29 April ~ Football’s inflation-busting price rises have become as inevitable as death and taxes in recent years. But one club is bucking the trend – by offering free football. Walsall FC launched a new initiative in March to encourage young supporters to cheer on their local team. Season tickets for under-18s will cost an initial £46, with fans given £2 cashback at each of the 23 league games next season, effectively meaning it will not cost a penny to watch the team play.
The move could be interpreted as a desperate attempt to avoid slipping into the abyss. Walsall’s attendances have appeared to be in perpetual decline in recent times and now regularly dip under the 4,000 mark. It is a problem exacerbated by the fact that all four of the club’s nearest rivals have been playing in the top flight of English football this season. In such circumstances, the fight is on to win the hearts and minds of the people of Walsall.
Steven Parry, Walsall FC's marketing and communications officer, said: “The idea is to encourage that next generation of fans. We conducted a survey recently and realised young people were not coming to watch the club – but if you are from Walsall it should be in your blood. The hope is that parents will bring their children and we can get the club back at the heart of the community. It’s a big challenge but we do have a niche market – ‘real football at affordable prices’ – as lots of families simply cannot afford to go to Premier League games.”
The venture is already proving something of a success. Despite the club currently facing League One a relegation battle, junior season ticket sales have more than doubled for the 2011-12 season. The club has also announced an increase in adult season ticket sales, so there will be no loss of revenue despite the introduction of the free season tickets. The enterprise could lead to other struggling clubs taking drastic action to preserve their fanbase. But Parry admitted, at present, Walsall stand alone. He added: “Surprisingly, not many clubs have been in touch with us about the move. But, with the great response we’ve had, we will be bringing it up at the next ‘best practice’ meeting of the league.”
This lack of interest from other clubs has certainly piqued the curiosity of one interested party, the Football Supporters’ Federation. The organisation has long campaigned for fairer pricing at football matches and believes this is just the first step in the right direction for football in the UK. Michael Brunskill, the director of communications at the FSF, said: “The game is in danger of pricing out the younger fan, and at a time when it's so easy to watch games online or on television, clubs really do need to think carefully about this. There have been some innovative schemes of late but these are isolated deals and there's been no coherent acknowledgement across the game that something needs to be done.”
Walsall’s move may be a solo attempt by a struggling club to claw back its support. But perhaps we should instead view this as an indication football clubs are realising that the time when they could take fans of the future for granted has passed. Adam Bate