Tickets: Time To Bite The Bullet?
IT'S time to break the tyranny of the season ticket and radically reshuffle the Riverside.
Boro need to bite the bullet on tickets, stop punative pricing of casual fans and look at a sweeping range of creative offers to put bums on seats - and to do that they may need to risk upsetting the stalwarts.
The Riverside hit a new low of 13,377 against Derby last week - and anyone who was there knew that in reality it was lower than that. It was a chilling view of the future.
With gates dwindling there is a pressing need to address the pricing structure and introduce imaginative incentives before the club slips into renewed financial jeopardy.
We all know the budget has tightened around the jugular and hampered the rebuilding project on the pitch. And with the parachute payments ended, small screen windfalls increasingly rare and sponsorship and corporate income evaporating it, it leaves gate money as the single biggest component of Boro's dwindling income.
And the season ticket cash has already spoken for. It's earmarked for wages and running costs, scouting and science. Now, with next to no new cash coming through the gate Tony Mowbray's freedom in the transfer market will be hampered. In the worst case scenario January could see the club sell rather than buy.
Chairman Steve Gibson continues to prop up the wage bill and running costs to the tune of almost £1m a months and has committed to fund the new look Category One Academy too - but with Football Financial Fair Play rules starting to kick in, his contribution is limited and it will be squeezed in the season's to come. Things can only get tighter.
That leaves on-day ticket revenue as the only realistic income stream that can be effectively and quickly increased but that will take some imagination, some political will and a break from the hidebound perspectives of the past.
Boro have painted themselves into an historic corner on season tickets. It has been right and fair to reward loyalty and peg back the price for them over the years - at a shade under £17 a game in the North Stand it makes Boro one of the cheapest in the Championship. There are League Two clubs who charge more.
But the wide gulf between those prices and the matchday prices - which have not been insulated from inflation over the past six years - is the stumbling block. The walk-up price for adults is the problem. There are a limited number of tickets at £24 in the corners but for most who decide on the day the cheapest is £27 in the North Stand. But that is also the possible solution as it is a wide margin that gives the club room to manoeuvre
It is the massed ranks of 10,000 plus former Red Bookers, part-timers, lapsed loyalists, ex-pats, newbies and fair-weather fans that can save the day. They are the ones that if lured back will make the difference to the bottom line - and right now they are being charged over the odds for an unsold product. What other business operates like that?
That is where the club must target its pro-active pricing.
But the cultural power of the hardcore, a hangover from the top flight sell-out glory years, had brought problems too. Season ticket holders wield considerable political power.
Firstly, every concerted move towards concessions in the past has prompted complaints from a small but vocal group of slighted, short-sighted season ticket holders angry at the prospect of the "less loyal" getting something they are not.
But Boro can no longer afford to pander to that dissent. They have more to lose by not addressing the wider problem than from any backlash or threats of non-renewal. The noose is tightening and bringing in new money is vital if the club are to flourish.
That means Boro chiefs must persuade season ticket holders that one-off discounts or targeted initiatives or are for the good of the club as a whole and assure them that whatever schemes are put in place, and however much it looks like someone somewhere is getting in on any given day for less, the stalwarts will never be out of pocket overall.
And secondly, diehards welded into 'their' seats - sometimes just one or two dotted stubbornly across a couple of rows - have prevented Boro chiefs ear-marking whole blocks for radical pricing approaches. That has been an obstacle to thinking the unthinkable in order to deal with biggest problem after pricing.
The current configuration of the ground leaves festering acres of taunting red seats empty in areas key to generating any real atmosphere.
At present the ground is comatose for long spells with a background hum of edgy chuntering punctuated by peaks of Pavlovian booing. It is not a fun place to be. That must be urgently addressed. It is hard to sell it as a desirable 'matchday experience.'
The all but moth-balled South Stand - which will be used this term only for the visit of Leeds and possibly in the outlandish event of a home cup draw against a Premier League side - must urgently be re-populated by passionate punters. Whatever it takes.
It may be that the Red Faction are moved there and their passions harnessed. Or a new junior or family section. Or it could be set aside for a changing menu of matchday offers. Or, whisper it, maybe the club could be brave and use it for an experiment in safe standing, well stewarded and members only? That would be radical.
The away fans should be the least of our worries. Most clubs rarely bring more than a cosy gathering - Derby are a big club but brought less than 300 - and they can easily be housed elsewhere, out of the way, to free up that wasted space. If it needs to be switched back if/when Boro are back in the Premier League that bridge can be crossed then.
Filling that end by hook or by crook could add to the matchday buzz and give the team some magnetic pull when attacking that goal and end the regular small screen blushes as the TV highlights show Boro playing behind closed doors.
As it stands that bleak vista as much as anything may be dissuading would-be casual fans from attending. It looks deserted. It is far from the pulsating atmosphere of myth, far from the electric atmosphere that as much as the match is the product. It makes you want to cry.
The situation can only get worse. Boro can't sit on their hands waiting and hoping that promotion will save the day. Something must be done.
And just as it is time to bite the bullet on pro-active pricing, the time is also ripe to shake up the tired old seating plan, to cast off the mental strait-jacket of the Red Seat glory days.
We need to reconfigure the ground completely to help focus fans' noise and passion, to engineer their energy and also so free up space for innovative ticketing - and that may mean crow-barring some long-time sitting tenants out of their precious pew.
It may be that the whole lower tier of the East Stand is cleared for use as a family enclosure, that the South Stand becomes a dedicated singing - or hush your mouth, standing - section, or those currently in the West Stand Corners are encouraged to migrate elsewhere (more visible) with those areas temporarily closed. I don't know. But there should be no areas of limits to tinkering in order to make the stadium fit for purpose.
