In an industry where the first instinct of most executives is to plot more ways of “monetising the customer base”, Stoke City’s decision to offer free coach travel to fans for away matches is genuinely ground-breaking.
Clubs have long offered reasonably priced travel to matches, and one-off gestures of free transport crop up once or twice a season, but to provide gratis away travel all campaign is unique.
As Stoke indicate, with the sharp rise in television income enjoyed by Premier League clubs they can afford it. But few rivals would consider spending this windfall on supporters in such a direct fashion. At some clubs it might be regarded as a gimmick, but Stoke are one of the last to be locally owned and Peter Coates has always been prepared to look beyond the bottom line. Home ticket prices have not risen since promotion five years ago despite significant expenditure on transfer fees.
Even so, home gates have shown small decreases in recent years, indicative perhaps of a lack of appetite for the team’s style under Tony Pulis, but also reflecting the economic realities of a region hard hit by the recession.
While Coates’ generosity will thus be welcomed warmly in the Potteries, there may not be such enthusiasm everywhere. It is not hard to envisage executives and owners at some of the other Premier League clubs thinking, “Why does he have to do that?” The onus is now on the remaining 19 clubs to respond, to spend some of the £2bn increase in TV income on the people who follow their players across the land, through gridlock, snowstorms and over-officious policing, to create the atmosphere that helps woo TV viewers the world over.
Stoke have enabled their fans to travel for free but, like all supporters, they still have to pay a fortune to get into the match when they arrive.
That is the next issue to be addressed.