Value is a relative concept, and it is all the more so in the case of sporting events. In recent times, for example, the standard fall-back position for those that defend the increasingly extortionate prices that many football clubs now charge for season tickets has been the size of the waiting list for season tickets at their club. What happens, however, in the case of a match for which the exact numbers that will turn up is, broadly speaking, unknown? What is the cut-off point at which the casual supporter thinks to themselves that they cannot justify this expense to themselves? We may well find out the answer to this in a couple of weeks’ time, after the announcement of the prices for the final of the Blue Square Premier play-offs.
The match is due to be played at The City of Manchester Stadium on the twenty-first of May. It would be something of a surprise, to say the least, if it isn’t played between AFC Wimbledon and Luton Town, considering that these two clubs won their away legs in the semi-finals by two and three goals respectively. This would achieve the significant end of season double-whammy of having thousands of supporters from the south-east of England in Manchester for a play-off final whilst thousands of others, from Manchester City and Stoke City, head in the opposite direction for the FA Cup final, to played the week before this match, but that this has been the way that these two matches have panned out is no-one’s fault. It is obviously completely understandable that venues for such matches have to be booked months in advance of the matches being played.
In the case of the BSP play-off final, however, a match of huge importance may well see the number of people prepared to make that trip north significantly impacted upon by the decision to charge £36 for the cheapest ticket available, with child tickets costing £18 and no concessions available other than this. On top of this, purchased tickets will be subject to a £3 booking fee and a £2.25 postage charge (the tickets are being brokered through a company called See Tickets), meaning that the cheapest adult ticket for the match will be a jaw-dropping £41.25 – this, remember, for a match between two clubs from the fifth division of the English league system. Luton Town have already on their club’s website that they have “have made a challenge to the Football Conference on the pricing policy that has been released”. Wimbledon, perhaps wary of the dangers of hexing their own place in the final, have not yet passed official comment on the subject.
The argument over whether this represents value for money is a complex one. The intrinsic value of the ticket for a football match is one that can be endlessly batted to and fro, and ultimately the answer to that question is probably, “as much as people are prepared to pay for it”. In this case, the most pertinent question then probably becomes, “How many people are prepared to pay for it?”. Wrexham and/or Fleetwood Town, for now, can still make the final, but, for now, it seems likely that it will be Luton Town and Wimbledon that will be due in Manchester a week on Saturday. We could safely assume that, of the die-hard supporters of each club, the vast majority will find the money to make the trip to Manchester. It will be expensive, once the cost of travelling north and the other accoutrements of a day out are taken into account, but they will most likely take that hit for the one-off spectacle of a play-off final. The cost of travelling for supporters of Wrexham or Fleetwood Town would be lower, of course, but this wouldn’t guarantee a higher attendance than if Luton and Wimbledon end up contesting the final.
What, though, of the less committed? For big matches involving non-league clubs – whether rightly or wrongly – the interest of those that don’t go every week is important. There were just short of 25,000 people at the FA Trophy final between Darlington and Mansfield Town last weekend, and the majority of those present have probably not been regulars at The Darlington Arena or Field Mill this season. There is nothing wrong with this per se, and the involvement of the less regular supporter is part and parcel of what makes a big event for matches between clubs of this size. How many of those that may take a bit more of a “take it or leave it” attitude towards the match will be dissuaded from travelling to Manchester by having to pay over £40 per ticket for the match? The cost of taking a family of four will be comfortably over £100 for tickets alone. How many of them will be dissuaded from travelling? Luton Town’s official statement advises that, if they make the final, they will be allocated 22,500 tickets for the match. They sold 40,000 tickets for their Football League Trophy final match two years ago, but it seems difficult to believe that even they will sell out their allocation with prices at this level and the cost of a return journey to Manchester.
Moreover, it is difficult to escape the question that many people be asking themselves this evening: “Thirty-six pounds for a non-league match?”. If non-league football wishes to position itself as an affordable alternative to the Premier League (which would not be an unreasonable marketing stance to take), then charging over £40 for a ticket to its showpiece event would seem to be a move that undermines the whole of the non-league game, and to this extent should there be rows of empty seats at Eastlands a week on Saturday the Football Conference will only have itself to blame. Charging as much as you feel you can for the biggest match of the season is all very well, but it seems somehow unlikely that the league will do itself any favours in terms of PR. If the pricing for this match looks like a rip-off, the Football Conference may come to regret this decision at its leisure.
The cheapest tickets for this match are considerably more expensive than the cheapest tickets for the League One or League Two play-off finals, and it is also worth noting that the Football League also has reduced prices for concessions. Most importantly of all, though, the Football League’s prices were announced in February. The fact that the Football Conference has delayed until now before making them public can only lay them open to the accusation that they have waited until they believe that the two biggest clubs are in the final before trying to squeeze as much money as they can from the tournament. This may or may not be true – and non-league football needs all the money that it can get – but the feeling coming from supporters of both Luton and Wimbledon is that they will pay should they get there, albeit reluctantly, but that it will leave a feeling of ill-will that will long outlast the match itself, while Wrexham and Fleetwood’s supporters may be happy to do a deal with the devil, that they will pay the high price for tickets if their teams can somehow overcome the obstacle of the deficits that they have to turn around to get there in the first place. What seems likely, though (and we may yet be proved wrong on this), is that a match that should be a showpiece for the non-league game could well end up being played in front of banks of empty seats, and it’s difficult to see who exactly will benefit from that.
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