Bradford City and financial reality

Commercial reality works two ways in football. The fans and the directors may look at money matters from different perspectives, but the club is still there in the middle. David Baldwin and Mark Lawn have both been telling the media in the last few days how they see that reality at Bradford City. Fans trying to come to terms with short-time working or no work at all can hardly be expected to forget about four consecutive defeats before the deadline for the cheapest tickets passes.

Bradford City are victims of their own publicity in two respects. At the start of last season the manager said that anything less than promotion would be a failure. So, by those standards, a failure it was. This season it was the board’s turn to explain on more than one occasion how they had put together a budget that they expected to produce a £600,000 loss, which would be justified by the much hoped for promotion.

In this respect City are not alone. Brentford, for example, are apparently aiming to wipe out the best part of a £10 million debt by getting themselves promoted. Just how the prospect of League One football produces anything like that amount of extra income may baffle some of us, but Brentford’s board are best placed to decide these things. And we won’t even begin to consider how Darlington’s business plan for the season depended on gates of almost double their actual attendances.

But by far the best piece of publicity City have achieved in recent years, even bringing them a trip to the House of Commons (I wonder what the second prize might have been!), was the cheap season ticket deal from two years ago. In those days when Julian Rhodes was the only chairman we had, he made it plain that the offer would only be taken up by the club if 10,000 or more supporters signed up for the deal. You do not need to be Einstein to work out the sums. Then along came Mark Lawn and his money, which allowed a little bit of juggling to extend the deadline for those 10,000 and eventually, including the free tickets for under elevens, over 12,000 were on the list.

The disappointment of a mid-table finish reduced that number by 1,000 or so for this season, but the excitement of automatic promotion prospects kept the idea very much alive for next season. The cheapest tickets (£99 in the Bradford End, but generally £150 for an adult) had to be bought by the end of December and then the £175 ticket deadline was the end of this month. The December sales went well, not least because on deadline day the team was just goal difference away from an automatic promotion spot. The later sales, we now know, have gone less well and it isn’t difficult to see why.

The problem, however, is that within two years the fans have come to regard a revolutionary idea as something perfectly normal. Those running the money side of the club are desperate to point out the huge price differences between City season’s tickets and those at virtually every other club in this league. It is, in my view, unfair to single out any individual club for comparison, such are the vast differences between the have-nots and the have-even-lesses of the fourth division. But, if you take the average price of season tickets in this league, City’s prices will be as far below as our average gates are above those of our rivals.

A few things clearly need spelling out. The first is that the prices for 2009-10 are fixed, no matter how many people take up the offers available before or after the end of March. Any scrapping of the cheap ticket scheme will not be before 2010-11.

Whatever income the club gets from its season tickets goes a very long way toward fixing the players’ budget. Match by match income is unpredictable and guesswork is no way of running a business that has, to say the least, had its recent financial problems. So every season ticket that isn’t sold is that much less to spend during the summer on players’ contracts.

Of course fans are currently very disappointed about recent form, none more so than those who have spent money, which brings no benefit to our club, in watching defeat after defeat away from home. That disappointment will only grow if promotion by one means or another is not achieved. Such are the expectations which nobody has seriously tried to dampen. Nor should anyone be anything other than positive.

But football fans generally concentrate on matters on the field of play, sometimes paying insufficient regard to matters behind the scenes. Whether it be £175 this month or £250 next, a Bradford City season ticket is great value in the fourth division, even if the product may not do exactly what it said on the tin, and excellent value in the third. For some fans, the state of their finances will have deteriorated since they bought this year’s season ticket. No football club can ignore that, but, equally, no club can lower their prices to the extent that would help those on a vastly reduced income.

The question that the rest of the fans have to face is whether they are prepared to pay £175, £250 or the instalments plan of £200 to give Bradford City the best chance of having a strong squad in 2009-10, regardless of which division they are playing in. The alternatives – a weaker squad and/or paying £20 a game and presumably not getting to as many, if any, matches – are just about all there is to consider. This is the financial reality of being a Bradford City supporter.

The league could shake this week as administration Thursday nears

One could hardly have guessed it this morning reading a collection of newspaper headlines about Christiano Ronaldo will leave England because of a lack of protection from Referees and how one side of Manchester are being told they should pay £30m for a player who could not find the net on the other side that around a tenth of the professional clubs in the country are battling with the decision as to whether they should go into administration by Thursday.

Thursday – the third in March – is football’s deadline for having ten point penalties given to the current season’s total rather than next. The problems of exiting administration are such a fifteen point penalty on exiting without the CVA that City twice had in place is practically guaranteed should you be looking a wiping out debts for the start of next season and not be under administration by Thursday then a club would start the year on minus fifteen and not minus twenty-five and as AFC Bournemouth and Rotherham have proved – that is not a killer blow.

My thoughts on punishment for clubs entering and exiting administration differ from other but mostly these articles and the debate on the subject assume that the fifteen point penalty – which is discretionary – will be levied and not the punishment which Rochdale’s Chris Dunphy would unilaterally dish out which would be expulsion from the league.

The wording of the League’s rules is always hard to come by but to paraphrase would be to say that a club that exits administration without a CVA in place is expelled from the League unless there are exceptional circumstances which in the cases of Leeds United, Rotherham United, Luton Town and AFC Bournemouth there have been. If a circumstance happens every time it is not “exceptional”. The Football League were probably acting within the interests of protectionism in ensuring that they do not lose those four clubs and that is probably no bad thing.

That they continue to do so depends on how much sympathy the likes of Rochdale’s Chris Dunphy can drum up in his well meaning if scattershot campaign for good governance in football. If football becomes populated with enough Dunphys then the next vote on is a club can exit without CVA and retain a place in the League will be to the negative and someone will be cast down to the lowest of the low level of the football pyramid.

Bradford City’s governance is managed by virtue of a chunk of cash put in by Mark Lawn who hopes that attendances can be retained for future season. That we have not brought in player x or player y down to an unwillingness to go back down the route of unrealistic debt and something that we should all be happy about as City fans.

What must Chris Dunphy feel about Brentford – £10m in debt and hoping for promotion to pay the bills – running away with the League Two? Probably the same as I feel but Chris Dunphy gets a vote he could mobilise against them if they end up in the poor house. Would Chris Dunphy vote that Luton, that Rotherham, that Leeds should have been thrown out of the Football League and effectively ended as football clubs?

This is the judgement the reportedly ten clubs who are considering entering administration in the next two days are making. Will they be added to the list of exceptions or will the hand become the wrist and will one, two, five, ten clubs not be making it to next season?

And if they do will they be taking ten point penalties that mean the table on Friday will differ drastically from that on Wednesday?

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