IT’S TIME to smash the tyranny of the season ticket. The current flawed set-up is now more trouble than it is worth. What was once a throbbing financial engine for the club has now become a political prison. What was once powerful symbol of unity and solidarity with the Riverside Revolution has become divisive and a point of friction.
Scrap the entire tattered system and start again.
Back in 1995-96 the Red Book was massive. With sell out crowds it helped the club get cash up front and ensured fans could get a seat. It was the only viable option. If you wanted to see matches you HAD to have a season-ticket. But that brought problems. Little ones that have grown over the past 15 years to haunt us.
Firstly it excluded people. Those who could not get a Red Book at the time were outside the magic circle. So if you worked away, were in the forces, a student, unemployed or just too young and didn’t have a Boro loving parent to indulge you, tough. The years of sell out ensured that those people did not get back in.
It also ensured that new layers of young fans couldn’t get in, even offspring of Red Bookers because there were no spare seats next to Mam/Dad/Uncle Brian… and there was no chance of a group of lads from the estates or school finding six together. All the traditional routes into the magical universe of the match were closed.
That has changed in recent years as crowds have fallen off and gaps have appeared. And the club’s attempts to fill those gaps have pointed to another problem: the season ticket has reshaped the relationship between club and fan and made it an almost entirely financial one, and now the enobled gold card supporters are not about to let their privileges go lightly.
The Red Book was sold as a financial incentive. Buy one, save 15%, get three games free and get first dabs on tickets for big games. Which is fair enough. But traditionally season tickets were an emotional investment not a financial one. There was a small discount but that was negligible, all they really did was remove the inconvenience of queuing. Even in the Holgate there was a ‘season ticket holder only’ turnstile.
A season ticket wasn’t the mark of the “real fan”. It didn’t carry any kudos. If anything the step up to a season ticket marked the end of a certain phase in the supporting lifecycle; it was almost retirement from being a “real fan”, the sort who queued and jostled and EIOd and took their chances on squeezing onto the terrace for big games. A season ticket brought with it images of tartan rugs, flasks and gentile applause.
There were never more than a few thousand at Ayresome Park and they never held any special status. They didn’t get into the 100 Club, they didn’t get 10% off in the club shop and Charlie Amer didn’t send them a birthday card. It wasn’t expected. The season ticket just signified they had stepped up from the throng and were there for life. It was primarily an emotional commitment.
But at the Riverside it was a different beast. It became primarily a financial commitment. Initially it wasn’t. Initially it was a symbol of buying into the new world, the new ground, the new era of big name stars and big dreams.
But gradually it developed a mentality that was more that of a customer than a fan. Fans started to treat as they would their insurance, looking to renegotiate the premium each year, expecting breakdown cover, a courtesy car and a free map.
The Red Card enabled the club to engineer that situation. It suited them. Get the money up front, give them a Sunday Lunch discount and 10% off in MSV and stuff the rest. In fact, the rest were penalised.
The Red Book glut allowed the club to artificially raise the match day price to walk up customers sometimes by up to ÃÂ£8. It was outrageous and short-sighted and flew in the face of business logic (who charges more for unsold stock?) but the near sell out allowed then to pursue that flawed model. The number of empty seats was minimal and there were always enough part-timers daft enough to buy for Man U or Arsenal.
The trouble came when the Red Bookers started to drift and then suddenly the need to fill those seats became more pressing. How do you market something that your most dedicated fans have already started to give up on? And especially when your model dictates that they should be sold at a premium? The club had painted themselves into a corner with punitive ticket prices. “We can’t sell these to our diehards for ÃÂ£20… to you ÃÂ£25!” isn’t exactly the catchiest of slogans.
But the years of driving the Red Book as a financial mechanism meant that Season Ticket holders had become acutely tuned to any notion that the walk-up fans might have parity… and God forbid they should get something cheaper!
You are supposed to be fans, you should revel in more people coming to the game, the buzz of the full house, the zealous missionary work of getting fresh converts in to testify. Yet the idea that the club should market the unsold seats is now seen as an insult. As the calculation now is financial the default response was “but I paid more.” Without anyone even noticing it people had ceased to be fans and had become customers. You’ve got to haggle.
The logic is frightening. It means the club are locked into their fast receding season ticket fan-base. They can never sell seats for less than the season ticket holders have paid. They have painted themselves into a corner. That generation that were cast adrift because they couldn’t get a Red Book cannot be enticed in. If they are to come they must pay more that the existing customers. For a product that has lost it’s sheen.
Meanwhile the entire subtext to the Red Book itself was holed under the waterline as crowds fell removing the necessity to buy one to get into games and when the moment came for them to trigger their much vaunted priority the system failed: notably in the Eindhoven ticket distribution when however you dress it up and whatever the mitigation, thousands of S and T holders and many thousands of others did not get UEFA Cup final tickets. It the guarantee of glory was removed, what was the point?
Worst still, the season ticket has ushered in a pernicious caste system. Whenever offers are mooted the irate element of season ticket holders stars wheeling out the insults: part-timers, Johnny come latelies, BOGOF band-wagon jumpers… as if anyone who wants to come to watch Boro v Scunthorpe can really be called a glory hunter!
These ‘part-timers’ are supporters, or why would they be there? They may be old blokes who served their time on the Holgate when things were bleak. They may be kids we need to blood now to lure them in for the future. They may be shift-workers, ex-pats or part of the employment disboro for who buying season ticket is not viable. Are you really going to stop them coming in for a tenner because it is an insult to you?
And the caste system works internally too. Under the old ticket number system I heard grown men denigrate fellow fans because they weren’t S or T prefixs, or people denounce other loyalists for only having a G… even though the lad concerned probably wasn’t even born when the Riverside opened. And then there is the inter-stand squabbling. West Stand Upper fans pay more for their tickets so by definition are better fans than the cheapskates in the North Stand.
It is time to end this nonsense. Season tickets should not be a way of ranking fans according to their financial contribution. Neither should they be a way of excluding others who want to join the fun. And neither should they be used to proscribe what prices or initiatives the club choose in order to put bums on seats.
Season tickets should be a symbol that people buy into a shared vision, a joint adventure and a collective experience irrespective of how much they paid or how long they have been going. It should be a democratic and inclusive thing.
There are faults on both sides of the current system. It is time for a radical rethink.
There should be a system based on a broad-based membership scheme, run by a joint body that has fans on the committee that can provide real benefits and be a voice for supporters on all cultural aspects of the clubs. Membership – for a nominal fee – should be open to all who declare themselves fans, Red Bookers, part-timers, those who for whatever reason do not buy a season ticket should be equal members and should be eligible for all offers, discounts and benefits.
It would allow the club to target offers at people who have already declared themselves to be true fans. It would end the artificial divide between those who go to every match and those who go to just a few. It would give recognition to those ex-pats who can’t get to home games but maybe go to away games in the south. It would give a route into fans culture for youngsters who maybe haven’t started to go to every game yet.
We need something to end the current cultural and political paralysis in the club.
All ideas gratefully received.