To say pricing is a contentious issue with Sheffield Wednesday fans would be an understatement. The pricing of everything from single match tickets, to season tickets to the replica shirts has created a divide amongst the fans which has stirred passions on both sides of that divide.
Some fans claim that higher prices are a necessary evil to allow us to compete at the top of the division, where other fans argue we are a working class people who are being priced out of the club we love. There is no clear right and wrong here. Money in football is crazy now, and it does leave a slightly bitter taste when you see just how much some players earn. I have seen payslips for players playing in the English Football League and even “average” players command very respectable salaries.
The focus of this blog is not to bemoan wages in football though. I am looking at investment; primarily investment at Sheffield Wednesday. Now before you assume that this is just another article about us needing extra investment into the club, I would like to assure you it is not. This, instead, is an article about how the club can invest in the future of Sheffield Wednesday. It is also going to argue how higher pricing now is a dangerous strategy for long-term growth and is very much a short-term plan aimed, and dependent, on promotion.
We can debate all day long about what a football club is. What is Sheffield Wednesday? Is it the stadium? Players? Chairman? Or is it the fans? To an extent, it is all of these things, but as the stadium, players and chairman all change, the fans are the one constant. It is the fans that carry the soul and history of the club through time, from one generation to another. Supporting a football club means you are part of a club; you have a shared identity with thousands of other people and that single shared identity might be the only thing you have in common.
Over the last twenty, thirty years or so since football became increasingly available on television I would argue that kids now are more likely to be attracted to the high profile Premier League or European leagues, than their local club which might be a second or even third tier club. For a club like ours, we have had little to cheer over the past two decades. We have had two promotions from League One, but those were mostly with relief that our time in that division was over. It was a case of getting back on track rather than over-achieving. In the grand scheme of things, most sensible football fans would agree that League One is not where Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds, Sunderland or Manchester City should be. We’ve all been there in the past couple of decades though. This is where the difference between the club and the team is important. Your team can be League One quality at the same time your club is Premier League quality, but I digress.
With football becoming increasingly available, kids now can watch teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona or Juventus on a weekly basis. They can go into a shop in the city centre and buy a replica kit for those clubs. In Sheffield, this past week, I saw two kids wearing Wednesday shirts near my Gran’s house. I saw a kid in a Blades shirt, and I’m waiting to hear back from social services about that, and I saw two kids, days apart, in full Barcelona kits. In 2018 it is often easier to buy a Barcelona shirt than a local club’s shirt in the city centre or in the shopping malls.
My fear is that over time, we will lose the passionate fans as generations come and go. With the current pricing at Hillsborough, my worry is that many parents can no longer afford to take their kids to the game. When I started going to the match with my Dad in 1990, it cost £7.50 between us; £5 adult and £2.50 for me. Using the Bank of England inflation calculator, £5 in 1990 is the equivalent of £10.80 today. However, a standard ticket on the Kop for our next home match is £36 for an adult. My £2.50 ticket would be the equivalent of £5.40 now, but a child of my (then) age would have to pay £10 now. If it is no longer possible to take kids to the game on a semi-regular basis, then it is much harder to build the connection between the club and the young supporter. Is it any wonder that a young kid in Sheffield feels more connected to Manchester City, who he may watch on television fifteen times or more a season, than Sheffield Wednesday who he might see once or twice?
I wonder how much money we actually make from shirt sales and other merchandise. It seems that we are approaching it from the perspective of putting the price way up and hoping that the hard-core fans will still buy it. This will work to a degree, but it’s rather short-sighted in my opinion. When someone wears a Sheffield Wednesday shirt, they are not just declaring their support for the club, they are advertising the brand and the club. The fan is paying the club to advertise on their behalf. So rather than creating a product (shirt) that only the wealthy can buy, why are we not approaching this from the angle of getting as many shirts sold as possible?
Just two examples from message boards about how pricing is alienating the next generation.
In retail there is a term; loss-leader. This is a product which is sold at a loss to attract customers to the store. For example, a supermarket may sell a popular item like alcohol at a loss to entice customers to do their weekly shop at that store. I’m not suggesting we sell shirts at a loss, but that we maybe rethink the pricing so that rather than shirts being a luxury purchase they are a standard purchase. Maybe even offer a free junior shirt with each adult shirt sold. The advantage here is that you are helping to promote the Sheffield Wednesday brand and cementing our identity with the next generation of fans.
Is a young football fan more or less likely to feel a connection with their local club if they have the current shirt? I’m enough of a realist to know we are not likely to see a drastic change in match ticket pricing. I would hope we could see a more considered approach to pricing of merchandise though. My point is that we should not view merchandise sales as a way to get money into the club now. We should also see it as an investment, where the club potentially loses money (or takes a hit on how much they make) to invest in creating a new generation of fans in the long-term. The major issue with this approach is that many owners and chairman are not going to be around for longer than just a few years, and as such are not too concerned with investing for the long-term good of the club they own. In general, I think you see three types of owners in football. There is the wealthy fan who buys their club and pumps money into it. There is the mega-rich owner who buys a club to play with. The final type of owner is the one who wants to buy and then sell for a profit. There is nothing wrong with any of these approaches, but the problem with the last type of owner is that their investment tends to be more short-term; buy players, get promoted and then sell for a profit.
The availability of football on television, and the insane prices charged to attend matches now, means that we are in real danger of alienating the next generation of fans. We are in an age where top quality football can be watched online for little or no cost. Those who read my blog regularly will know I follow a Romanian Second Division club, CS Sportul Snagov. I can watch their games back on Facebook, or through online betting sites I have an account with. If I want, I can watch games from over a dozen leagues for free through these accounts.
Our current pricing strategy is designed to get people to buy a season ticket. It has worked to a degree with more people in recent years buying season tickets. I wonder how much of that increase in the number of season ticket holders was down to pricing and how much was down to our relative success since Mr Chansiri bought the club. We were told to pay more for top quality football. The first season under Carlos saw good football and a play-off final. The next season saw decent football, for the most part, and a play-off semi-final. Then last season we saw abysmal football and a brief flirtation with a relegation scrap. The prices did not come down though. Our average attendance dropped by over a thousand from 2016/2017 to 2017/2018.
I’ve seen posts on social media where long-time fans of the club are saying they are done with attending games now. Some fans will respond by calling these dejected fans “flouncers” or “part-time fans” or simply claiming they are not “real fans”. The thing is, everyone has a breaking point. We have had worse times than this, obviously. Sometimes it can be the small things that push someone past breaking point. If we have a pricing structure that is turning long-time fans away and preventing new fans from being created, then this is not good for the long-term health of the club. It’s admirable that there are fans out there that will pay any price to see Sheffield Wednesday play, but the number of those fans is reducing. You don’t know your own breaking point until you reach it.
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Critic. Writer. Thinker. Observer. Creator of nowwelive.com.