Cricket is king as Chelsea advertise tickets

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The Independent Football

As seats to the England cricket team's Ashes matches against Australia continue to be the hottest tickets of the British sporting summer, England's most high-profile football club yesterday suffered the ignominy of having to advertise for fans and break its own sales policy to lure the punters in.

Faced with the imminent prospect of the one of their lowest league gates of 2005, Chelsea took out a large advertisement in the LondonEvening Standard newspaper, imploring would-be supporters to attend tomorrow night's Premiership match against West Bromwich Albion. "Have a hot night out in Chelsea," the advertisement read. "Watch the Premiership champions scorch up the league on Wednesday." Noticeable by its absence was a tariff card, informing buyers that the cheapest places on offer will cost £48. Other seats are available for £60.

Chelsea also began selling seats for tomorrow's match via a general telesales hotline, in direct contradiction to stated club policy.

The club's website says that no tickets will be sold by post or telephone. A club spokeswoman also claimed yesterday that no seats were available by phone. Yet the need to shift seats had become so acute that tickets were being offloaded to any callers to the club's premium-rate box-office line who were willing to wait up to 20 minutes - at 7.5p a minute - for their call to be answered. Chelsea also charge a £1.50 fee per ticket for buyers using credit cards.

Despite the fact that Jose Mourinho's side are the defending champions and have won their first two games of the season, high prices have undoubtedly contributed to a lack of demand.

No such problems are afflicting England's cricket team. On the final day of the Old Trafford Test, which was a sell-out and saw 10,000 locked outside on the final day's play, a pair of seats were changing hands for £1100 each on the black market. Tickets for the fourth Test, which starts on Thursday at Trent Bridge, sold out in record time, with all seats for the first four days sold within 48 hours of going on sale. Tickets for the first Test at Lord's also went for more than £1,000 a pair.

''We could have sold every Test in this summer's Ashes series five times over,'' said an England and Wales Cricket Board spokesman last night. "To date we have had to turn away more than half a million unsuccessful applicants for tickets.''

Even unfashionable Bangladesh, while not attracting sell-out crowds for their two Test series which was a precursor to the Australians, managed to fill more than three-quarters of the seats at Lord's - 22,000 - for the first Test earlier this summer, and the first two days of the second Test between England and the international game's minnows up at Durham were sell-outs.

Unlike many football clubs, Chelsea have a policy of keeping 10,000 seats available for each home match for sale in the three weeks prior to a match to give more people a chance to attend. The downside for Chelsea is that a lack of appetite to watch at such a price has led to the advertisements and open sales.

Although more than 90 per cent of the 42,522 seats for tomorrow have been estimated to have been sold, there were still "plenty available" yesterday, at £48 and £60, according to a club sales agent. Sales in excess of 90 per cent capacity would be regarded as good in most sports but it is below average in the Premiership and certainly what the Premiership champions expect.

West Bromwich have been allocated 1,400 tickets for the game, 1,000 at £48 each, and 400 at £45, dropping to £28 for pensioners.

Chelsea's lowest League crowd in the past year was 40,864 for the home match against Southampton 12 months ago. Though the margin between that and last Sunday's near sell-out of 42,136 against Arsenal might not appear great, the revenue difference is some £60,000. Perhaps of more significance to Chelsea is that they appear to be pricing a section of their support out of the market.

Anecdotal evidence from ticket experts suggests that is partly the case. "It's not that often that you see a club like Chelsea having to advertise to get people in," a spokesmen for Access Tickets, a London agency said. "I suspect that one reason is seasonal. People are still on their holidays, so they need to drum up interest. Once the kids are back to school, we'd expect demand to rise."

However, the spokesman added that football tickets generally have not been much sought after this summer. "The demand for the cricket is unbelievable. We're hardly doing any football business at all."

Chelsea's cheapest season tickets cost £650, rising to £1,150. The cheapest non-concession seats for individual games at Stamford Bridge cost £45 each.

The only club in Britain whose cheapest season ticket is more expensive than Chelsea's cheapest is Arsenal, with the lowest-priced deal at Highbury costing £885. But average prices at Chelsea are higher.

Arsenal and Chelsea emerged as the most expensive clubs in Europe in a recent survey that showed major clubs including Barcelona, Milan and Bayern Munich selling season-tickets at a quarter of their prices or less. Don Foster MP, the Liberal Democrat Spokesman for Culture, Media and Sport, who commissioned the survey research, said the findings showed that "rip-off Britain is alive and kicking in the world of English football".

Barring a last-minute stampede to the box office, as Chelsea play in front of a less than capacity crowd tomorrow, their billionaire owner might just be pondering that while hundreds of millions of pounds for players and wages is loose change to him, £48 for a Wednesday evening watching West Brom is an investment too far for many.