It being mid-May, we’re in the rather unusual position of having no idea how much it’s going to cost to support the club at Priestfield next season. Unusual in that I cannot remember the season ticket prices ever being announced after the end of the season before (even if promotion is in the balance, an “either / or” scenario is usually presented dependent on the division we ended up in), and in recent years the prices have often been declared months in advance. While this year we have to hope that the delay is a response to our cash flow situation being in a healthier state, with less need to grab our money asap to keep the club afloat through the close season, but it seems odd to let supporters drift off for their summer snoozes rather than grab them with the news while they are still in the mood and coming to the stadium (though in hindsight the mind-obliterating mediocrity of the Yeovil game would have acted to negate influence on any incentives Scally has up his sleeve).
Scally is coming up with some “creative” packages, we are told, which conjures up images of a tongue-lolloping chairman designing a new season ticket book cover with his crayons. So how creative does he need to be? The truth is our prices are pretty reasonable, with last season bucking recent trends and being significantly cheaper than even the 2000/01 prices, our first in the Championship. Clearly the enthusiasm is much dimmed since then, but that’s still an achievement in these inflation busting times.
The best we can probably hope for is a freeze on prices, with more urgent attention applied to match day prices (which are too high and a huge disincentive to the spontaneous, walk-up trade) and better family / kids packages. The problem is the legacy of the 2002/03 season, our third in the Championship, when the prices were set so high that it turned a lot off and our momentum in building our fanbase was lost, especially when this was compounded by season ticket holders not getting first dibs on tickets for Highbury in the cup. Since then – bar actually giving tickets away – most of the marketing activity designed to get Priestfield full have not yielded immediate returns and so have been quietly forgotten, an indication of the level of scepticism towards the chairman however well-meaning the incentives have been. Admittedly a lot have been crap – such as the ill-fated and poorly received voucher system for friends of season ticket holders, and the points system enabling discounts in the club shop. But kids for a quid and family discounts haven’t exactly got the ground rocking in the way they have at other clubs. Oldham (10,207 v Northampton), Wrexham (7,752 v Mansfield) and Accrington (4.004) all achieved near full-houses by dramatically reducing prices for certain (non-descript) games last season, but we would struggle to achieve similar success, partly due to a degree of ill-will against the chairman in the local community and partly because we would make a mess of publicising it (we have a habit of making last minute announcements of such promotions, meaning only those who avidly scan the Medway press are aware of them).
Other clubs’ marketing has been a sensitive issue of course. I’m still firmly of the opinion that Charlton are a well-run club who have grown within their means and made the most of the allure of Premiership football. Every club should understand its catchment area and do it’s utmost to exploit it. Manchester United and Barcelona recognise their global exposure, Liverpool and Newcastle appreciate they have a national fanbase and Charlton understand that they have a regional reach beyond south-east London and have done a magnificent job of making the country’s top stars accessible to the whole of Kent and Essex and beyond. Sunderland are flying supporters in from Ireland in droves – Keane, Quinn and a winning team were the catalyst, but I bet the club aren’t shy in alienating Irish League clubs by tapping into that resource while they’ve got the chance.
Another one is Fulham. Now, it’s a long story but somehow I’ve ended up as a member at Craven Cottage. I’m ashamed, ok? But let me explain : when Gills were playing at Blackpool last August, Fulham were at home to Sheffield United. As a (relatively) local resident, a flyer dropped through the door, and as a result I went to the Cottage for the first time since their return, though it was ostensibly a fascination in seeing Warnock and Akinbiyi causing havoc in the top flight. £18 I think it cost, booked just two days in advance and picked up at the gate. As a result, they made me a member in their tiered system – I don’t enjoy the privileges of season ticket holders or higher ranked members, but I get weekly emails and could have seen any game I wanted to at Fulham, admittedly usually by handing over minor fortune for bigger games. The result of such initiatives was that Fulham’s average gate was 7.8% up on the previous year, with near full houses even for games against Blackburn and Wigan (and sell-outs for the top games when they were charging £45 – a scandalous price and short-sighted if applied across all games due to the effect it would have on youngsters’ long term support). Fulham will argue that they’ve got the economics spot-on, and their is plenty of evidence that they are doing plenty to attract young fans and families (though away fans of the top clubs are undoubtedly being fleeced).
And Fulham’s packages for 2007/08 duly arrived today, and can be summarised as –
- Adult season tickets starting at £299 for the outer blocks of the Hammersmith End (equivalent of the outer four blocks of the Rainham End)
- Free season tickets for Under-8s if bought with an adult ticket in certain blocks
- Opportunity to buy additonal tickets for £5 for designated games
- Free coach travel to a minimum of six away fixtures (Craven Cottage may have been well populated last year but the away ends when Fulham were on the road certainly weren’t by all accounts)
- Free entry to reserve games (not an issue if you haven’t got a reserve team, obviously)
- Prices frozen at 2007/08 levels if you buy a three year ticket
There were a number of the usual freebies thrown in, including exclusive bar access, and interestingly you have the option of having all your home cup tickets included (at face price, but it’s dawned on Fulham that they need to reduce prices for League and FA Cup ties, but this will at least mean a far higher percentage of season ticket holders will attend without having to ring up to secure their usual seats). There’s also an away season ticket (face value of the tickets plus a £5 annual fee), though this is unlikely to be something Gillingham need to consider, we didn’t exactly stretch any away capacities last year.
Prices are a lot higher in other parts of the ground, and they go up if you’re not quick. Interestingly, it’s impossible to buy season tickets for the Putney End, half of which is given to away fans and half is designated a “neutral” zone which enables the club to market tickets however they please depending on the opposition. Watch whenever goals are scored at the end to the right of the cameras at Craven Cottage – there never seems to be any segregation and that’s because it’s full of one-off attenders like me, foreign tourists and a fair scattering of away fans if they are facing one of the better supported clubs.
Other clubs are being even more brave – such as relegated Bradford and Brentford offering great value season tickets as long as a certain number are sold, and guaranteed price freezes at Charlton and Blackburn.
Any pointers for Scally? Some. But the most crucial aspect is to have a marketing strategy and stick to it. If it doesn’t come off in the first two months, then don’t abandon it. We’ve got a problem that the entertainment itself is uninspiring, but our home record was phenomenal last season. Get the ongoing marketing right then you should be able to turn our average crowd from 6200 to 6500 in year one, and build from there. It’s touger at our level – when the home side are playing like muppets you’re not going to get locals flooding in to watch Bas Savage and Tom Williams turning out for the opposition whatever you do. But you have to have belief in the way the club is being marketed – get everything right that you can control, and then make sure it works. I’m never going to buy a Fulham season ticket, but I’m sure they’ll get the odd £20 from me for games in the future when they make it so easy for me.
The Morty Vicker