In the wake of Doncaster Rovers’ ‘Good Freeday’ promotion Viva Rovers felt compelled to write a short piece on ticketing… the result was the following not so short essay…
We live in ‘tough economic times’. We know this because it has been regularly imparted upon us by news reporters standing outside what used to be a Woolworths, before they move on to statistics delivered over monochrome stills of the local Job Centre’s façade. So in these ‘tough economic times’ you would presume that everyone would be grateful and delighted by a freebie, that we’d all welcome owt for nowt. Apparently not.
Last Monday Doncaster Rovers took the surprising decision to make entry to Good Friday’s ‘must-not-lose’ relegation game with Crystal Palace free. “[We] don’t want your money, we just want your support in a bid to ensure that the team of Doncaster are playing second-tier football next season,” proclaimed Chairman John Ryan in the Doncaster Star. My reaction to the announcement was three-fold; first check whether the official club website had actually been hacked. Secondly grin and delight in the fantastic absurdity of it. Thirdly, wonder whether it would not have been wiser to take both their support and their money (say just a pound or a five) rather than just the latter. That said I ultimately saw this as a great and bold gesture and one which would bring some good publicity for the club. Everyone’s a winner. Alas not everyone saw it so.
On the messageboards and forums (admittedly as logical a place to head for reasoned comment as a Daily Mail editorial) dissent and complaints were rising, chiefly from season ticket holders. The consensus amongst many of this group (though admittedly not all) was that it was an ‘insult’ to season ticket holders; that they were getting nothing out of the deal and were being taken for granted. “Yet again the club has shat upon season ticket holders,” was one such complaint and it led to many similar posts in support, but what these arguments possessed in furious typing they lacked in actual supporting evidence. Had this offer really ‘shat upon season ticket holders’? The maths would suggest otherwise.
The maximum cost of an adult Category A Rovers season ticket (i.e. one purchased without taking advantage of renewal or early bird offers) is £500. This works out as £21.74 per league game, a fair saving on the £25 or £28 a Category A seat costs you on a match by match basis. If you take each home game as being priced at £25 then season ticket holders get to watch three ‘free’ home games a season. Although I am not certain which categories were assigned to respective matches this season I would consider it a fair estimate that, when you account for the fixtures priced at £28, season ticket holders are in effect receiving four games ‘free’, and a fifth at a bit of a discount.
The club has offered five fixtures this season at a promotional rate. The autumn matches against Swansea and Millwall were priced at £10 and £15 respectively whilst the matches with Reading (£15), Leicester (£15) and Crystal Palace (free) were also cheaper for home fans in alignment with Football League Rule 32.1.11 a subject on which I’ll return later in this article. Whichever way you care to spin it, season ticket holders will still have paid less than anyone else who has attended all home games.
The question this then raises is what should a season ticket really entitle you to? Your loyalty in purchasing one is already rewarded with a discount as shown above, plus a discount in the club shop too, and owning one guarantees you your seat and puts you first in line for tickets for both cup games and fixtures games. And yet the demand for more in return for this investment remains amongst some season ticket holders and reflects an increasing trend in modern football in which supporters expect to be treated as consumers rather than fans. Of course there are areas in which this is true, and the vast improvements in the stadia in which we watch the game are a positive reflection of that. The number of people willing to stand ankle deep in urine and watch a match through a mesh fence was unlikely to increase, and so clubs sought to adapt… albeit with a significant nudge from the Taylor Report.
However, there appears to be an increased expectation amongst fans for everything to be tailored and improved to the benefit of the individual. On Rovers messageboards of late posts of appeared which label the team’s playing style as ‘boring’, with supporters claiming the matches aren’t ‘exciting’ or ‘entertaining’ enough for them. Others suggest that 20th place in the Championship is “not good enough” or even (God help us) “shows a lack of ambition” for a team which has only finished higher than this fourteen times in 132 years. Leaving aside the quandary as to quite how you can orchestrate a successful season of high-scoring heart-in-mouth matches (without employing Ossie Ardilles), as fans rather than investors, surely we can stomach a little fluctuation in the performance of the product.
