Seasonal badwill

Fans going to the Boleyn Ground this season will have to dig even deeper for tickets, reports Darron Kirkby

There it was, lying on the mat next to the application form for an American Express card and the letter about how to become a millionaire by stuffing envelopes – the annual missive from the West Ham United ticket office telling us how much we would have to pay next season.Skimming past the platitudes about how much our support meant to the club, I came to the prices. Fortunately I was sitting down. My ticket had gone up from £370 to £520, a slightly out-of-line-with-inflation in-crease of 41 per cent.

Although the increases in other areas of the ground were a more modest 30 per cent, it was soon evident that we’d not even been given a period to renew our tickets at a discounted price, as has been the case in previous seasons. No, we’ve got until May 22nd or our ticket will be allocated to somebody else. Not that spectacular price hikes are new to Hammers fans. The cost of my season ticket in the Lower East Stand – previously the East Terrace – has risen from £70 in 1986-87 to £520 for 1998-99.

And what improvements have been made over that period? Well, the toilets have had an annual lick of paint, but the catering facilities still treat vegetarians and people who prefer diet drinks as freaks. If it was a cinema or restaurant we’d have all gone elsewhere a  long time ago. But that’s not really an option here and don’t the board know it.

To put things into perspective, a season ticket in the Clock End at Highbury cost £290 and included seven cup ties. A comparable seat  in the lower tier of West Ham’s Bobby Moore Stand was the same price, but included only two Coca-Cola Cup matches. For 1998-99 the seat at West Ham has gone up to £370 and although Arsenal have yet to announce next season’s prices, a club spokesman said that they usually increase in line with inflation.

Director of football/chief executive Peter Storrie has justified the price increase by saying that the wage bill will have gone up by almost £3 million (from £8.1 million to £11 million) by the beginning of next season and that the increases are necessary if we want a successful Premiership side. We’d probably swallow it if we were attracting players such as Laudrup, Bergkamp or Ginola to Upton Park. But we’re talking about a club where  Stan Lazaridis is a regular.

At least the timing of the letter has shown that the club has learned from its mistakes. The last occasion it tried to take advantage of our loyalty – the ill-fated Hammers Bond Scheme of October 1991 – the result was pitch in-vasions and calls for the board to resign. Hence the letter being sent out only two days before the penultimate home game of the season.

But such price increases couldn’t go unchallenged and flysheets were handed out at the following Saturday’s game – ironically our biggest home defeat of the season – asking why the fans should be expected to make up the money lost through the club’s inability to se-cure a sponsor. It is this lack of commercial acumen which particularly grates. Storrie keeps insisting that a huge sponsorship deal has already been signed but, bearing in mind that our previous sponsors have been Avco Trust, BAC Windows and Dagenham Motors, we await his definition of huge with bated breath.

It would have to be a lucrative deal to make up for the revenue lost over the previous 12 months. The new home shirt wasn’t available until October, thereby costing the club thousands over the summer when shirt sales are at their highest. The problems are exacerbated by the fact that with a capacity of 25,985 the Boleyn Ground is one of the smallest in the Premiership, further reducing our potential revenue. Despite our average attendance being within a few hundred of our capacity – and that almost entirely due to away teams not selling their full allocation – the club has decided to put back the redevelopment of the main stand, which was due to start at the end of this season. And who is being asked to foot the bill? If, as Storrie has suggested, prices are determined by success, West Ham fans would have collected a healthy rebate over the years.

The only club in the country with more expensive ticket prices than West Ham is Chelsea. But whilst Chelsea have launched a £10 million double swoop for Pierluigi Casiraghi and Dino Baggio, West Ham have announced that they have already signed two players under the Bosman ruling. The Chelsea megastore sells Vespa scooters, whilst the West Ham Portakabin does a nice little line in Hammers suspender belts. The problem of the game’s traditional fan base being excluded from attending matches by ever-increasing prices is one being experienced all over the country. But asking fans from Plaistow, Canning Town and Custom House to put aside £10 every week of the year just to afford their seat at the Boleyn Ground is taking things a little too far.

From WSC 136 June 1998. What was happening this month