Friday 6 February ~
A Scottish campaign to give free match tickets to children is gaining ground in England but getting only a lukewarm reaction from the upper echelons of the game. Partick Thistle and Inverness Caledonian Thistle have led the way by giving free seats to youngsters while a number of other SFL teams are charging only nominal amounts. A Football League scheme has encouraged over 30 clubs to give away season and matchday tickets with others heavily discounting admission. However, the big Glasgow teams and the English Premier League, where there is (for the moment) relatively little spare capacity, seem less interested in taking part.
At Firhill, all under-16s, whether home or away supporters, are allowed in free. The club is getting three times as many children through the gate than in previous seasons and, with paying adult numbers increasing, they already see the venture paying off. “Coming to football is a habit,” says Thistle chairman Allan Cowan. “Many people came with their dad when they were small and they've continued ever since. We want to get kids back into that habit.”
Caley Thistle allow adult season-ticket holders to take under-eights free to all games, excluding the Old Firm. Chief executive Mike Smith commented: “Bringing more children to our games gives a launch pad for our future fan base. We are a community club and want more young families to experience games. Expense shouldn't be a deterrent to children watching Caley Thistle and the PL.”
Frank McAveety MSP, Labour’s spokesman on sport in the Scottish Parliament, reckons there are 60,000 empty seats at SPL stadiums every fortnight and is encouraging clubs to consider free admission to school-age spectators. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has also given the idea a tentative thumbs-up. A spokesman said: “We welcome any initiative which gets young people watching – and participating in – sport. But it’s up to clubs and sports’ governing bodies to decide if they want to get behind such an initiative.”
The English reaction has differed between the top division and the lower tiers. John Nagle, head of Football League communications, claims that their Fans of the Future initiative is “helping young people develop a passion for live football, with many benefiting from free or heavily discounted tickets. We also believe this strategy needs more than just giving away tickets. The League and its clubs are engaged in a concerted effort to improve the family experience at our games. This has resulted in a 12 per cent increase in the numbers of people watching matches in family areas.”
Despite empty seats at several top league grounds this season and even Old Trafford not full every week, the Premier League are reticent to join in. “Ticket prices are a matter for clubs themselves,” said a spokesman. “All offer concessions to children attending Barclays Premier League fixtures. Strong attendances this season, with grounds currently over 91 per cent full on average, have not stopped Premier League clubs from offering very affordable deals.” Recent research shows the average supporter age is rising with many young people put off by escalating costs. A sport hardly renowned for its long-term vision could lose a whole generation of fans unless it accepts that radical steps such as these are necessary. Bruce Wilkinson