However, whilst the maths show season tickets still represent suitable enough value against individual matchday tickets, this does not excuse or endorse the pricing of either which remains far too high. The cost of attending football has increased dramatically over the last ten to fifteen years and it’s a rise which has been felt more significantly by Rovers supporters owing to the club’s simultaneous progress up the pyramid. A decade ago we were paying conference prices to watch our team play home and away. For those that have been there throughout this rise the cost of entrance to a league match has, at the very least, doubled in a period in which it’s unlikely the average supporter’s disposable income has seen a similar ascent.
Can any Championship club truly justify charging over £20 for what is a second tier league; not the crème-de-la-crème, but the 500 next best footballers currently plying their trade in this country? You can go to the cinema and see the very best film actors the planet has to offer for less than £10. Similarly you could visit a gallery and see the works of the grand masters for less, for free if they’re on permanent display. In comparison £31 for a Tuesday night at Pride Park or Portman Road is simply ludicrous. If you’re Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal it doesn’t matter so much if you price out a section of your support as there are enough moneyed idiots in this country to take their place, for second tier sides it should be much more prevalent a concern.
The argument is of course that the clubs have to charge what they do in order to compete with their peers and remain at the level they are at. An argument most fans, myself included, will grudgingly accept from their club. The problem here is that unlike the true consumer led markets, where businesses attempting to undercut their rivals helps keep prices down, football clubs do not have to worry about competitors. When I do my food shopping I’ll nip to Tesco when I know their product is cheaper than the Co-op, but I’m not about to go and watch my football at Bramall Lane when I deem Rovers too costly. And whilst there is nothing happening to reign football prices back into reality they continue to edge upwards year on year.
It’s easy to speculate that if the prices are lower more supporters will come through the turnstiles, but at Doncaster we have actually witnessed the proof. The two promoted discounted matches against Millwall and Swansea in the autumn were considerably better attended than comparative matches in previous seasons. To the same end it is worth noting the disappointing attendance for the televised match against Sheffield United. A local derby that would normally be one of the better attended matches of the season (13,026 last season, 14,242 the season before that) brought a crowd of less than 9,000 as folk took the opportunity to save their pennies and watch from home. I don’t blame people for taking this option… I did so myself.
At the start of last season the areas behind the goals at the Keepmoat Stadium were reclassified as Category A seating in an effort to maximise revenue from visiting teams. A solid move to bring in more money without harming our own fans was presumably the thought process, but it was failed logic. As the price of watching football has become more expensive supporters are more inclined to pick and choose the matches they attend and will inevitably go for the more attractive ties. Of the prospective opponents in the Championship, the match at the foot of supporters’ ‘must-see’ list is an away game against ‘the likes of Doncaster’, and we would be kidding ourselves to think otherwise.
Such categorization of seats in a bowl stadium like ours is something which has long perplexed me. In a uniform single tiered ground the quality of the view differs little as you move around the stadium, however the ‘matchday experience’ changes much more significantly when you move from front to back. The bloke eight seats to my right at the Keepmoat has paid the cheaper Category B price to enjoy much the same view as me. The person sat twenty rows in front however has paid the higher Category A price for the chance of getting piss wet through and the inability to see anything beyond halfway on the near-side of the field on account of Phil Brown bobbing around the technical area like Wall Street trader.
