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Twenty’s Plenty: Scottish football has a second chance

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I never expected the phone call I received that morning, but as the phone rang with the Celtic Supporters Liason Officer’s name and number appearing on my screen I still didn’t think that thirty seconds later I would be digesting the news that Celtic were going to be subsidising our weekend’s trip to Kilmarnock by £6 for each adult ticket.

This was the first time since Celtic reduced season books by £100 that they had given something back to the supporters. An admittance that if they did not then there was a very real threat that there would be a sizeable reduction in the numbers turning up to support Celtic, due to Kilmarnock’s discriminatory pricing policy.

In a nip and tuck title race at that time, this was a situation that Celtic could not allow to happen and that they needed the Celtic support to turn up in their usual numbers.

It resulted in Kilmarnock’s highest league attendance of the season so far, so clearly the gesture by Celtic worked.

Of course we are not naive enough to believe that if we had been playing well and were 10 points clear that the club would have acted in the same manner.

That they did do it and in doing so they increased the away attendance, that only proved the point which the Affiliation has been making since 2013. It had been a long road and all involved deservedly raised a glass to toast what we could call a victory.

In 2013, we decided to survey our members. It was a year after Rangers were liquidated and had to start again in the fourth tier. Celtic had reduced season book prices but the Lisbon Lions stand upper tier remained closed. We also experienced a drop-off in away ticket uptake. There was and still is a feeling that Scottish Football missed a chance to reboot in 2012 and that the plan was to milk the cash cow while waiting on some sense of normality to return.

The survey showed that our members thought attending football in Scotland was too expensive and the pricing policies of each individual club too variable. Nothing has changed. Subsequent surveys conducted by numerous bodies tell the same story.

Yet these findings are always ignored. Les Hutchinson recently observed when handing over Motherwell to the Well Society that he did not know of another business that treats its customers with such disdain and willfully ignores their views.

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We have been told over the years that clubs are trying to improve the match day experience to give more value for money. However any improvement in match day experience is focused solely on making the game more family friendly. Of course this is to be welcomed but it is only one strand of those who walk through the turnstiles on a weekly basis.

I recently asked one of my friends what he wanted from his match day experience. He replied that he wanted to pay £20, get a decent pie, have a pint in the ground, a laugh with his mates and watch an honest game of football. Face painters and magicians give him and thousands of others no added value to their day.

It has been said that the game is pricing out the traditional fan. The culture of season books means that unless you can pay up front or take on credit then you are faced with the prospect of paying for the more expensive match day tickets. Season Tickets play on the emotions of the committed supporters. They also show up how football can’t follow the simple rule of economics.

If your football club put up ticket prices you either pay or you don’t. Unlike banks or utility companies you can’t switch to get a better deal. Your emotional tie doesn’t allow you to do that. The chances are that if you don’t give your money to football it goes on something else and is lost to the game all together. The game in Scotland can’t afford that to happen time and time again.

Scottish Football’s main income stream is from ticket sales. The TV deal is used as a reason for ticket prices continuing to rise. This is a wall that is put up from clubs when you try to raise the subject with them. The other wall they build is that attendances are increasing and fans are paying those prices.

That we pay those prices doesn’t make them right nor does it justify them. It is that ‘play on emotion’ that all fans suffer from. If you want to watch your team you have no option. Yes, you can watch on TV but do you really want a generation of football fans to grow up where going to a game is alien to them?

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This is a simple fight between business and football principles. Fans want directors to focus not on the balance sheet but on the community they serve. That every decision puts fans first and not just servicing the wages of over-paid players and agents.

Now we are acutely aware that just reducing ticket prices does not increase attendances. There have been some high profile failures in this practice. There is also evidence that clubs try to absorbs running costs to keep ticket pricing to the minimum and that sometimes rising costs are not profit orientated. On the other hand, if you are a fan of a club with a larger away support chances are your ticket price is calculated looking at increasing a chance of making a profit.

We now have a chance for Scottish Football to have an open debate about ticket prices. In England reciprocal agreements are becoming normal practice and last season fans saved over £738,000 due to these agreements. There is also a £30 away ticket price cap coming into place.

While Scottish Football does not have its own billion pounds TV deal we are also in the position where the predicted armageddon in 2012 simply did not happen. Attendances have increased and we have been told constantly that Rangers in the top flight will increase interest and commercial opportunities for all.

Research has suggested that if attendances increase and commercial income increases then clubs would look at reducing ticket prices. The English game sells as the TV companies realise that full stadiums are part of the package. The Scottish game sells as they have dead air to fill and we are cheaper than Oz aerobics! This is what needs to change.

The message is clear. Match going fans are being priced out of attending and this is being ignored. There is a breaking point coming as clubs can’t keep ignoring fans and not expect a backlash. The rising costs are seeing traditional fans being replaced by less passionate fans who can lift and drop the hobby anytime. Passion is being replaced by passive and that product does not sell to the TV companies.

The discussion to stop this has to start now. We have to work with clubs to ensure that season books present value and match day tickets are affordable to all. Clubs need to work with each other for league games like they do in the cups and the SPFL should be looking to introduce standardised pricing for all competitions.

This change will not happen overnight. But we now have the same opportunity that we had in the summer of 2012. The difference is that we have been told that the so-called golden goose has arrived not that the game was ending due to one club’s demise.

Twenty’s Plenty is a long term goal and one that will take gradual steps. It needs to work in conjunction with the SPFL and clubs refocusing energies on what they want Scottish Football to be sold as. They failed to make the game fan-friendly, fan-focused and competitive in 2012. Now is their second chance.

They can’t fail again or Scottish Football will forever just be for the benefit of TV being played in soulless stadiums with strange kick off times half-full of passive fans who want to watch rather than partake and all supported by legislation that criminalises fans and high ticket prices, which benefit only those who take from the game.

That is the future that none of us wants.

Written by Kevin – Affiliation of Registered Celtic Supporters Clubs

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