Wednesday 29 October 2014

The price isn't right

THE cost of football is a hot topic at the moment, with social media full of people telling us they can get a season ticket at Borussia Dortmund cheaper than a cup of tea at Boston United.
Or something like that.
The bottom line is that football in this country is too expensive, across the board.
Premier League clubs will tell us they are justified in charging the prices they do as people are paying it - many of them have waiting lists for season tickets running into the thousands, so maybe they don't charge enough - but as long as people are prepared to pay the prices, the clubs will continue to charge them.
So high prices are not exclusive to Cheltenham Town, but every empty seat or space on the terraces at ours and other lower division grounds show that football at our level is too expensive.
But it is a vicious circle. Clubs at our level rely much more on ticket money for their very existence than the Premier League bigwigs - who could probably let everyone in free every week and still make a huge profit.
That reliance on gate money is why, more often than not, the eventual league table mirrors the average number of people coming through the turnstiles every other week.
Gate money is cash flow, gate money determines the quality of players the manager can go and get, the size of the squad he has at his disposal, and it pays the bills.
Hence why clubs like ours put so much stock on the sale of season tickets every summer, and look to reward those loyal fans who dig into their pockets every June or July for another year of hope.
Over the years, they haven't done too badly compared to some clubs, with Cup runs ending in games with Premier League sides and play-off finals.
Last season was a barren one for home regulars with few victories and several insipid performances, but this year has, so far, been an improvement.
These regulars are the lifeblood of clubs like ours. They are a big part of why we survive every year, and how we have managed to sustain the miracle of League football at Whaddon for the past 15 years as others, bigger clubs than us, have fallen through the trap door.
And it is those regulars who are, therefore, I think fully entitled to be miffed at the prices for next weekend's FA Cup tie with Swindon Town.
The game is not covered by the £250-£400 they shelled out at the start of the season, so they have to make the decision whether they go or not - and the price rise also dissuades any floating fans thinking of a day out.
The club introduced so-called 'premium games' a few seasons ago to maximise revenue from those fixtures where clubs will bring bigger away followings - Plymouth, Torquay, Exeter, Oxford, the Bristol clubs, Newport, Hereford, Northampton and Portsmouth are the usual suspects.
In usual circumstances, the club's reasoning (rightly I think) is that these games should not affect home fans too much as the vast majority of those who will come will be season ticket holders, so won't incur that cost.
But this time they will.
The Northampton game two weeks ago was a premium game, and the home share of the gate was below 2,000 - but there was also a clash with the races so it is difficult to say that the premium status was totally to blame for that.
I understand that the FA Cup represents unbudgeted revenue for the club - a bonus source of cash. I also get that any gate money is shared (I think) 45-45-10 between the two clubs and the FA, so that also affects any money the club will make. We are also not the favourites, so we can't be sure that the £18,000 prize money will come our way.
The chairman said last week that there is no money in the pot for any potential team strengthening in January, and that the FA Cup is therefore vital. We saw what happens when Cup cash doesn't materialise all too clearly after the Tamworth defeat last year - it resulted in Russ Penn's sale to York.
Add to that the fact that both sides have to agree - so Swindon fans also unhappy at the prices should maybe ask their club why they agreed to it ... bearing in mind they charge more for home games at the County Ground.
I feel that to have put the prices up sends out the message that making a profit comes above respecting and rewarding the loyalty of supporters who dig into their pockets every summer, and many of whom also dig deep to travel the country supporting the club.
It is ironic also that these prices were announced a day or so after Mansfield revealed their offer of tickets for £7 when we go up there in December, if they are bought in advance.
So what should the club have done? Cutting the prices would not automatically fill the ground - I remember a game against Southend a few years ago which had to be played again after the floodlights failed... we cut the prices in half and got our lowest crowd of the season.
But look what happened against Bristol City in the JPT - £12 for a ticket, and on live TV, yet the crowd on a Wednesday night was 3,599, almost unheard of for a tie in that competition. Yes there was the Cotterill factor, but the size of the crowd surprised me.
Personally, I think £15 to stand and £20 to sit would have reasonable. I don't feel that to cut the prices to the JPT levels would have been right, and at £15/£20 I think we would have got 4-4,500 people in the ground.
I worry that the pricing structure for this tie will put people off and that we might struggle to get 3,000 in the ground - even if Swindon bring 1,000 with them (and I feel that may be doubtful due to the pricing).
I know that I will be waiting eagerly for the attendance figure that day.
Then there is the question of what happens if we win, and get through to round three and pull out a plum tie against, for example, Villa at home. What happens to the pricing then? Having set this precedent with the first round tie, where does the club go with prices for a big third round tie?
Of course, the difference is that I suspect people would not baulk at paying a higher price than usual to see Villa or another Premier League club here - but I don't blame them for being unhappy at paying it for a first round game against Swindon Town.
Of course I hope they still come on down - but this time I feel the price isn't right.

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