By Jason McKeown
“No way will we get 10,000 pledges”, “We will struggle to get 7,000”, “Over ambitious”. It’s just over 10 years ago since Julian Rhodes announced his intentions to make watching Bradford City more affordable, when in February 2007 he unveiled a commitment to sell season tickets for just £138 if 10,000 people pledged to buy one. As these and other comments from the time attest, it was an idea that many people predicted was doomed to failure.
In the end the pledge target was smashed. 12,100 season tickets were sold. And Bradford City began a slow rebirth.
A decade later, and affordable season tickets has been the backdrop to a period of major success on and off the field. With the club emerging from a dismal relegation to the bottom tier, several years of struggling near the foot of the Football League, to the present day joys of knocking on the door of the Championship. And if the new owners – who have taken on the cheap season ticket baton – are successful in their latest campaign, Bradford City will have more than 20,000 season ticket holders next season.
I can’t think of any aspect of supporting Bradford City that has made me prouder than the way we have pioneered season ticket pricing over the last decade. This is a period where the country has tasted recession, and where economic hardship blights large parts of the West Yorkshire region, and yet football as a sport has continued to move further and further away from reality. An Arsenal season ticket for this season could set you back more than £2,000 – over the last decade I have had a season ticket every year at Valley Parade, and collectively spent less than that over this period.
The cheap season ticket initiative has helped Bradford City to reinvent its fanbase, aiding people rich and poor to support their club. Since 2012, it has been married with success on the field that has helped to build it further. For all the excellence of Phil Parkinson, Stuart McCall, Rory McArdle and co over the last few years, you can’t separate out the importance of the bulging Valley Parade crowds. It has been a huge catalyst behind the club’s rise and rise.
In February 2007 – and the first home game after Julian Rhodes’ pledge – a crowd of 7,778 people attended a 1-0 home defeat to Crewe Alexandra. The Bantams were on the way to a third relegation in six years. It was slowing dying in front of our eyes. The last “old price” season ticket was £276. At that price, there would have been a serious drop off the year after given City were relegated to League Two.
The ingredients were all there to make cheap season tickets work. Valley Parade is a fine stadium, built on money the club didn’t have but a lasting legacy to Geoffrey Richmond’s drive to dream bigger. It has the capacity to make big crowds work. Bradford is a huge city, and with the previously mega-successful Bulls beginning their own decline the time was ripe to start attracting Bradfordians young and old to watch the Bantams. Making it so affordable to come and watch meant there weren’t many excuses not to.
I have a Sky Sports subscription that costs me £50 a month. Who would choose that over watching live football at Valley Parade?
And though there was a drop off in season ticket numbers the second year of offering them so cheaply, and though four seasons of underachievement from the team threatened to drive people away, Rhodes and Mark Lawn stuck with the strategy, and the success of 2012/13 has made it easy to sell season tickets. The club’s fanbase has grown considerably, but also in a sustainable way. The public is hooked.
It is great credit to Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp that they have sought to build upon this ethos, rather than tried to change it. You will still find plenty of critics amongst City supporters, who argue that more expensive tickets would lead to more competitive playing budgets and a greater chance of promotion. But the continuation of cheap season tickets this season and next demonstrates the owners’ belief and understanding of the vision.
The colourful, vibrant matchday atmosphere attests to why it’s so important to carry it on. Whilst the Premier League kicks down the line the problem that their season ticket goers are getting older – as only affluent people can afford to go – at Valley Parade you see families, groups of teenagers, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90-year-olds in the crowd. It is a true mixture that represents its community far more accurately than most Premier League clubs do these days. I have taken my young daughter twice, and she loves the atmosphere.
We see a vibrant North Parade pub scene thriving through attracting matchday crowds, scores of businesses on Manningham Lane and other nearby areas feeding into the success of the club. There is a depth to this story that is lacking in clubs who move up the ladder by weight of an owner with deep pockets. Bradford City – like the city itself – is a working class club, which is beginning to punch above its weight.
There are now those who say Bradford City won’t sell 20,000 season tickets next season. And they may very well be right about that. But imagine if messrs Rahic, Rupp and James Mason actually pull this off? That next season the club has more season ticket holders than 15 of the current 24 Championship clubs average attendance-wise?
Because for all the heady progress growing the support base and climbing the football ladder, this isn’t yet Bradford City’s ceiling point. Even if they don’t get promoted this season, they will be knocking on the door next year. If every single home seat in Valley Parade is occupied by a season ticket holder next year, the fanbase can still be grown from there. Richmond’s main stand building of 2000 almost brought the club to its knees, but there is no doubt that it’s needed now. In fact, pretty soon the club might have to consider looking at how it can increase the capacity of the ground (if the landlord lets us decorate).
The deadline for the rock bottom season ticket prices next season expires at the end of this month. No matter what division City are playing in next season, this ongoing initiative deserves to be rewarded with regular 20,000 crowds cheering on the team. In the space of a decade, Bradford City’s crowds have more than doubled, and the #TeamTwenty campaign is the next logical target for a club that is building a lasting legacy.