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.

Lawn & Rhodes look at the easiest spin

One has to wonder what the reaction of Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes was at the “failure” of the 9,000 season ticket sale plan that only reached 8,296 adults giving a grand total of 10,707 holders at Valley Parade next season.

If it was not punching the air then it was probably a wry smile because while this is a public failure for the club in private the upside must have been talked about.

Had City sold 705 more season tickets then Stuart McCall would have had around £85,000 more in the kitty but the £1.25m generated will be more than most if not all clubs in League Two have. 95% of last season’s first stab at cheaper tickets has been generated.

The 9,000 free seats could have been filled by potential new supporters – the idea of giving the taste to would be fans for free in the hope that some are converted is a good one for a club that has twice as many seats as season ticket holders – but what atmosphere this would have created has been a worry.

What response would a person who will only go see a team if it costs nothing have had to going a goal down? Are they they sort of person who would by programmes and shirts? How would the paying fan have reacted to the freebies around him? How would he have reacted to having to park further away because of the extra cars from people who did not pay? To wait longer in the queues for the bars or the loos?

Such questions are avoided and while Lawn and Rhodes have a scheme that has failed to reach stated targets one cannot help but think that for many reasons the 700 fewer result is best for all. The 9,000 seats not given away for free can be resold. Commercial Manager David Baldwin must already be planning the Bradford City half-season ticket as the perfect Christmas present.

Should City be riding high then why not sell an 18 month for £200 this December cashing in on any extra interest that a claret and amber side at the top of League Two would have? This would not be possible with 9,000 extra seats claimed if not used.

Lawn and Rhodes could put on a face of failure for sure and for sure many will say this is a defeat but with over 10,000 coming in to see League Two football which is a greater average attendance then we ever got in League One then would be justified in coming out ebullient.

The spin to apply to this is not that the Bantams have failed to reach a target – it is that City are once again the best supported club in League Two.

Cheap season tickets – taking football back to supporters priced out by the sort of rampant increases of the post-Premiership years that have ripped into support levels and put off a generation of fans – is a significant movement in football. It started at Valley Parade last year and is being taken up elsewhere this. If 95% retention is common at Huddersfield Town, at Brentford, and at the other place that have adopted the policy then the permanent revolution in pricing will start to take hold.

Why I hope City have not dropped the ball with the 9,000

In February 2008, we were told of the new offer for 2008/2009 season tickets – if 9000 adults or more were to buy a season ticket before 15th June, they’d each receive another, free, season ticket. It’s now less than a week to the deadline and only slightly more than 6000 have been sold – despite selling twice that number last season. Why is this the case?

Are City fans jaded? Perhaps so – last season, for all the signs of recovery and general optimism, was a mid-table finish in the fourth division when all is said and done.

Are City fans lazy? Certainly some are – witness the mad dash for season tickets as the deadline approached last season.

Are City fans fickle? Maybe. It’s fair to say that a good deal of the fans who bought tickets last season were definitely conspicuous by their absence in the years post-Premiership.

Are City fans cheap? Yes.

The fact that we sold more season tickets at a lower level of football just because of the ticket price speaks volumes. I applaud City for lowering the cost, I really do – football has always been too expensive to watch, and to put it in the financial reach of real people is how football should be.

The offer itself is where I think Bradford City have dropped an absolute clanger when it comes to this season’s season ticket sales. It is my belief that the reason that there is a shortfall of 3000 season ticket holders is solely down to the buy one get one free offer – people are waiting to see how many tickets are being sold, before swooping in at the last minute and grabbing two tickets – one for themselves, one for their mate, and paying half each. These will be the same people that then complain that “City have no money again” as they sit there having contributed less than 4p for each minute of league football played that season at home.

I think City’s BOGOF offer is an inspired way of getting more people through the turnstiles, but it has been handled all wrong. The message should have been “Buy One Get One Free – for the first 9000 adult season tickets purchased, if we sell 9000 adult season tickets”. There would then have been a mad scramble at the start of the promotion (although it’s been made unnecessary by allowing renewals to be done online this season) as will inevitably happen at the end of this one, and those that bought after the 9000 mark would still only be paying £150. Even play it a little cloak and dagger, and don’t publicise how many tickets have been sold. Those that were going to split the cost with their mate would still be able to if they get in early enough – and if I’m honest, at least these people might actually attend the games instead of having an extra season ticket to give to someone who more than likely won’t turn up. At this rate, instead of getting 9000+ new supporters (which is the aim), City could be in a position where anywhere between 3000 and 6000 people just don’t bother getting a ticket at all, as they’ll miss the deadline and instead of paying £150 for two tickets, will have to pay £300 for one.

“City Til I Die” is the mantra from the stand – but in reality, it’s more like “City while I can bleed them dry” for most. And that saddens me.

Where Do The Good Times Start When The Fans Contact The Club Once A Year?

Today I got a message on my Facebook page – yes dear reader even the bloke what does BfB wastes time on Facebook – talking to me about trying to help City reach the 9,000 mark for season ticket sales. Have a visit and think about how City are using modern media to promoted the club which is welcome and a turn away from the face of most football clubs.

On Saturday I stood under canopy at Valley Parade at midday queuing for the single window of the ticket office to renew my season ticket and as each of the six or seven people in front of me were processed slowly. It was not cold and there was no wind whipping past the ticket office. The queue moved slowly but this was understandable because applications that go beyond the simple take time and the one guy processing them was working as fast as he could but in the end he is still one guy.

“I hope this is a simple one,” he commented as I got to the front and it was and I left having queued for a long time that kept within the limited of what could be called acceptable – probably because I was not too cold or too wet – and went on my way and my issue is not that I felt like I had been treated badly just that I did not feel as if I had been treated well.

The largest club superstore is attached to the ticket office. It is big, it is warm, it is empty – more or less – and in my head I picture a sofa with a coffee pot waiting for you as you go through the details of your application opposite the same man who rather than having to shout through a glass wall is opposite with a laptop in front of him entering information. I imagine the kids that were wandering around me outside watching the TV screens of the Manchester United game or browsing for products. I imagine a much more welcoming experience of renewing a season ticket.

For this May ritual of renewal is – for many people – the only contact with the club outside of a match day environment and while it is very typical of the rest of the game it is hardly something that one would relish and perhaps the club that lead the way in season ticket pricing might look at the way that tickets are renewed.

The day of treating all football supporters as if they are potentially violent thugs one must be separated from by sheets of glass are surely behind us and with so much space available to the club and understanding the unique nature of this contact between club and fan could more effort not be made to make a better experience?

A comfy place to sit while you are dealt with and a warm environment around you is going to make for a more pleasant half hour than one current enjoys when making the once yearly contact. The club that led the way on customer pricing can also start to make moves on customer service. I’ve no complaints with how I was treated when getting my season ticket but with some care and attention it could go from necessary evil to a comfortable, rich and enjoyable way of the club saying Hi to its main backers once a year.

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