In addition to categories of seats there are now categories of matches too. Depending on where you choose to sit and who Rovers are playing there are seven possible prices an adult could pay at the Keepmoat Stadium, and that’s without including the occasional special offer such as those for the Swansea and Palace games. One reason why attendances often increased dramatically for big games at Belle Vue was that match attendance was simple. You turned up, you paid x to the man in the turnstile to stand on the Terrace, or y to sit in the Main Stand and you were in the ground. Any notion of a third option involved attempting to scale the fence at the back of the Pop Side. What has put many off attending games at the Keepmoat Stadium is the perceived hassle of it all. Some of this is an exaggerated portrayal based on experiences at the stadium’s first few games when queues at the ticket office were common as staff became familiar with the systems – a factor which has since been addressed and reduced – but the argument that the price of watching football at the Keepmoat is neither consistent nor clear enough to encourage the floating fan is a valid one.
Which brings us back to the issue of individual match promotions. Football League Rule 31.2.11 states; “Discounts or special promotions (in each case for one match only) made available to supporters of the Home Club must also be made available on a similar basis to visiting supporters provided always that each Club shall be permitted to designate four (4) matches per season as ‘local promotion’ Matches where this regulation shall be deemed not to apply.” Put in clearer terms, clubs are allowed to give their own fans a discount up to four times a season without providing a similar offer to visiting supporters.
As mentioned already within this article discounted match promotions have worked well for Rovers this season, the matches against Swansea (£10 tickets) and Millwall (£15 tickets) ensured five figure crowds at a time of year (the run up to Christmas) when Rovers attendances notoriously dip. What was equally welcome and pleasing about these promotions is that they were offered to, and duly taken up by, the visiting fans as well ensuring a fuller away end than we could have expected to see at the two fixtures.
In December though Rovers travelled to the Walkers Stadium where home fans were being encouraged to take advantage of £10 tickets for what Leicester City’s website proudly proclaimed a “club-initiated supporter-focused match”. That focus was not to be extended to supporters outside the LE postal district however as Doncaster fans attending the same game paid £16 more for their seat. Charging away fans more is surely counter-productive for the club – giving them a poor reputation and discouraging away fans from attending – not to mention morally wrong. Indeed the Football Supporters’ Federation has said they “cannot understand why clubs would treat what are in effect their guests for the day in this way”.
Sadly, and almost inevitably, Leicester’s decision to maintain away prices at the usual cost whilst discounting home tickets has led to an eye-for-an-eye approach to the return game from Rovers. Disappointingly whilst Doncaster fans have the option to pay £15 for their final home game of the season, Leicester supporters will be watching the same match at a cost of £28. The attitude of most Rovers fans is likely to be ‘serves them right’ rather than an acknowledgement of the wide-scale implications of this; namely that should Doncaster avoid relegation then as one of the division’s least fashionable clubs it is our away games at which most clubs are likely to use the finer points of rule 31.2.11 to get the fans in.
Within this lengthy critique I am happy to pause for a moment to acknowledge a couple of encouraging and enterprising ticketing initiatives orchestrated by Doncaster Rovers this season. For the two matches against Barnsley, Rovers came to an agreement with their South Yorkshire opponents to offer a slightly reduced ticket price for both games and both sets of supporters to encourage larger crowds for a fixture perplexingly slow to embrace full-on derby status. And then there was the Magic 8 ticket, effectively an eight game mini season ticket at a discounted rate, which was the perfect solution for exiled supporters or those for whom work or other commitments mean a season ticket is out of the question; two groups often overlooked.
But what to the other issues raised above, how can the club address these? On the walk back to town after last week’s free game against Crystal Palace I overheard one group discussing the match and particularly the words; “No, it was good, but not at £28 a time”. Attendances will not rise whilst the prices and pricing structure remain as they are. Prices need to come down, and the cost of attending games needs to be made clearer to supporters. Similarly offers which make attending games more affordable, such as the Magic 8 ticket, need to be more clearly communicated across the borough.
