Declining attendances but still little movement on ticket prices. Bruce Wilkinson discovers why

When the then minister for culture, media and sport negotiated with the EU in 2005-06 to save the Premier League’s right to retain collective TV bargaining, there was supposed to be a payback. Richard Caborn believed that part of the money the clubs would get from the next huge TV deal would be used to reduce ticket prices. A couple of football seasons and sports ministers down the line and we are yet to see much evidence of the Premier League members fulfilling their part of the bargain.

Meanwhile, despite being part of “the greatest league in the world”, a number of clubs have struggled with declining attendances. Middlesbrough, Wigan, Bolton and Blackburn have all failed to attract large crowds other than for big matches. It is no coincidence that these teams are in the parts of northern England still struggling to overcome the decline of traditional industry, with parts of Lancashire having some of the lowest average incomes in the country.

This season, in an attempt to lure back fans scared away by mounting costs, the four have lowered ticket prices by up to 50 per cent. The north-western clubs have brought their average season-ticket price down to around the £300-£350 mark, while Middlesbrough’s have been reduced to about £400. This compares favourably with the cost of going to see many Championship teams (where the average is around £450) and is even competitive with some League One sides – Brighton & Hove Albion followers pay around £500.

Prices for young people (up to the age of 21) have also been significantly dropped, with some children’s season tickets as low as £40 and a variety of reductions on matchday ticket prices, down to between £20 and £30. Knockout competition admission has been reduced even more dramatically, to as little as £5 for some European games and £15 for League Cup and FA Cup matches.

Of the four to reduce prices, Blackburn Rovers have benefited the most with 2007‑08 average attendances up by around 2,000 on last season (more than 3,000 on a game-by-game comparison). Over the same period Wigan’s attendances showed a slight increase, up by 1.8 per cent, with derbies against Bolton and Man Utd still to come. Middlesbrough’s attendances were down by a thousand and crowds at Bolton have fallen by nearly four thousand on 2006-07 – but Boro’s crowds have fallen for four seasons in a row and this season is the first time in five years that Bolton have been involved in a relegation scrap.

Blackburn’s “We Believe” campaign seems to have been a great success, with ­season‑ticket sales increasing by 19 per cent on last year and an average 600 more matchday ticket attendees per game. Rovers have managed to bring back fans who haven’t had a season ticket for up to eight seasons and, if you taken into account the usual “churn”, they actually have 3,500 new members.

Although Blackburn had originally set aside £1 million of TV money to invest in the scheme, the increased gate revenue has meant that they have had to use only £300,000. This is a tiny amount of money when put into the context of the transfer fees and wages for most top-level footballers. Taking into account the added matchday revenue that the extra numbers bring in through food and drink sales, combined with the advantage a better atmosphere gives to the team, and it’s fairly easy to see that the exercise has been of real benefit to the Rovers.

These four clubs were prepared to gamble with taking a financial hit in order to try to bring back deserting supporters. With many stadiums full or close to full most weeks, there appears to be little motivation for most of the others even to consider reducing prices. In fact, most leading clubs are still using the demand for tickets to justify ever-rising prices, while a new breed of carpet-bagging owners are looking at gate receipts as a way of maximising the return on their investment.

The government does not have the political will to act on the fans’ behalf, while the football authorities are currently far too weak to act on the issue. Pricing needs to be considered with reference to what is best for the long-term future of the game, but this would take strong leadership, something English football has been lacking for many years now.

From WSC 254 April 2008

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