Casual supporters: Priced out of the market? 

by | Aug 9, 2016

As the new season rolls around again, heralded by tediously drawn-out transfer sagas and tales of managers sacked before a ball is kicked, every club is still desperately hawking its season ticket offers. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: they are keen to get that money into their bank accounts and then into the pocket of whichever mediocre signing the manager feels he must have in the annual end of August panic buying bonanza.

Getting that money in early helps to establish the club’s budget for the season, particularly at the lower end of the football league where TV revenue has a much lesser impact on club finances. It also removes the biggest weapon a discontented fan has: the option to withdraw their support if they are unhappy with the team, the management or the board. Pay up front and repent at leisure as fans of clubs such as Aston Villa or Blackpool will have discovered in recent seasons.

Of course, there is a quid pro quo for you the supporter which is a saving on the cost of paying on the day for each match. At my club, Scunthorpe United, the difference works out at about £5 per game, £12.70 compared with £17 on the day. 25% off, £115 over the course of 23 home games. If you’re a regular supporter, you’d be silly not to buy a season ticket. Except that, as a regular supporter, you are already “a bit silly”, in the nicest possible way. You are committed to your club to the extent that you will turn up week in, week out, no matter how leaky the defence is, no matter how long that goal drought has lasted, no matter how many points from safety the team now is.

However, if you are less committed or if you cannot afford to go every week then you are charged a premium. At £17 Scunthorpe’s standing pay on the day tickets are cheaper than many clubs but the team which pipped us to the play-offs last season has a very different offer for their occasional fans.

After winning promotion at Wembley, Barnsley are selling season tickets for slightly less than Scunny, representing decent value for their return to the Championship. However, their pay on the day prices have been completely overhauled. They will introduce five different categories for matches with walk-up prices in the laughably labelled “A*” top category reaching £38. In a poor town like Barnsley that is a hell of a lot for a ticket to a football match. The justification from the club appears to be based on the fact that by having these bands they can charge away fans more, leaning on the rule which forbids clubs from charging visiting supporters more than the equivalent price in the home end. Support Brighton? Nothing to worry about. Support Newcastle? £38,  please. As with many Premier League clubs, fans are penalised in the pocket for their choice of club.

Most of all, this policy will also surely turn off a huge number of casual fans, who are no doubt going to most interesting in the big games against the likes of Newcastle. It’s not fashionable to stand up for the casual fan but, such are the realities of modern football finances, people do have to be choosier these days, hence the swathes of empty seats in the early rounds of cup competitions. It seems incredibly short-sighted to charge your less-committed customers more than twice as much as your regulars. Football clubs are always telling us that they are run like businesses these days but go to any mobile phone company or bank and you’ll get a much better deal if you are not already their customer.

You could point to the way plane or train tickets are priced, getting more expensive the later you book, but for most people these are still a necessity and not a luxury. Most people buying a flight have to travel; this isn’t the case for seeing a game of football.

In business terms, your season ticket holders are not “price sensitive”: I for one know that I will pay a lot more to watch my club than if I go to a game as a neutral. In recent seasons, I have noticed how expensive this can be, even in League Two and the Conference. £24 pay-on-the-day to watch Fleetwood? No thanks. I don’t care that much. I’ll tell you what though, I’d have paid the equivalent of the season ticket price, roughly £12. That seems pretty good value to me and I’d probably have put a few quid behind the bar as well. Instead, I went to Morecambe for £16. I can’t be the only person who is put off by such high walk-up prices. There must be plenty of parents who aren’t massively interested in football but who would take their child if it was a bit cheaper.

For Barnsley in particular but for all clubs which cannot sell their ground out every week, the extra cash banked by high walk-up prices is surely offset by the potential lost future season ticket holder who is put off by paying £29 to watch Millwall or £33 at Bolton. Go to two matches a month and that’s more than your Sky Sports subscription. It’s probably more than you would drink down the pub watching Premier League.

Of course, if season tickets are no cheaper than paying on a game-by-game basis, the club is going to struggle to get so much money up front so perhaps there could be a small price benefit for paying up front, maybe £1 a game. Or perhaps anyone attending a ground for the first time can get a “debutants” price based on the season ticket cost. As for season ticket holders, they already have priority ticketing for big matches, the convenience of their own seat with their friends/family for every match, plus they could be offered other “soft” benefits like exclusive multimedia content, admission to events like end-of-season awards dinners, or maybe just a free pint in the club bar before a match (and after all one pint often brings two….). For the most committed supporters, the caché of having a season ticket could still be incentive enough to fork out in advance.

Clubs may have to accept a bit of a financial hint in the short-term but with a view to expanding their supporter base in the long-term which, ultimately, has to be for the best. Perhaps one of the club owners investing heavily in player recruitment this summer could consider investing in the club’s future instead, though we all know just how good football clubs are at long-term planning.

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