Most clubs are having to look at innovative strategies to lure fans brainwashed into believing life is only good at the top

Garry Nelson asks if the unstoppable rise of television is pricing the smaller clubs out of existence
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The Independent Online
Ask a salesman for his vision of Utopia and he is sure to reply along these lines: give me a product that no one else can offer, that everybody wants, at a price affordable to all.

In post-war Britain in the late Forties and Fifties, professional football was such a product. It monopolised Saturday afternoon entertainment. Capacity crowds packed sardine-like on vast open terraces week after week after week. Perceived to be good value for money, the masses did not appear unduly worried by the poor facilities and the cramped confines of their temporary living quarters. After all, hadn't watching football always been like this?

In far more comfortable surroundings - the padded-seat luxury of the directors' box - the privileged few counted their coins. Football admission could hardly have been deemed expensive, (the mass audience were, after all, the workers) but, in an era when the players earned peanuts in relation to the receipts amassed, it must have been halcyon days for your average, extremely rich football director.

For men of vision, this surely had to be the opportune time to re- invest the excess. Antiquated stadiums, so desperately in need of modernisation on the grounds of both improved comfort and safety, were largely left to crumble. Implementing a pricing policy that rewarded the loyalty of the fans by pegging prices was overlooked in favour of a relentless series of unnecessary and downright greedy admission hikes.

Blinded by pound signs, the money men failed to see the arrival of the opposition. Living standards were rising, so too were people's expectations. Shops were, by now, stacked with attractive goods. People buying a car for the first time could, come the weekend, spread their wings and explore the countryside.

Television, now within the budget of the working classes, accounted for a high percentage of stayaway fans who preferred, instead, the comfort of their own homes and the novelty of an afternoon devoted to a whole variety of televised sports.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the crowds started to drift away. A trickle became a flood as football lost its mass appeal. Wringing their hands, the directors attempted to make good the shortfall with even greater price increases.

Crowds continued their downward plunge through the hooligan- ravaged Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties, with the game's lowest ebb being reached in the quite appaling wake of the triple tragedies of Bradford, Brussels and Hillsborough. Hand-wringing time again as the authorities looked to the heavens for some divine intervention.

Winging in to answer their prayers was Sky supremo Rupert Murdoch. By toe-poking a multi- million pot of gold towards the desperate and the needy, Murdoch has in all probability contributed more than any other individual to the long- term viability of the English game.

Backed not only by his huge investment but also by the strongest promotional campaign the sport has ever seen, the professional game is once more in public demand. Increased demand invariably leads to a shortage of supply, which in turn leads to increased prices.

The top clubs have not been slow in taking advantage. Ticket prices have risen sharply. For a family man taking his two children on a footballing day out, it is now necessary to shell out around pounds 70 and that is without the compulsory trip to a fast-food outlet.

Not of great concern perhaps to those riding high on the back of football's current fashionability. But just a couple of rungs below, clubs are increasingly having to look at innovative pricing strategies in an attempt to lure fans brainwashed into believing that life is only good at the top.

Norwich City were able to attract crowds of several thousand to unattractive reserve fixtures by offering free admission to families and friends. Not much chance of adding to the bank balance there, but the hope is that a high percentage of potential paying customers will return over and over again in the not too distant future.

Swindon Town have, once again, implemented a price increase this season. Should they, however, fail to make the play-offs, season- ticket holders will be refunded the cost of the increase.

These two clubs do have the added saleability asset of proximity to the big time. When you are down amongst the dead men, being innovative with your pricing policy is tantamount to committing financial suicide. Just ask the former Torquay chairman, Mike Bateson.

He came to the painful, inevitable conclusion that regardless of price promotions - two tickets for one, kids for a quid, child season tickets for a tenner - the base for increasing support sufficiently to make ends meet just was not there. He then had the unenviable task of asking perhaps the most loyal couple of thousand fans in the country to cough up an extra pounds 2 a match for the privilege of watching what was, at that particular time, the worst team in the country.

Eight pounds a throw, that's three home games for a month's Sky subscription. Come midweek when the lows come scudding in from the West bringing high winds and torrential rain, the choice between lowly Torquay and the other United really seems too close to call. Murdoch's pounds 60,000 a year donation doesn't nearly begin to offset the loss.

For Torquay read the vast majority of Nationwide League clubs. As demand grows for the best seats in the Premiership house, the little leaguers are left to ponder how best they can survive.

A drastic price reduction may be the answer, but such has been the effectiveness of Murdoch's marketing strategy, there is still no guarantee that this will be enough to tempt those hooked on his sporting satellite show to watch live football again.

As the recently unemployed salesman said: "You're only as good as the product you sell." Especially when it's vastly over-priced. Heed the warning, Premiership clubs. Or have we already reached the stage where the fans are no longer as important as the television income, in ensuring that our game - the people's game - will endure.

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