Season Tickets - Deal or No Deal?
In the 2003/4 season, the first in our superb new stadium, we played our games in front of virtually full houses, with just under 900,000 people watching our Premiership games. A few less people per game watched us in the following season but we still attracted over 45,000 per game.
This season, however, crowds have dropped away alarmingly and we now regularly see crowd figures well under 40,000, with an average to date of just less than 39,000. The practice of counting season ticket holders, whether they attend or not, masks even lower figures. So we often have ten thousand unsold seats and this impacts us in a number of ways. Lower ticket revenue is the most obvious, closely followed by lower revenues for ancillary sales of things like programmes, catering and merchandise. Then there is the intangible effect on the match-day atmosphere of having ten thousand less voices in the stadium.
There are a number of possibilities as to why crowds are dropping; quality of football, saturation TV coverage, inconvenient kick-off times, changes to kick-off times at short notice and last but not least, prices. The issue of prices has some into sharp focus this season, largely because of Manchester City fans’ unwillingness to pay ludicrous prices for tickets at Bolton, Wigan & Blackburn. This brought about a sea-change in two of those clubs’ attitude to pricing for subsequent games, with the desire to fill seats taking precedence over squeezing every last penny out of fans’ pockets.
In a normal business this would be a cause for serious concern but football is different because the largest part of a Premiership team’s income comes from people who watch on TV, via Sky. Next season the impact of TV money will be even greater with possibly another £15-20m coming into City’s coffers, via the new Sky deal. However half-empty stadiums are a poor advert for our game and Wigan chairman, David Whelan, has recognised this. He announced on Tuesday night that tickets for all games, regardless of the opposition, will be £15 next season. He has recognised two things. The first is that the increase in TV income will more than cushion the effect of lower ticket prices. The other is that people lost to the game may be lost for good and there is the distinct danger that football stadiums become glorified TV studios. This should guarantee a few thousand visiting Blues next season instead of less than fifteen hundred and will increase Wigan's total revenue. So a good commercial decision as well as some good PR.
Our club have said on many occasions that falling attendances are a football-wide problem but this simply isn’t correct. Many Premiership clubs are maintaining numbers pretty well but a few (us, Wigan and Blackburn among them) are not. This is particularly noticeable among season ticket holders, down about 25% from 2003/4 to this season. Next season could be even worse and as season ticket income is very important to the club’s cash flow this could be a significant problem.
Another issue is that season tickets have to be paid for in advance but give a small discount on paying on a game-by-game basis if you attend every home game. The advantage is that you are guaranteed a seat but people are now looking at the empty seats, even for the most attractive games (e.g. Arsenal) and thinking that it’s not worth paying up front when you can pick and choose games. We are on TV so often that you could save money by not renewing your season ticket. What’s the incentive for coming out on a wet cold Monday night to watch Watford, when you could watch in the comfort of your own home or go to the pub?
So with renewal time looming, what are City going to do? There are a number of possibilities:
1) An increase in prices. This would certainly be commercial suicide and would probably half the number of season tickets at best. The financial equivalent of two fingers to us fans.
2) Another price freeze. This will not help the situation and is surely indefensible with the huge rise in TV income due to come in. Season ticket renewals would probably drop to around 20,000 if they do this.
3) A fall in prices. If we followed the Wigan example then a season ticket would cost around £250. Of course this is a gamble but at least offers a tangible incentive to fans to renew and will be cushioned by the increase in TV revenue.
4) Some other incentives.
a. I remember that we used to get most Cup games with a season ticket in the 70’s. Why not give the first two rounds free to season ticket holders? We believe Arsenal offer a number of cup games free.
b. Offer interest free payments over 3, 4 or even 6 months. They operate direct debit for the Cup Tickets Direct scheme so presumably the infrastructure exists.
c. Ask people to pay something up front (e.g. £100) for the right to a period of exclusivity for purchasing reduced price match tickets on a game-by-game basis.
d. When we played Reading, they advertised tickets for games against Manchester United & Chelsea. However you could only buy these if you also bought one for their game against Sheffield United. So this would make paying on a game-by-game basis less attractive.
People are deserting our club and we may not get them back. If we don’t get them back then we don’t get their kids. The simple question for our board is this. Do they want to fill seats or not? If the genuine answer is yes then neither (1) or (2) is an option. So come on City, when you send out those renewal notices then give us an excuse to renew. Or get used to thousands of empty seats.
So will it be Deal or No Deal?