Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn has warned the days of smashing club transfer records will be over if attendances continue to dwindle at the Stadium of Light.
A crowd of just 35,101 watched Saturday's 1-0 Barclays Premier League victory over Bolton, around 13,000 below capacity, despite the Black Cats remaining unbeaten at home in the league so far this season, a run which has left them lying sixth in the table.
He told the Sunderland Echo: "The plan was always to improve and while we are doing that on the pitch, off the pitch the lifeblood of the club is just starting to get to a worrying area. I am not here to be the guardian angel of the club and protect it at all costs. We have to be realistic and it would be a shame to start downsizing."
While Quinn acknowledges the ongoing financial difficulties for some supporters, he claims many are watching games illegally in pubs accessing foreign television channels, and is concerned about the implications.
Indeed, Quinn has admitted he will no longer be able to argue a case for owner Ellis Short to fund the kind of deals which brought record £13million-plus signing Asamoah Gyan or £10million strike-partner Darren Bent to Wearside if the figures do not add up.
He added: "I wouldn't be doing my job if I recommended that we should be paying big sums for players and the people weren't supporting the club.
"I know through my time as a player that you do better with bigger houses and it's a better occasion all round.
"I thought if we were in the top half of the Premier League, we would be getting crowds well into the 40,000s. The reality is we are in the mid-30s.
"I am not having a go at people who are economically challenged, but I know there are friends of mine who say it's easier to go to the pub and have a few drinks with their mates and walk home afterwards. But these games are shown illegally.
"I don't want to alarm people but, for me, there are a few question marks. I'm not saying we are perfect, but I always thought I could rely on the support of a massive crowd."
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