But long-term advantages still unclear
27 March ~ Sutton United's Conference South encounter with Basingstoke Town on March 15 would not have appeared to be their most glamorous match of the season. Last year the same fixture attracted just 402 spectators, so even with the sun out and a Sutton side chasing Eastleigh and Bromley for the league title, the attendance of 2,172 seems hard to explain. This number – likely to be the club's highest league gate of the season – is a product of clubs' willingness to abandon their traditional pricing, for at least one game.
This has involved either allowing fans in for free or, more recently, as with Sutton, inviting their fans to "pay-what-you-want". Supporters arriving at Sutton's Gander Green Lane for the Basingstoke game were free to donate any amount of their choice – even if that was nothing.
Some League clubs such as Brentford and Morecambe have also boosted crowds with pay-what-you-want and free entry respectively, but non-League clubs have been the most enthusiastic adopters. Indeed it was while they were a Conference club in 2010 that Mansfield Town pioneered pay what you want for their game against Gateshead. While the home team lost 2-0, the positive effect was immediately clear in the stands with over 7,000 turning up, more than double the average gate.
This season several non-League clubs have joined Sutton in running similar one-off optional payment promotions, with Farnborough and Eastleigh both granting free entry. In recent years non-League clubs have had to face the challenge of attracting spectators during a recession. This has sometimes involved trying to expand links with their local communities by bringing new people to the ground. In 2013-14, fixture congestion caused by the prolonged spell of poor weather has added pressures.
Importantly, most non League clubs have a large amount of underused capacity. Unlike Premier League clubs, who enjoyed a record year in 2012-13 with a capacity utilisation rate of 95 per cent giving them little incentive, or even scope, for one-off crowd-boosting initiatives – some non-League clubs will be using as little as around ten per cent of their available space on a regular basis.
Another attraction for clubs is the cost of such an initiative can be comparatively low. Even the loss from allowing free entry can be offset by an increase in sales of food and drink, but with pay-what-you-want clubs can recoup a fair amount as some fans opt to pay much more than the usual ticket price. At Sutton the £2,577 thrown into buckets by fans compared favourably, a club spokesman said, with an average gate receipt.
Last season fans of Gloucester City proved even more generous. Facing a financial crisis, the club took the risk of running a pay-what-you-want promotion for their Conference North game against Colwyn Bay; it paid off as they received around £5,000 in donations from a crowd of 602. Their previous home game had seen a crowd of 142 and takings of just £700.
However, there has been much less evidence of such moves having any major impact on attendances over even the short term – Sutton's subsequent home match against Gosport Borough drew just 433. Whether pay-what-you-want will become an integral part of non-League football, or if an improving economy and diminishing novelty value may well mean that such promotions have reached their peak, is an open question. But anything which gets 2,172 people watching a game of football at the sixth level of the league system has to be worth doing. Neil Cotton