By Jason McKeown
After a year playing behind closed doors, Bradford City are hoping to welcome supporters back into Valley Parade over 2021/22, with the release of season ticket prices a first step back towards normality.
The 2021/22 season ticket price of £198 for adults represents a rise of 32% on the £150 amount that has remained in place since 2019/20. With the likes of Scunthorpe United, Tranmere Rovers and Crawley Town charging more than £300 for a season ticket next season, it still represents great value for money. But the uptake will be more closely followed than ever, as City bank on having enough supporters willing to pay the higher rate.
The last few years have not been great for season ticket numbers at Valley Parade. In 2017/18 – the first season after the agonising League One play off final defeat to Millwall at Wembley – the club enjoyed a record uptake of 18,248, with adults paying £149. Over the campaign, City officially averaged 19,787 – the highest since the club were relegated from the First Division in 1922.
Alas, 2017/18 was also the year that things began to unravel for the Bantams. The club has subsequently been on a spiral down the Football League ladder, and that’s obviously hurt attendances. With Covid also impacting greatly on the football landscape, in 2020/21 City sold 9,039 season tickets – less than half what they’d achieved three years earlier. City did increase adult season ticket prices to £169 for the 2018/19 relegation season, before keeping them at £150 for the past two seasons.
With the Bantams having not played in front of a crowd since February 2020, bringing with it many financial challenges, a rise in season ticket prices was expected and indeed is welcomed by many supporters. The club has just completed another underwhelming season, and a consensus has grown amongst a section of the fanbase that the era of affordable season tickets needs to end, so City can boost revenue and be more successful on the pitch.
Nevertheless, the real test now begins in terms of finding out just how many supporters are willing to pay extra for their season ticket. Especially as the financial effects of the pandemic continued to be sharply felt by many.
Bradford as a city has seen a 90% rise in unemployment since Covid changed our lives. The number of people in Bradford claiming unemployment benefits is the highest since records began in 1992. 11.2% of young adults in Bradford are unemployed, compared to a 7% national average.
It is younger people in particular who might struggle with the rising cost of Bradford City season tickets. The club has, to its credit, conducted a survey of supporters prior to the final decision on season ticket prices. 5,975 responded, with 50% indicating they would be happy to pay up to 50% more for a season ticket. City can argue, with justification, that they have risen prices in line with the majority consensus.
But there are still reasons to be wary.
Chiefly is the age band of supporters who completed the survey – 73% of respondents were aged 41 or over. Research shows that people aged 40 or over have a significantly higher amount of wealth. It figures, as it is typically between 40 and 65 your career climbs to a higher level and your earnings reach their peak, before you move into retirement and have a pension to live on.
In other words, the majority of supporters who answered the City survey – voting for a price rise – are statistically those most likely to be able to afford it.
Just 25% of respondents to the survey were aged under 25. They had the opportunity, like everyone else, to share their views, but it remains an interesting point that the supporter drivers behind the push to increase prices are those of an older age. It’s all going to be in the detail of who does and who doesn’t buy a season ticket, but if you’re under 25 and you’ve either lost your job or can’t get work because of this pandemic – or you’re in a job that pays poorly – you are more likely to struggle to afford a season ticket price rise.
I say this as someone who has been there. In 2004, when I was 23 years old, I was earning £693 a month and paying monthly rent of £395. I couldn’t afford a season ticket, or even to go and watch City more than twice a season. I know what it feels like to not be able to afford to go and see my football club. Of having to find something else to do on a Saturday afternoon, because a trip to Valley Parade was out of my reach.
I’m lucky that my career has moved upwards since then, and the price hike for 2021/22 is one I can afford without concerns. But then again, I’m turning 40 later this year, and so I’m at a very different stage of life. I’ll never forget how it felt to be young and poor. To have no choice but to follow City from afar, even though I was only around the corner from the ground.
