cup in particular, as one of the teams will have the CSKA Arena and its surroundings as their training base next summer."

As for the festival itself, it definitely was a success. It started with a fast-growing Russian alternative rock band Louna, a group known for its strong political messages opposed to the current regime. They were followed by the Scottish rockers Twin Atlantic and Three Days Grace from Canada, with one of the most famous alternative rock bands of the century, System of a Down, headlining the event.

Thousands of their fans from Russia and surrounding countries fled the ground, literally making it move. It also put the stadium through its paces ahead of the new Premier League season, which kicks off on Saturday, July 15.

Artur Petrosyan is a Russian journalist based in Moscow. Twitter: @arturpetrosyan

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