Politicians like to talk about the squeezed middle – a concept that focus groups tell them plays well to a hard-working and hard-pressed often middle class demographic who have done nothing wrong financially but find the costs of living creeping ever further up so, through no fault of their own, fall towards the poverty line.
It may make for a catchy soundbite at party conferences but said squeeze is also an apt description for a very real growing issue of financing for lower league football clubs, specifically from the exact middle messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband are pitching for votes from.
It would be easy to simply – and not entirely incorrectly – argue that the current economic climate means people are more selective and careful with their money and may be less inclined to spend money on watching football, meaning clubs will suffer. An easy hypothesis, yes, and one with some truth in it, but culturally and economically football is a complex and quite unusual business, albeit one that isn’t immune from outside influences.
In an age where football is awash with money like never before, the gap between rich and poor is increasing. The combined £3bn BT and Sky paid for the Premier League rights may be a new record, and a surprising one in this age of austerity, but little of it will trickle down to the lower leagues.
When this new deal kicks in from the 2013/14 season, the club that finishes bottom of the Premier League will earn £61m. A league below, according to analysis by the Swiss Ramble blog, the average Championship club will earn £5.5m over the same period. League One and Two clubs will earn a fraction of that still. Already the playing field isn’t anywhere near level, but massively tilted.
However, even back in an age of football with less money available, you have always had big clubs earning more than the smaller ones. And while perhaps mobility through the leagues is a little harder to achieve than before, the basic principles of the size of clubs hasn’t changed. Perhaps they could even survive the imbalance of wealth. What, though, could be fatal for lower league clubs is the inadvertent side effects from the rampant free market philosophy of the Premier League that has a knock-on effect onto smaller teams.
The free market kicks in for the lower leagues
In years gone by smaller clubs had much more of a captive audience. Sure, it helped that prices were cheaper, but there was also much less to compete with. Top flight clubs were always going to attract floating or younger, more impressionable fans – 25 years ago my primary school in Devon had a large number of Liverpool supporters in the class – but the smaller provincial teams were one of the few places to watch football live.
Dads may have supported Manchester United, 11-year-olds may have been in thrall to Liverpool, but if you lived in, say, Grimsby, Torquay, or Northampton, chances are you’d turn up to watch your local side, even if only on a casual basis. And even 11-year-old Liverpool fans can get seduced by the sheer joy of standing on the terrace at Lincoln to the point of getting a season ticket and still attending the odd away game, even when they grow up and leave the city.
Today, an 11-year-old in thrall to Liverpool, Manchesters United and City, or whoever, or the Arsenal supporting dad with a football mad child have a lot more choice on where they watch their football. Sky TV is common in many homes and pubs (many of which are more child friendly). The internet means it’s easy to find a stream of many top-flight games.
But it’s not just television and the internet that’s a threat to lower league football. As football has become entertainment, it’s never been easier to treat football tickets like you would gig tickets. You might not be a massive fan, but if the price is right, you’ll go.
The price is right? Lower leagues compared to the competition
As the BBC have indicated in their Price of Football survey of last week, there are bargains to be had out there, if you know where to look. The Premier League may be, for the most part, ridiculously expensive, but there are decent deals on (cheaper) tickets available, especially with lower profile games.
At the other end of the scale, non-league offers much of the matchday experience of the lower leagues, in cosier surroundings without so much of the cost. And then there are other alternatives, such as the Next Gen series – a chance to see future world class footballers for a fiver (or cheaper for kids). At last season’s semi-final between Internazionale and Marseille at Griffin Park, about 60% of the crowd, if not more, were aged 16 or under.
Let’s put some comparison here. Last season I saw Fulham play three times – twice in European competition for £5 and once versus Chelsea in the Carling Cup at Stamford Bridge for £25. I also had the opportunity to watch a Premier League game at Craven Cottage for £10, which I had to pass on due to a prior commitment. In total I spent £35 watching a team I don’t support, with the option of an extra £10.
In the same season, I also watched Exeter away three times, at Stevenage, Charlton and Brentford. The combined cost was £64. Had I decided to make the trip to Leyton Orient, it would have been bumped up to £87. That’s nearly double the amount for watching a top flight team the same number of times, and without factoring in train travel to Stevenage.
Fine, fans and clubs alike may say. This is just one person’s experience. These are the odd away fixture – many fans will have season tickets and not need a ticket from game to game. That much is correct and season tickets still remain, match for match, the cheapest way to watch live football over the course of a season.
But basic economics, as backed up in Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Why England Lose, would suggest that each year a number of fans don’t renew their season tickets for a variety of reasons – family commitments, a change in personal circumstances, moving away from the area or even death, for example. The key is for clubs to ensure that the number of new fans who purchase a season ticket are greater or more than the number who don’t renew.
And it’s here that we return to the impressionable young football fans and their financially cash-strapped dads mentioned earlier in this article. We can, if we may, throw into the mix the floating or geographically displaced fan looking for a football fix because of the impracticalities of watching his or her own team. These are prime candidates to become new season ticket holders. Yet everybody’s got to start somewhere, and you’ll often hear tales of fans who’ve adopted the club because they needed a football fix, so took in a game at their local lower league club and got hooked.
