SEASON ticket sales UP across the Premiership? Well there’s a trend-bucking statement I never expected to hear. Given the widespread anger at wages, prices, stewarding, daft o’clock kick-offs, the Sun’s relentless tabloid campaign to drive prices down, supporter alienation, passion fatigue, a lack of a competitive league and a perception of vested interests trampling over natural justice as seen in the Tevez panel fiasco most observers, even the generally optimistic ones, expected a marked downturn.
Yet a Channel 4 on-line survey today has come to just that conclusion, although admittedly after a far from scientific approach of asking the club spin doctors for a rough estimate. It is the kind of lick-finger-and-stick-in-air approach that passes for news in a dumbed down infotainment era.
I am sceptical of the methodology, sceptical of the conclusion that has been drawn and especially sceptical of the line from the Riverside that sales are expected to be “slightly down” on the 21,000 sold last season. That is a very optimistic expectation taht flies in the face of the mounting body of anecdotal evidence that has been confronting me all summer.
On a general level the headline indicating season tickets are up is highly questionable. Of the 20 teams in the Premiership SIX are saying sales are up, only a third, and three of those are the promoted sides and an increase is a cast iron certainty and a predictable factor that no respectable statistician would allow to disguise the underlying trand. And a third is hardly the kind of commanding fraction needed to make a confident sweeping statement in a headline.
Another six club are saying sales are the same (admittedly three of those have figures capped and could possibly have sold more, but didn’t) – exactly the same fraction as the one that excited the headline writer – but “season ticket sales generally stay the same” isn’t quite as gripping a tag for what is a very superficial straw poll.
Four teams – including Boro – are admitting that sales are down, although all have tried to mitigate that by saying “slight down”, “down by a bit”, “just less than this time last year” and hinting, as at the Riverside, that they “expect” to pick up a bit so they end up about the same as last year. Two teams did not respond.
Of course, until there is real flesh on the bones and actual figures are released it is a worthless exercise. Asking a press office – which is much defined by its marketing function as its information one – to comment on the success of a product is fraught with dangers. At best they will be non-committal while the sales window is still open and at worst they will cynically seek to use the platform as a free advertisement to drum up customers and big up the brand.
As for Boro, I would be very surprised if sales are only “slightly down” as it would suggest that dozens, maybe hundreds of people have told me porkies over the summer. Hardcore former Holgate Enders have been insisting to me that they, usually with a group of friends, had finally, reluctantly been worn down and decided to wrap in their Red Books. And they mean it this time. Honest.
People who have no reason to lie are telling me that of the groups of six or eight they go with three or four are calling it a day; that they are renewing but their dad isn’t; that they have enjoyed it more watching it with the lads on Al Jazeera in the pub and have decided to just do that this season; that they have started watching on-line; that they are going to pick and choose; that they are bored; frustrated; are not enjoying the soulless experience; can’t stand the whinging; can no longer justify the expenditure on ticket, transport and ale. There are more people telling me these things than ever before and they appear adamant, if saddened.
Some may say that such talk is par for the course and there is now an annual ritual of the renewal refuseniks making a principled stand before crumbling to the combined force of the narcotic pull of matchday, peer pressure and the fear that if they renege on their pact to support the club then this is certain to be the year when it all finally clicks and they will miss out on the ecstatic moment that validates the years of pain.
The usual apocalyptic predictions of a meltdown to 15,000 or so season tickets have been thrown around all summer, usually fuelled by someone who knows someone whose mam works in the ticket office and, barring a brief upsurge of optimism promoted by pre-deadline spin about “spectacular signings” and the impact of Tuncay soon after, seem to be readily accepted because of a blend of inate pessimism and what appears to be a shroud of silence over the club when it comes to releasing the figures.
It seems the same dire forcasts are made each summer and the great collapse has never materialised… although the accusing slo-mo spread of the matchday sea of empty red seats is more visible by the week and the crowd figures show an undeniable steady downward slope over the past five years.
Last season we went through the same gloomy guessing game with season ticket sales eventaully revealed to be down by less than a thousand (and that in the wake of the UEFA Cup final and the departure of the unpopular McClaren) and with that shortfall made up by the Christmas present market… but whereas it looked like brave Boro had held a wavering line in fact a lot of defections had been replaced those who would normally pay match-by-match and by new family groups reacting to the laudable concessions introduced for kids. In effect the walk-up crowd had been consolidated into the saeson ticket crowd leaving smaller gates and a lower matchday income as full-price 40 year-olds left with their beer money to watch the game in the pub to be replaced by cut-price children with less lucrative refuelling habits.
We have discussed the reasons, the possible consequences and the cultural impact at length on here and we all know the script by heart now. Five years ago Boro crowds averaged over 30,000. Last season we saw crowds of under 25,000.
This season, even if season ticket sales are held at the pyschologically important 20,000 mark we could see the average crowd squeezed markedly again and, unless there are some very creative ticketing initiatives, the humdrum visits of Reading, Derby, Fulham and Birmingham could scrape the season ticket base level and hit new record lows.