The club has, to its great credit, introduced an extra tier on season ticket prices, with 17-23 year-olds only having to pay £174 compared to £198. It’s still a price rise, but one which acknowledges younger people might not be able to afford the full adult price. Bradford City should be applauded for this move.
One in four people who live in Bradford are under 17 – the third highest proportion of any city in the country – and so the price increase of season tickets for 12-16 year-olds (from £100 to £126) is also interesting. This is an age range that Bradford’s demographics would suggest could have a key part in growing the club’s fanbase over the years to come.
The other aspect that has often made affordable season tickets such a worthwhile idea at City, of all clubs, is the legacy of a large stadium that was built for Premier League football. Valley Parade is the 37th biggest stadium in England – larger, in capacity, than the likes of Burnley, Watford, Bournemouth, Preston, Huddersfield, Swansea and Portsmouth. But they operate well below all these clubs.
Having larger crowds to fill your ground, even if it is partly because of cheaper prices, has a financial benefit on the likes of merchandise and refreshment sales. It also makes the club more attractive to sponsors. What might be gained through more season ticket revenue could be lost in other areas.
Rising prices is never going to be a universally popular idea. And it is a tough one when as a club you’re on the downturn and the economic environment will present challenges for the sport and entertainment industry. And it all points to a move to the most loyal City supporters influencing prices and needing to do the heavy lifting in terms of buying, in order for the Bantams to have a good uptake and decent playing budget for next season. Again, the survey data shows that 61% of respondents have been season ticket holders for at least 10 years.
All of which is not to accuse City of selling out on their principles of affordable season tickets. It is still a great price, especially compared to others. But it is also a move towards being less inclusive. A focus on driving a better product for those who can afford it and who are engaged sufficiently in the club to always turn up.
The popular opinion that has been aired of late is that City supporters expect success on the cheap, and so this price hike could be seen as the first step to address this. And though I don’t agree that expectations have been unrealistically high for the price we pay – success, after all, occurred between 2012-2017 when season tickets were hugely affordable – it really will be interesting to see what impact this rise does to City’s on the field performance.
Let’s say for arguments sake that 7,000 of the 9,000 supporters who had a season ticket for 2020/21 were adults paying £150 a go. That collectively provided the club with revenue of £1,050,000. At £198 a go, City can allow adult season ticket numbers to fall to 5,500 and make the same amount of money. If they can persuade the full 7,000 in this illustrative example to renew, they’d make £1,386,000. An extra £336,000.
Is that amount going to be the difference between success and failure? Perhaps (it can probably afford the next manager two extra players). But it all really comes down to the true influence of City’s fortunes on the field – how they use their resources.
Let’s face it, whilst City have not been the biggest spenders in League Two these past two seasons, they’ve been up there. Is the reason that Morecambe have out-performed City this season because they make more money in season ticket sales? Clearly not. It’s because they’ve made smarter decisions and used their (lower) playing budget better.
There seems to be a belief that City will be more successful if we pay more money to watch it. And hopefully that’s true. But we all watched the Bantams get relegated from League One two years ago with a £4 million budget. Money does absolutely not guarantee success, and the failings at Bradford City since 2018 are absolutely not because we’ve each been paying £150 for a season ticket.
Hopefully the uptake is good, and with well thought out options like monthly payment plans the club is doing much to help people who can’t afford £198/£174 in one go. And if this is the way forward for City to be successful, it will be hard to complain. The ambitious target must surely be to get every one of the 9,039 of us who bought a season ticket to renew, and it could happen given our greater level of loyalty that has been shown by enduring some bleak years.
But after a pandemic still not over, and after a difficult few years for City supporters, it doesn’t sit entirely comfortably that we are hiking up the price at this particular moment. If we are to leave supporters behind, I hope it’s through their own choosing rather than because their financial circumstances left them priced out.
The video produced by the club to promote the launch of the 2021/22 season tickets is outstanding. If you haven’t watched it, please do click below and feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.