It is typically around this time that football club marketers demonstrate some worth. Whether the season that is going on is good, bad or indifferent there is a constant: the need to shift season tickets for a new campaign. Dream up a slogan, make supporters feel valued, throw in an illusion of financial enticement and loyalty from punters takes over.
Football is one industry in which audible discontent with the product does not lead to a customer making a beeline for a rival firm. Most clubs’ season-ticket sale predictions are never more than 10% out. In more normal times, that is. As we approach Easter 2021, there is nervousness regarding what on earth this hitherto guaranteed cashflow stream might actually deliver. For season tickets, see blank spaces on projection sheets.
It was not ever thus. The season-ticket culture is a modern one, linked in part to the development of all-seat stadiums. There are downsides; to cup crowds and the individual whose shift pattern dictates that they cannot commit to a season book, thereby finding themselves in another stand to pals when attendance at a game is possible. Gone are the days when you could shuffle away from someone whose attitude you don’t much care for at the football. Like it or lump it from the same seat; for months on end.
It isn’t overt but there is a snobbishness that pits season-ticket holders against “other” fans, subtly fuelled by clubs under the dubious guise of “demonstrating your commitment”. These businesses revel in the principle of upfront money instead of the walk-up gate – intrinsically linked to a team’s form – determining financial performance. Buy a season ticket, be part of the family, plant your backside in the same plastic place every fortnight, have priority in the ballot for a cup final and be grateful. Football clubs are not – generally, at least – indifferent towards supporters but it is revenue they appreciate, not some broader sense of romanticism. Rebates and refunds now have to be part of a once straightforward equation.
There have been widespread moves to place 2021-22 season tickets on sale. And no wonder. Will fans, whose 2020-21 match-day experience has involved handing over hundreds of pounds in exchange for a streaming code, remain in generous mood? As talk of a third wave lingers, can there be any guarantee of a different scenario for the next campaign? The attachment of football supporters to their clubs is a phenomenon but if the choice falls between keeping food on the table and handing over a not insignificant sum of money for something that may be deliverable, the decision even for diehards is surely a no-brainer. Perhaps some are so out of the habit of heading to the football that they aren’t particularly inclined to return. Maybe an element would rather like the option to buy streams – which would be contrary to current broadcast regulations in normal times – week on week. For uncertainty see panic, certainly beyond the Premier League.
Clubs will insist, with a degree of legitimacy, that they could not have foreseen closed-door games throughout this season when seats were put on sale. That such a situation did transpire means the collective tone of football towards supporters should be deferential. Whatever clubs think they can or cannot flog for the next campaign, they owe an enormous debt of gratitude towards those who paid in full for this one and 2019-20 as either was not completed at all or finished behind closed doors. For those accustomed to attending matches, watching for such a lengthy period on a screen has been a miserable existence. If your team of choice are winning, you are unable to feel a part of that experience. If the side toil, it isn’t the same when turning to WhatsApp or Twitter to moan about it.
Those frustrations actually endorse the hopes of clubs that fans will be eager to renew. Returning to football will be an emotional experience for many, whose Saturday match-going rituals could have lasted for a longer period than anything else in their lives. That needn’t be fanaticism, merely habit.
Yet if the form is even initially to involve socially distanced pubs, rows of taped-off seats and testing at turnstiles, people will rightly think twice. Football – especially at the lower levels – isn’t always attractive because of what transpires on the pitch. A sense of belonging and the atmosphere are paramount to hundreds of thousands throughout the UK. Clubs in Scotland discovered last year that a high percentage didn’t bother turning up for test events, despite being allocated tickets, such was the restriction contained within the small print. Typically reserved pensioners bawl from main stands, be it in Kilmarnock or Kettering, because football isn’t about inhibition.
Those in the boardrooms must watch political decisions with great interest. If bullishness from Westminster regarding the ability of delayed Euro 2020 games to be staged at Wembley with at least moderate crowds is vindicated then clubs are entitled to a reasonable level of expectation on attendances next season. That scenario is even more interesting in Scotland, where ticket sales account for a far larger chunk of club revenues, and the government is still to make a firm commitment regarding Hampden Park’s role in the Euros.
It would be ludicrous to apportion blame to football in respect of the pandemic. In truth, the leagues taking place have given a chunk of the population a priceless non-Covid focus. Still, it would be remiss of clubs to rely upon season tickets as anything like a short-term essential. The delay in their pitching implies that much is broadly understood.