Boro must act on prices immediately and should look at a series of possible new seating plans now with a view to next season and be ready to defuse the inevitable dissent. It is no good springing it on people in the summer. That will explode in their faces and just give those that are wavering another excuse to walk away.
The club may need to break from sniffy old attitudes and go on a concerted charm offensive to win hearts and minds and convince the inevitable upsurge of angry and upset sitting tenants that whatever the inconvenience for some individuals, it is for the benefit of the club. So be it. No-one at heart would really object to long term benefits for Boro if they are treated with respect and given a bit of a psychic cuddle to smooth the way.
On pricing it will take a break from a institutionally defensive mentality at the club where any suggestion of change from outside has in the past been immediately knocked back without serious consideration. There is no room for the old knee-jerk responses that every suggestion is 'impractical' or 'not cost effective,' and sneering that we don't understand the complexities of the mechanics or the market. We do. We are the market. We understand it only too well and any ideas generated stem not from point-scoring or criticism but from a sincere belief that things can be improved. And they can. No-one can argue that the current situation is desirable nor that nothing at all can be done.
It will take a brave step by the club to break away from a mentality where they are hostage to old certainties. Boro may need to take one bold step back to take two big ones forward.
Boro must find a new direction and bring in new blood and new cash immediately or risk drifting slowly towards a deeper crisis.
Whatever tack the club take on pricing, they must carry the fans with them. The current radio silence and inaction is harmful and unacceptable.
THERE ARE a bewildering range of possible pro-active pricing initiatives that Boro could adopt from other clubs and other industries.
The key is to make a ticket an attractive proposition, to respond to complex demands and to remove current obstacles to attendance without undermining the viability of the season-ticket. Wholesale price reduction is not a realistic option.
Here's a few off the top of my head. I'm sure most readers could come up with more:
DYNAMIC PRICING: Derby have introduced flexible computerised pricing scheme - Sports and Entertainment Analytical Ticketing System (SEATS), acronym fans - that factors in quality of opposition, predicted weather, recent results and relative position in the tables to set matchday walk up costs based on estimated demand.
Under a similar set-up at Boro, Peterborough on a wet Tuesday in February could be priced at £10 but a sunny Saturday for the derby clash with Leeds may be £25 or more.
EXTENDED CONCESSIONS: Currently some age related discounts are limited to particular areas of the grounds. Why? It prevents people sitting with friends and family or forces them to move at landmark birthdays. Scrap it. Make it universal - and think about adding new concessions for students, the armed forces and extended family groups.
BOGOFS: Simple and effective and a universal practice throughout retail. Two home games in a week are heavy on the pocket for casual fans. After Leicester at home Derby was always a hard sell. Why not buy one, get one free?
LOSS LEADERS: Sorry Barnsley, Posh and Millwall but some games are just harder to sell. So why not tie them into sexier fixtures? Barnsley is the next game after Leeds... why not buy the biggie and get the Tykes for a tenner?
SEASON TICKET REBATES: Some fans give up season tickets because work means they miss a lot of games. Once outside the magic circle they face punative matchday pricing and many never return. Why not give existing ST holders facing regular fixture clashes a rebate, the notional cost of matches they can't attend credited toward next term's ticket? That would persuade them to stay on board and possibly lure back some who have drifted away.
SEMI-SEASON TICKETS: Some people want to commit on a long term basis but don't know how many games they can get to. Or they can't make midweeks. Why not let them pay up front on a pro-rata ST cost basis for 10 or 12 or more games at the start of the season to be used as and when. Given due notice obviously.
GROUP SEASON TICKETS: Aimed at pubs, clubs and workplaces where they can fill a matchday mini-bus. Tickets are not tied to individuals so if one or two people can't go the group urge others to take their place, possibly luring them in as future full-timers. It reinforces group mentality and makes what can be a chore of going to the match on a Saturday - especially from the Teesside fringes - more enjoyable.
KID-A-QUID: Let season-ticket holders bring children for next to nothing, speeding up the indoctrination process. If the kids like it then it encourages the principal ticket holder to renew next year. It may mean moving to free up an empty seat or two.
SEASON TICKET HOLIDAYS: Let lapsed loyalists rejoin at any point without penalty or prejudice. Or those who have to leave for work or education. We want them back.
COMMUNITY TICKETING: Currently there are schemes for schools with cheap(ish) tickets for kids and parents. These could easily be expanded - and the price lowered considerably - with more schools, sports and interest groups plus community and residents association groups included. There is plenty of room for a designated area of 2,000 or so. It is a sound investment in the future.
MAKE US AN OFFER: Derby (again) have ticket office staff charged with dealing with the complexities of consumers and unravelling the problems potential customers - especially with families - face with the existing pricing structure and the frustration that "the computer says 'no' ". Rather than turning prospective fans away because they can't find a package that suits, they try to tailor one.
**WHAT do you think about ticket pricing and possible special initiatives? How can Boro get the crowds back? What marketing, pricing and PR strategy will increase crowds and cash without alienating the season-ticket base?
**IN A TIMELY bit of context, the latest BBC Price of Football survey is out showing among other things, that ticket prices have gone up by FIVE times the rate of inflation over the past year. And some eye-watering prices in the top flight. You can see how Boro fit into the bigger picture here.
**AND MORE context: despite the alarming slump over the past three years (and especially the last three games) it should be pointed out that last season Boro gates were more or less at the historic average in division two. I should know, I spent the summer crunching the numbers on every season since the war. The blog about that and the discussion around it can be found here. If you want to cut to the chase and see the colourful 'infographic' (or bar chart as we called them), you can find that here.