By Jason McKeown
It did not look good just a fortnight ago, and the statements from the club carried a slight whiff of desperation. But as the Bradford City season ticket offer ended on Thursday evening, news that a final total of 8,417 have been sold is surely beyond expectations – representing a huge boost to the club. Once again City will have the highest gates in League Two next season, something which appeared to be in some doubt when initial uptake was poor.
The statement which appeared on the official website announcing the total was interesting for a variety of reasons, particularly the comparison with last season’s sales figures. Approximately speaking, apparently only 6,000 season tickets were sold for the 2011/12 campaign before the discount offer period ended, with just under 3,000 people later buying one at full price. Such a level of ‘full price’ take up might not prove as high this time around, but City are around 300 short of having more season ticket holders for next season than the last one.
Since the season ticket initiative was first launched in 2007, attendances have endured a year-on-year decline. That initial offer came just as Stuart McCall had taken over as manager and Mark Lawn invested in the club – that close season arguably the best period City have enjoyed, mood-wise, over the last decade. Some 12,000 season tickets were sold that year, 2007/08, and attendances averaged 13,756. The realities of life in the basement division proved tougher than we’d all anticipated, and each year a sizeable portion of season ticket holders have not renewed.
For 2008/09, 11,000 season tickets were sold (average attendance: 12,704), in 2009/10 it was just short of 10,000 (11,422), in 2010/11 just over 9,000 (11,127), and last year around 8,700 (10,171). Over the five seasons up to this summer, season ticket sales have fallen by approximately 27% and average attendance by around the same percentage. For the 2007/08 season, an aggregate total of 314,964 set foot inside Valley Parade, last season it was 233,944 (a 26% drop).
These falling crowds have been partly compensated for by small increases in prices year-on-year. In 2007/08, we adults paid £138 to watch McCall guide City to a 10th placed finish. Last year – depending when you renewed – it was £150 or £184 (though just under 3,000 people paying full whack will have helped considerably too). The £199 we paid for 2012/13 is 31% higher than 2007/08. Overall, however, revenue from season ticket sales has surely fallen by a fairly considerable amount.
So the fact that season tickets for next season have held around the same as last year – if not having slightly increased, overall, by the time that August comes around – is a confidence boost to the club. We’ve had consecutive 18th placed finishes and, for all the talk of going for it, it’s clearly going to be a huge ask to get promoted next season. Previous close seasons of big talk saw aspirations go unfulfilled, yet still we keep coming back hoping the next year it might be different. There is the potential for us to reverse falling average attendance next season, providing we are performing near the top of the division.
It should, of course, be noted that the 8,417 sold for next season does include 1,400 Flexicard holders. This half way offer was introduced for the first time, following consultation with a representative group of supporters last season. For a £50 initial investment, the Flexicard guarantees its holder a seat all season which they can use for £10 a time. If they attend less than 15 of City’s 23 home games in 2012/13, they will have saved money compared to buying a season ticket. In time, City could get a similar amount of revenue from these supporters than they would have if they had bought a season ticket – perhaps more – but the unknown for the moment is what this will do to crowds.
Generally speaking, which type of supporter did buy a Flexicard ticket? Previous season ticket holders who no longer want to make such a financial commitment? (Width of a Post writer Luke Lockwood, for example, was previously a season ticket holder who this year has bought a Flexicard, because he plays football on a Saturday and misses a lot of City matches.) Occasional or infrequent match goers who in the past were paying £20 a time, for whom the Flexicard makes sound financial sense? Or roughly a mixture of both?
For the former group, it could be that they might find it easier to drift away from City if we under-perform again next season. As long as they go to at least five matches, the initial £50 outlay will have been justified. Yet even if it’s only a tenner to go each week, come February and March they might be less inclined to bother, should City be playing badly and nowhere near promotion. That’s not to doubt their commitment in any way, but another poor season would prove testing for all of us.
In the latter group, the result of less match-by-match pay on the day people could hurt revenue. In January 2011 Lawn stated that these types of supporters were effectively subsidising season ticket holders through paying £20 a time. If City are near the top of the league and playing well, it’s likely that they will be able to attract enough floating supporters who don’t have a Flexicard. But if it’s the opposite, the club might find crowds are low and the very people more likely to boost them by turning up on a matchday without a season ticket are getting in cheaper.
Then there are the matchday ticket promotions we usually see a couple of times a season. City’s two largest home crowds last season were Torquay in October and Hereford in February – aided by a £5 offer for the Gulls match, and £1 entry for the visit of the Bulls.
If City repeat such offers next year, the Flexicard holders might well voice complaints which could cause some issues. Sure, they can be included in the offer rather than paying a tenner, but by purchasing a Flexicard they have effectively forked out £10 of the admission price for five games. They’ve bought into the right to pay less than people who haven’t bought a season ticket or Flexicard. Last season there were complaints from a minority of season ticket holders about the £1 offer, after all. As a result, we may not see a £1 offer next season (given the way some of the people who took part in this £1 offer stormed out when City went 1-0 down shouting it was a waste of a £1, you could argue we shouldn’t bother with it anyway).
These issues are not highlighted to be overly negative, but to raise the point that the unknown factor of the Flexicard in practice could raise some problems over the course of the season. These 1,400 supporters are going to be an interesting group, which the club must work hard to engage and make sure still attend matches on a regular basis, because it will be easy – if they’re not careful – to lose them.
On a more positive note, the better-than-expected season ticket holders reaffirm just what a well-supported football Bradford City is. In consecutive seasons, we have finished in our lowest league positions since the 1960s. The initial boost to crowds that the season ticket initiative delivered in 2007 offered a glimpse of the potential we know exists, for City to be one of the better supported teams in the country – but the unfortunate reality was it attracted a lot of fans for whom struggles on the pitch were considered less tolerable. The atmosphere at Valley Parade was fantastic at times between 2007-2011, but on too many occasions it was dreadful with booing a far too regular occurrence.
Last season we had little to shout about, but in my view we saw some of the best atmospheres at Valley Parade in years. Sure people moaned and booed and, at times, we were too quiet. But there was a far greater willingness to get behind the team, even though that team was limited at best (certainly when you compare it to the City team which flew out of the traps for the first half of the 2008/09 season, but at the time was booed far too often).
It just seemed that, generally speaking, those of us who stuck with the club last season – and who have signed up for the next one – are City supporters in the truest sense. Some still like to have a moan and be critical of everyone in claret and amber, but all of us have watched enough rubbish football and read enough promises about how the next manager will get it right, to not be deterred or to jack it in.
We’ve stuck by our football team through thin and thinner, and the season ticket final total for 2012/13 illustrates how many of us keep coming back for more.