Friday 24 July ~
Football clubs have tried all sorts of schemes to boost attendances so they might consider borrowing an idea from a certain Unibond League club. In a bid to reverse consecutive annual financial losses and to help out cash-strapped supporters, FC United, the fan owned club formed in 2005 by disaffected Manchester United followers, have introduced a “Pay what you can afford” season ticket policy for 2009-10.
This summer FC supporters were invited to choose their price in the hope of the club raising upwards of £125,000, a figure that would help cover their substantial operating costs, including the £80,000 annual rent of Bury’s Gigg Lane ground, and cut recent worrying deficits. As the club acknowledge, they could not “continue to incur [the] losses” they had suffered over the past two years, nor could they continue to rely on additional donations from generous fans on top of £10 memberships and season tickets. For this season’s scheme a minimum price of £90 was set - approval had to be sought from the club to pay any less - with the club recommending people pay £140, the cost last year.
Happily, then, as the new season approached the target was all but reached – £110,000 by the end of last month, likely surpassed soon after. “Amazing... we've broken the £100,000 pledge barrier” exclaimed one of the club‘s many Twitter updates in July. The offer has allowed FC to remain faithful to their philosophy of “providing affordable football”, while crucially now being able to operate on a sounder financial footing, particularly as plans for a new stadium nearer the centre of Manchester progress. Overall it highlights two satisfactions of the supporter-owned model that governs the club.
First, how an innovative approach to an often sensitive issue has been provided by an elected, and therefore fan representative, board – making the game more accessible to supporters in the process. Scarborough Athletic, the club formed by fans two years ago following the demise of Scarborough FC, also have the same policy for their season tickets this year. Not surprising, according to Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct: “It’s no coincidence that supporter-owned clubs like FC United and Scarborough are pioneering the really innovative ideas. From the start both have been at the forefront of making football affordable. This is an idea, during difficult financial times, that’s innovative, radical and right.” Sadly, no club in the Football League has followed suit, though 19 games at Blackburn Rovers will cost from only £199 this year for adults.
Second, it represents a refreshing level of transparency in FC’s operations. In contrast to other clubs who reveal their season-ticket prices without any consultation with supporters, FC featured a season-ticket revenue barometer on their website providing interested parties with a frequently updated running total – the virtual equivalent to a rain-sodden wooden gauge hammered unevenly into a hospital lawn. Doubtless for some it added exciting drama to the close season.
There is a precedent for this approach. In 2007-08 Bradford City experimented with reduced season ticket prices, subscribing to the notion that cheaper seats - £138 per adult - would lead to increased sales and a fuller stadium. It worked: 8,694 average attendance in 2006-07 before the reduction, 13,735 after, even in a lower division. And last year Huddersfield Town sold adult tickets for as low as £100 as part of their centenary celebrations. Though some of course continue to increase their prices: Manchester United, for instance, will cost around £20 more in 2009-10. But nothing has been as bold as FC and AFC Scarborough’s offer.
Despite the ill feeling sometimes directed towards FC United – recently from Richard Scudamore, chairman of the Premier League who wrongly suggested that they were more expensive to watch than Bolton Wanderers – the club continue to demonstrate their value to the modern game in this country. Tom Whitworth