Wednesday, 9 January 2013
The great Albion ticket debate
With the news that a substantial group of Manchester City fans have boycotted their club's away match with Arsenal in protest over ticket prices, the subject of how much it costs - and how much it should cost - to watch football has once again hit the headlines.
However, here in Sussex, the issue has been under discussion for much of the season.
Brighton and Hove Albion announced pre-season that the club had sold more season tickets than AC Milan - somewhere around the 23,000 mark. With a capacity of just over 27,000, that left around 2,000 home tickets available on a match by match basis.
Part of the reason for the high level of uptake is Gus Poyet's team promising performances on the pitch coupled with the excitement surrounding the club's new stadium, which shows no signs of dimming a season and a half after the Albion made the move from the run-down Withdean to the £93million award-winning Amex.
Perhaps more importantly though was the club's decision to allow fans to pay for their season tickets monthly with no interest charges - a move which was widely praised by supporters who found regular attendance suddenly more affordable.
It seems to have worked. This season the Albion have the highest average attendance in the Championship despite being up against traditionally bigger clubs like Wolves, Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County.
That isn't to say the season tickets are cheap. They aren't. Adult season tickets start at £425 behind the goal and go up to £625 in the lower tier of the ground's imposing West Stand.
In 1989, the cheapest season ticket in the West Stand at the club's old Goldstone Ground home was £135. Now it is £425 in the block at each end and £490 everywhere else. Drop down a tier and the cheapest annual ticket is £525 in the wings rising to £625 in the centre.
Those fees do include the previously optional £30 travel voucher which enables fans to use public transport to get to and from the stadium but even with that figure removed, the prices for the cheapest West Stand seats have gone up by around 219% since 1989.
Nevertheless, in the current climate and taking into account the superb facilities now offered at The Amex, a lowest price season ticket of £425 means fans can attend every league game at home for an average cost of around £18.50. You are unlikely to find many supporters moaning about that.
Even the best seats work out at about £27 a match which is hardly terrible for the high end price bracket.
However, things get a little more expensive for those who cannot afford a season ticket or cannot justify buying one because they would not be able to attend every match.
The cheapest available single match ticket costs £28 for an adult with a £2 booking fee. That figure is the same regardless of opposition.
That is around £8 more than the division's average for lowest price ticket and, to make matters worse, the club appears to only release these one general sale once tickets in more expensive areas of the ground have sold out - a move which has, understandably, angered fans who feel they are being exploited.
In the popular West Stand Upper section a match tickets would set you back £32, or £34 with the booking fee. To put it into context, if a fan was to pay £34 per game all season, it would cost them £736.
The most expensive single match tickets are advertised at £39, but there are rarely any of those left. That is, unless season ticket holders decide they want to sell their seat for any match they cannot attend.
In year's gone by, popular website www.northstandchat.biz was the first place fans looked for any unwanted tickets.
The forum, which has thousands of members and was a vital tool during the club's long-running fight for a new stadium, operated a ticket exchange. Fans who could not go would post details on the site's sub-forum but only for face value or lower.
Pre-Amex, this service was a vital and affordable way for fans to get tickets to see the Albion, particularly in the early days at the Withdean when demand for seats was at a premium. In fact, many of the fans now sitting as fully fledged season ticket holders will have had their interest kept alive by securing cheap tickets from NSC on an ad hoc basis.
That all stopped earlier this season though when the club asked for it to be taken down.
Fans now have to hand their season tickets back to the club if they are unable to go, with the Albion placing them on sale once, or if, the game has sold out. The club can then, presumably, sell the tickets at full price rather than the discounted rate the original season ticket holder paid for that particular match.
Much of this game to a head prior to the Albion's recent FA Cup match with Newcastle United.
Many fans voiced their disappointment when the club announced the ticket prices would be set at the usual match by match rates - meaning season ticket holders were left having to pay substantially more for their regular seat than they usually would.
For example, the discounted season ticket price for the cheapest annual ticket would be around £18.50 per match. For the same seat against Newcastle those supporters were asked to pay £28 - plus a booking fee for doing little more than charging the extra match onto the holder's existing credit card style ticket.
Other fans in more expensive areas were asked to cough up £39 for a match which was selected for live coverage on ITV and came hot on the heels of Christmas.
Some fans stayed away while many more stumped up the cash. Not everyone, it would be fair to say, was bothered. Lots of fans sympathised with the club's approach, arguing that if fans want to see better players, they need to be willing to put their hand in their pocket to help fund them.
But the fact that the attendance was, at around 21,000 with 2,000 away fans, noticeably lower than the 26,000 plus who were at the previous home match with Watford, showed quite a few were not happy.
And it isn't just the ticket prices. Prices have gone up across the board. Food and drink are now more expensive and the match day programme is now 50p more expensive despite appearing to be printed on cheaper paper.
Brighton have been drawn at home to either Arsenal or Swansea in the next round and the club has confirmed prices will stay the same. Unlike the Newcastle match, this game will most likely sell out.
An opt-in automatic purchase scheme for cup tickets has been pushed by the club and, with tickets going on sale this afternoon to season ticket holders, the Albion will surely benefit from fans snapping up the stubs in the hope it will be Arsenal heading to The Amex.
And, in defence of the club's decision-makers, £28 for a big match against the likes of Arsenal, or indeed Swansea, is reasonable enough.
For Newcastle though, many supporters hoped the club would take into account the fact the game came so soon after the expensive festive period, was on television and was a repeat of last year's fourth round meeting between the two sides.
On its own, the prices were not extortionate, but some season ticket holders decided to stay away as much in protest at what fellow fans were having to pay for match by match tickets.
Can the club really justify charging £28 and upwards for far less glamorous face-offs against the likes of Barnsley? You would hope not, but they already have.
And they are not alone. Already this season travelling Brighton fans have been forced to regularly pay upwards of £30 for entrance to an opponent's ground.
Crystal Palace traditionally charge the Albion around the £34 mark for the two sides' derby match despite the run-down nature of Selhurst Park, while Ipwich Town recently asked Albion fans to cough up the same amount. It seems that these days £32 is the starting point for away entry in the Championship - although Blackburn deserve a nod for asking for just £20. The fact they called the game off with just a couple of hours notice shouldn't detract too much from the affordable pricing.
There will always be arguments from people pointing to the increase of players' wages, the context of pricing at other clubs and, invariably, the relatively high price of watching non league football in 2013.
However, pointing out that every other club is guilty of the same crime does not make it acceptable. Hopefully the newly found coverage in the national press might encourage all clubs to look at ways to reduce the number of people priced out of following their favourites.
Earlier this week Morecambe opened up the gates to its ground to supporters for free in a bid to get new fans onto the terraces. Some non league clubs are now operating a pay what you can afford scheme. It seems, as you would expect, it is the clubs struggling for crowds who are coming up with the most imaginative ways of making going to the match affordable.
At Championship level though, Crystal Palace are doing all they can to fill the Selhurst stands, including tickets offered up when mobile phones are topped up and hooking up with discount website Groupon. It might be funny to Brighton fans, but the Eagles should be applauded for taking a pro-active approach to dwindling attendances.
The Albion's capacity is set to rise to 30,000 by the end of the season, meaning the issue of demand will, you would imagine, reduce. Some season ticket holders may even opt to pick their matches next season knowing tickets will almost certainly be readily available for each game.
Hopefully the club - which lest we forget had established itself as one of the most community-minded in the country - will be careful not to price people out of supporting their local side.
It is going to be an exciting time for the Albion. Hopefully everyone will be in a position to join the adventure.