To make pricing more concise the club need to do away with the categorization of matches. It is in many ways a flawed process anyway, what’s to say a match against the league leaders will offer a more exciting and enjoyable 90 minutes than a game against one of the division’s lesser lights? If it’s a league game, it’s a league price. As for the categorization of seats, well in an ideal world this would reflect the view and experience afforded and so the front row would be of a lesser category simply for the increased chance of being struck by a John Oster shot or having your view impeded by the arse of the stretching Byron Webster. Sadly, the challenge this places on the logistics of selling tickets to visiting supporters makes it an unusable option so as an alternate solution the club should keep tickets in the corners of the ground cheaper and deign them ‘family enclosures’ (formerly known as category C) whilst maintaining one price for all other areas.
What this process does is bring simplicity to Rovers pricing structure and returns it a step closer to the ease of access which existed at the old ground. If you’re going to a Rovers league game then you can pay one price in a regular seat, or a cheaper price in the family enclosure. As for the actual pricing, obviously I don’t know the financial situation at Rovers and the relevant incomings and outgoings on which these prices are budgeted. That said, I would argue that clubs should be setting a price their fans can afford and then running the business based on that budget, rather than looking at how much fans need to pay in order for their business model to break even. If I could name a figure it would be £24 and a cheaper £20 in the Family enclosure. A considerable step down on what is currently charged, but if we are to entice the town’s floating supporters and non-regular attendees then needs must.
As for non-league games, the attendance at this year’s FA Cup third round tie against Wolves reflected the notion that interest in domestic competitions has waned, and also made it clear that you cannot rely on season ticket holders to put their hand in their pocket again for Cup fixtures. As such the club’s current approach of pricing Cup tickets at a cheaper rate than league games is a wise ploy. As for the four permitted promotional games during a season the club have – in respect of which games to select – got these just about spot on in the last couple of seasons, targeting the November/December period, a time of the season during which I have always known Rovers attendances to dip. Similarly using the final home game of the season (as they are with Saturday’s match with Leicester) means the club ends the campaign on some positive PR. However, there is nothing to be lost and much to be gained from offering these discounts to visiting supporters as well.
Effective communication and advertising is key to attracting supporters in the town and (potentially) being a division higher than the county’s perceived two biggest clubs is something which needs to be seized upon. The club has done brilliant work coordinating school visits across the borough in recent years to encourage a new generation of Rovers fans, but it’s the current adult population that will put the money in the tills. The production of a fixture card detailing the club’s matches and matchday prices distributed through letterboxes across the borough is surely the most cost effective way of generating such awareness. Yes there will be more thrown away than kept, but there’s also bound to be a considerable amount pinned to noticeboards and stuck on fridges just in case.
Marketing is however a division in which Rovers often blows hot and cold, being notoriously slow to take on and react to new ideas and technologies. The club’s official Twitter feed took the best part of a year and two different existences to find its feet (only surpassing Viva Rovers’ own follower count in the last six months) and still perplexingly refuses to use the #drfc hashtag. Similarly the club’s official Facebook page reacted to dissenters of the free ticket initiative by telling them to “stop moaning” and show their support; a sentiment I perhaps didn’t disagree with, but not one to be given as an official outlet of the club. A simple bit of five-minute maths and outlining of the benefits season-ticket holders enjoy would have been a better approach. The recent deletion of these threads from the club’s Facebook page suggests a review of the usage of this outlet has since taken place.
For all the communicated complaints and messageboard moans the match against Crystal Palace was ultimately a sell-out to suggest that the potential for Rovers to get a higher proportion of the town watching them play does exist. But then, the 11,000 who went to the Britannia Stadium and the 23,000 and more who went to the Millennium Stadium and Wembley told us this already. The obstacle with Rovers attendances is not getting people through the turnstile; it’s getting them through the turnstiles regularly and repeatedly. Grand gestures such as the ‘Good Freeday’ promotion bring great publicity and a welcome feel-good factor, but they do little to address the actual issue. A wider spread review of the club’s approach to pricing and ticketing is ultimately what is needed if the club is to take advantage of the decline in the fortunes of its footballing neighbours and seize the opportunity to place themselves at the forefront of town’s sporting conscience.