Sutton United could well turn out to be the most value-for-money club in British football in 2015-16. The Surrey-based club, once one of non-league football’s top sides (remember 1988-89 and Coventry City?), has taken the bold step of introducing £99 season tickets to try and lure more supporters to their home games.
I’ve been to Sutton quite a few times and it always seemed like a club stuck in an era where blazer badges dominated, boardrooms were guarded by officious staff and past glories were hammered to every wall. Great club and nice people – some of whom would not look out of place at a Lawn Tennis, cricket or bowls club – but like quite a few clubs from the old Athenian and Isthmian days – a little out of sync with modern non-league football.
But there’s change of mindset at Gander Green Lane. Sutton’s scheme has resulted in the sale of some 400 season tickets. They are also in the process of laying a 3G pitch and they’ve switched to Monday nights for their midweek home games. There’s clearly a change of mindset and a fresh dynamism at Gander Green Lane.
It’s all aimed at transforming Sutton’s fortunes. Last season they finished 15th in the Conference South, not the sort of placing that a club like Sutton feels comfortable with. They averaged 548 at the turnstile, around 100 fewer than 2013-14 and 150 down on 2012.
So far, it looks as though the public have responded well. It looks promising, but it’s also recognition that non-league football may be too expensive and needs to fish for new customers. Like all clubs, they are taking the “your local club needs you” approach, but making it doubly attractive to get people through the door.
We all know that English football, generally, is too expensive and at the top level, absolutely extortionate. Compared to continental Europe, some of the pricing at Premier League level is really quite scandalous. Yet the supporters do not vote with their feet and are too scared to turn their backs on clubs that are really taking advantage of the “opium aspect” of the game. In other words, the clubs have the supporters right where they want them.
That’s not the case with non-league football. It is definitely a buyers’ market. There’s no doubt that non-league football does represent an alternative for those people unwilling or unable to stump up vast sums to watch Premier fare. But, for example, £10 for step three of non-league football is still too expensive – it needs to come down by 30-40%. And a quick survey of season ticket prices at that level – just under £200 seems to be the asking price, tells you that most clubs are not trying to make this alternative over-attractive for buyers. Could it be that clubs want to maximise the return they are getting from a relatively small audience that has only limited upside, and therefore prefer to extract full price admission during the season rather than a discounted ticket ahead of the season proper? In the current climate where non-league clubs are still paying too much to players, not many people would be brave enough to adopt Sutton’s strategy.
While Sutton are not alone in trying new ways to entice people to their games, their season ticket campaign could represent a real landmark. Those chaps with chocolate and amber ties won’t be the only people carefully watching the real impact – it truly does deserve to succeed.