But when prices start, generally, at around £20 – and this doesn’t include extra expenses such as travel, tea, a pint, and a Twix for the kid – sampling lower league football doesn’t come cheap. Taking into account other competition – non-league, Sky, other entertainment – the price starts to look worryingly high. £21 for Orient (if purchased in advance and £23 otherwise), £21 on the day for both Oxford and Wycombe, £20 to sit at fourth-tier Rochdale, and at Sheffield United (as in other clubs) a bewildering array of categorisation, with discounts for advance purchase, even if category C games are cheap at £10.
Getting creative with the ticket issue
The clubs themselves are caught in a difficult situation. Many will be aware of the need to get extra numbers through the gates. The average League One attendance is currently down by over 2,000 this season. League Two is also down after several seasons of steady rises. The situation doesn’t seem likely to improve in the future – a recent survey saw more than half of Championship clubs predict matchday ticket sales to drop this season.
Increasingly, clubs are being forced into gimmicks, some more successful than others. Charlton Athletic now host at least one “football for a fiver” game every season, where entry is just £5 all around the Valley in the hope of enticing interested locals back to the park on a regular basis. The latest designated game, at home to Barnsley last Saturday, saw a staggering 10,600 extra fans turn up on top of the 15,585 who’d witnessed the Addicks’ previous home game against Watford.
Barnsley themselves, to celebrate their 125th anniversary, lowered their prices to £12.50 for their match against Blackpool earlier this season; 14,134 took up the offer, 3,871 above their season average of 10,263 thus far. Clubs are allowed to run a certain number of one-off ticket offers such as the above during the season and many teams now offer at least one similar gate price discount during the season.
One of the most eye-catching offers in recent years has been at Hartlepool United. Last season the Pools promised £100 season tickets if 4,000 signed up by mid-July. That figure was easily surpassed, meaning fans who took advantage of this offer ended up watching a season at Victoria Park for £4.34 per game.
What was impressive about Hartlepool’s scheme was that it appealed to both the casual fan and the Victoria Park faithful. Season tickets are the cheapest way to watch a team, but they’re equally a big commitment, but, with one-off tickets costing £20, a £100 season ticket was affordable. What’s more Pools increased their crowds and some of those will have stuck with the club this season.
But not every club will want to or can afford to go down the Hartlepool route of lowering season ticket prices. Some will have a set budget for the year while others aren’t prepared to run the risk of punters not taking up the offers.
Nonetheless, there is a significant amount of empty seats in the lower leagues that would provide much-needed income. This is not the likes of Arsenal or Chelsea, where a continual demand for tickets means these Champions League regulars can charge a vastly inflated price, safe in the knowledge that if one fan baulks at the price another will happily snap up the spare ticket.
Do clubs, then, lower their matchday tickets in the hope of attracting floating supporters on a more regular basis? Or do they sell themselves as sleeping giants or a promotion prospect, champagne corks popping and all, while keeping ticket prices high in the hope that success on the pitch will correspond to higher crowds – something that is by no means guaranteed. Either way requires a well-thought out marketing campaign, and marketing isn’t something that many League One and Two clubs are renowned for.
Perhaps gimmicks and one-off cheap ticket offers will lure in a new generation of fan. Perhaps the Sheffield United tactic of drastically dropping the prices for the least appealing games, on paper, is the best way of getting curious locals through the gate.
There are potential solutions, although not all are feasible or applicable to each club. Middlesbrough blogger Anthony Vickers recently made several suggestions for his own club, many of them common in other businesses or retail, and not overly radical but hardly widespread throughout lower league football.
Buy One Get One Free for games encourages those who buy tickets to attend less attractive fixtures, with the thinking being some matchday revenue is better than none. Similarly, loss leaders are a less extreme way of enticing irregular fans to return for less enticing fixtures – watch Bradford one Saturday for full price and watch Dagenham at the next home game for a tenner.
Other suggestions include semi-season tickets whereby fans sign up for ten games or so at the start of the season to be used when chosen, subject to availability. This would enable fans to commit to the club without having to shell out for a full ticket.
Perhaps, though, the most important offer a club could make would be towards those who could be funding them in years to come. Some years back Exeter City ran a “Kid for a quid” scheme, long since discontinued, where young children could enter for a pound. To financially-harassed parents, this suddenly makes the football a lot more attractive option compared with, say, the cinema.
Whatever the method, operating in a marketplace with increased competition from the Premier League, Sky, the internet, non-league and non-football entertainment, lower league teams have to stand out from the crowd and offer value for money. At the moment, with a few exceptions, it’s not clear that they’re doing either.
Without a new generation enticed into or even able to afford the likes of Griffin Park, Brisbane Road, Vale Park, the Kassam Stadium and Spotland, to name but a few, lower league clubs will have to adjust, cut budgets, and in worse-case scenarios struggle to continue their existence, or at least an existence they’ve become accustomed to.
And it would be a crying shame that if, in 20 years time, the children after the next generation won’t even have the choice of cheering on their local team over the glamour of top-flight successes, all because their parents were priced out of attending in the hope of achieving a quick promotion.