A FEW years ago, when the first tentative steps were taken by non-league clubs to offer a “pay what you want” day at the turnstile, half of the non-league community applauded and the other half sat anxiously watching, fearful that such an exercise would result in diminished returns.
Mostly, such initiatives have paid-off for the clubs brave enough to liberalise the turnstiles. I was present at Hitchin on Saturday when almost 1,200 people turned up to see the Canaries play St. Neots. Admittedly, the game was important, but compared to the last three gates for this fixture – 291, 309 and 265 – a four figure attendance was something of a triumph.
It is doubtful that the 1,200 gate yielded as much as a 1,200 attendance at usual prices, but at almost three times the normal gathering, Hitchin would surely have profited. And by the looks of the crowd, they seemed to be enjoying the experience, which does make you wonder if the normal admission price of £10 deters people from becoming regular fans.
If non-league football wants to attract families and the next generation of fans, it has to make it more accessible for the casual supporter. Loyal devotees to the cause will pay almost anything to watch their club, but to attract new fans you have to dangle the carrot. Most clubs that have adopted the concept have benefitted, initially from positive publicity and sometimes by luring people back after their initial foray. Surely this tells you something?
Some might argue that because attendances are small, a club has to extract the maximum potential from its [relatively small] audience, but the answer is to swell that audience and offer a fair deal for all. This is not a question of supply matching demand as non-league grounds are probably only filled to 10-20% of capacity.
In comparison to most Football League grounds, £10 is relatively expensive for non-league football below step one, especially when you add all the periphal costs of attending a game – which in some cases may include car parking fees, something which many people find audacious.
Of course, admission prices in British football are too high across the board. We don’t need to go into details about the cost of a trip to Arsenal or Chelsea, which even their own fans find unpalatable, but at the lower level, it needs to be easier on the wallet – after all, many people turn to non-league purely for economic reasons.
Sutton United made the bold decision to really connect with the public with their season ticket scheme. A year ago, they offered £99 season tickets and supporters responded accordingly. Sutton enjoyed increased gates, installed a new artificial pitch and they’ve won promotion to the National League. Good for them. Their foresight deserved to be repaid. And take a look at these prices for 2016-17: Adults £125, Concessions £95, Teenagers £20, Children (12 and under) £10. Step 1 for £125 – less than £6 a game – fantastic value.
Innovation should always be applauded and need not be confined to clubs on a standalone basis. Why not introduce universal season tickets across the league, supporters can switch clubs at will or watch another local rival when their favourites are away? The cash from the scheme could be pooled and distributed among the league’s members. This may sound radical and an administrative challenge, but it could be a real public relations coup for the league that takes on an idea that could benefit the whole constitution rather than an individual club. For non-league football to thrive, the entire eco-system needs to be healthy. Does it not make sense for clubs to look after each other’s interests?
This article appeared in the Non-League Paper on May 1, 2016.