The mystery of why Messi and Barcelona are haemorrhaging fans at Camp Nou this season

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Attendances at the stadium have fallen alarmingly, despite the usual wizardry from the Argentine in Ernesto Valverde's debut campaign

Barcelona are fighting a haemorrhaging of supporters at Camp Nou as Lionel Messi and his La Liga-topping colleagues are failing to fill their stadium this season.

Ernesto Valverde's Barcelona are yet to captivate the Camp Nou crowd like in the good old days of the 'MSN' (Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar) trio.

The Catalans' attendance figures for 2017-18 suggest as much, showing a dramatic decline in spectators - an average drop of 12,682 per game - compared to last season.

There has certainly been no discernible drop in form on the part of Barca's Argentine superstar, Messi, who is already odds-on to secure another Pichichi and putting in a series of spectacular performances.

He continues to be a demi-god in the eyes of the Camp Nou faithful, and neither he nor anyone else in the table-toppers' ranks is to blame for the decline in spectators. 

What does seem clear, however, is that the club's 150,000  socios  (members) are no longer breaking down the door to claim their tickets, and when those passes go unclaimed they are also struggling to sell to the general public.

In the 16 games that have been held at Barcelona's home ground this season not a single one has been sold out, compared to two games (against Real Madrid and Manchester City) at this point in 2016-17.

Even a clash against Champions League runners-up Juventus attracted 78,656 fans, the highest attendance of the campaign but far short of the 99,000 capacity at the famous stadium. 

In just three other clashes this season have more than 70,000 made their way to the gates, all of which were, interestingly enough, played at 20:45 local time - identical to the kick-off time stipulated in the Champions League.

It is in Europe, moreover, that the decline has been most sorely felt. Barcelona averaged 60,673 spectators in this year's group stage, far below the 78,912 registered in the same round 12 months ago.

In La Liga, the difference is narrower, 61,977 down from 78,575, excluding October 1's clash against Las Palmas which was played behind closed doors due to the violent incidents provoked by Catalunya's independence referendum and police repression of the vote.

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Only in the Copa del Rey have Barca managed to increase attendances, 4,506 up on last year's winning campaign. Kick-off times, however, continue to play a huge part in spectator numbers; against Murcia in the first round the Catalans had 68,775 people in the stands, a number which dropped to 59,009 in the last eight against Celta. 

The Blaugrana's attendance headache stems from the fact that, on paper at least, almost every ticket for every game is considered property of the  socios . It is the members who are charged with informing the club when they will not be attending a certain game, at which point the seats will be put on general sale, mostly to tourists and visitors from outside the city.

The problem, however, is that members tend to 'relinquish' their tickets at the last minute, while non-members from overseas usually purchase their seats months in advance through tourist agencies. But, inside the club itself, they are aware of the problem and are not too concerned.

Lionel Messi Camp Nou Barcelona Las Palmas LALiga 01102017

"In the coming months attendance will start to grow, due to the fact that the weather will improve and the big games, such as the Champions League knock-out rounds and Liga games against some of the biggest clubs, will be played,"  Goal  heard from a Barcelona source. The Camp Nou crowd is also far from the only source of income Barca are focusing on. 

President Josep Maria Bartomeu and his board are obsessed with "making a huge effort in marketing," in the words of CEO Oscar Grau in a recent delegates assembly. The club have set as a goal to bring in marketing revenues worth a massive €1 billion annually by 2021, while dozens of employees are tasked with analysing how to move more tickets - focusing particularly on overseas markets.

Those factors will play in Barca's favour in the medium term. Short term, however, attendances could yet take a hit given Barca's relative ease in taking back the Liga title from Real Madrid; the Clasico itself threatens to be an anti-climax due to the 19 points that currently separate the two historic rivals.

So, while the team go from strength to strength on the pitch, the reaction from members has been a collective sigh, and plenty of empty seats to sully the view at Camp Nou.

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