I’m a Stalybridge Celtic fan. For the life of me I don’t know why. As a 7-year-old child my Dad took me to Old Trafford to watch the likes of Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, even Cantona. A week later he took me down to Bower Fold to watch the team that sits right on my doorstep.
“Which do you prefer son?” he asked.
Twenty years later I still visit Bower Fold every week. Even as a child the lure of non-league football was too great. They became my love, my passion. Sitting in the gods just didn’t appeal, and the only shaven-headed magician I idolised was Ian Arnold, not the enigmatic Frenchman.
To this day I still get, “£12 to watch that load of rubbish? No thanks” from my friends.
Which is a problem for non-league. A big one…
I pay around £300 to watch my team every season; factor in travel and the odd away fixture and that becomes a lot more. For £73.88 I could have a season ticket at Barcelona. I pay over £200 more to watch a butcher, a baker, and no doubt a candlestick maker lump it forward every week – Sat in a crowd of 400 where the only thing that’s remotely ‘Messi’ is the Lockwood & Greenwood stand’s gents. This is not Barcelona. It’s a far cry from Bury, even.
But that’s exactly the point.
The likes of Barcelona and Manchester United welcome 70,000 through the gate every week. They earn millions in sponsorship and TV rights, they don’t need the money like my club does; like almost every club in non-league football does.
The recent price-hike protests at Liverpool and Manchester United, as well as rumours of them at Arsenal, have brought football ticketing to the very forefront of the news agenda. And the unrest filtering down to non-league level, particularly amongst neutrals and floating fans.
In the Champions League for example, fans visiting the Emirates can pay upwards of £250 all-in for their visit which is too much. But take a look down the footballing pyramid; can we really begrudge a non-league team asking for one or two pounds more? Not through greed, but to simply survive?
Like most of us, Stalybridge chairman Rob Gorski believes £70 plus for a ticket is too much, but if Premier League and elite level tickets are reduced it could have a knock on effect.
In his programme notes for the fixture against AFC Fylde he wrote, “My concern is that if prices for Prima Donna matches collapsed, there would be pressure for lower leagues to follow suit.
“Our gate receipts are a major part of our turnover and if we lowered admission prices, it would have a catastrophic impact on Liam’s [Watson] budget.”
It’s a growing concern in today’s era, where football on a Saturday afternoon is so freely available on television despite the laws stating otherwise. That £12 will get you a nice, cosy pub, a couple of pints and some high quality top-flight action. Offer that as an alternative to a cold, damp, northern football ground and for the neutral it’s a no brainer.
Of course in some cases the large ticket prices are having a slightly different knock-on effect. Take FC United of Manchester for example. When they formed in 2005 as a result of the Glazer’s takeover at Manchester United many priced-out Manchester United fans marched down to Gigg Lane to get their football fix, at a snip of the cost.
To this day FC United’s club manifesto contains two key principles to which they operate:
- The club will endeavour to make admission prices as affordable as possible, to as wide a constituency as possible.
- The club will remain a non-profit organisation.
In just over a decade FC United have climbed to the sixth level of English football keeping costs at a minimum. In fact, their recent FA Cup tie against Chesterfield saw the club forced to increase their admission price by £1 to adhere to competition rules. Rather than keep the extra income, they issued each fan with a £1 voucher that could be spent on food, drink, and merchandise.
It's football done properly and has kept fans coming through the gates in their thousands, not to mention their values continually being lauded throughout football. With over 5,000 members however, they have the luxury to do so.
Across the Pennines at Sheffield FC admission fees cover only about 10-20% of the club’s running costs. But despite attendance figures of just 200-300 the club have refused to up their prices to boost earnings.
Matt Rapinet, a member of their marketing team said, “The only rise in Sheffield FC’s admission costs has been due to league requirements. Sheffield FC charge the minimum admission fees that the league will allow us.
As the World’s First Football Club we believe that we should make football as accessible as possible to fans even if this means we have to be inventive with how we conduct business in other areas to cover the shortfall.”
In these cases, most people through the gates have ties to these clubs, whether it be through Manchester United, community work, or a hook which makes them more marketable.
For regular clubs, the floating fan is a tough nut to crack.
Stalybridge’s £12 admission is around average in the National League North and it is income they rely upon. When it comes to watching “that load of rubbish”, as my friends so eloquently describe them however, it’s a hard bargain to drive.
Ultimately that means clubs either have to hike their prices up for the loyal supporters to make up the shortfall – which morally they don’t want to do - become a little more inventive, or essentially lower budgets; which in turn sees a lower standard of football and even fewer through the turnstiles.
At another Celtic, Farsley on the outskirts of Leeds, hiking prices above £7 simply isn’t an option. Joshua Greaves, CEO of the club said, “I believe that you can out price yourself in a very competitive non-league market that surrounds our club, with one National side, one National North, and other Northern Premier clubs.”
He added, “We feel that our costs reflect a good rate of admission but I do feel any more than £7 is a little steep.”
And he has a point, should the club raise the gate, Greaves estimated the club would likely gain only an extra £150 each week, which wouldn’t make a huge impact on day-to-day running’s, but would perhaps turn people away.
So while it could help a little, it’s inventiveness elsewhere which is keeping clubs afloat and ultimately helping them progress; after all, who wants their football team to stagnate?
At Sheffield FC there’s a real push for the World’s First to move back home to their original ground. The ground where they began life back in 1857.
Unlike the Premier League they don’t have global brands backing them or teams of marketers and staff on hand every day of the week. Instead they have built connections with both universities in Sheffield as well producing successful and inventive ideas to promote their club and boost funds.
Rather than simply apply for loans, grants and amass debt, the club launched a crowd funding campaign which has made £92,000 to date and received huge coverage in the media. The fund has even included contributions from the Bundesliga, both professional Sheffield clubs, and FC United of Manchester.
Rapinet added, “The campaign mainly helped through publicity, it was our announcement to the world of football that we are bringing football back home. Through a number of international projects we are now seeking the additional funding to rebuild the Home of Football.”
And it makes sense too. With people less willing to donate large amounts of cash to lower league, football clubs are having to think outside the box. Sponsorship has more recently become an issue for clubs. Look throughout non-league now and you’ll see more shirts than ever before without a sponsor, and you won’t have a problem trying to sponsor a match almost anywhere in the country.
It’s vital income and clubs are having to work hard to get them. At the beginning of the season Farsley Celtic put their match sponsorship versus Northwich Victoria on eBay.
Initiatives like this are much needed and will need to continue if we are to reinvigorate non-league football and keep clubs afloat. Particularly so, if like the Stalybridge chairman predicts, lower leagues feel forced to follow suit.
When my friends call £12 scandalous for non-league football, I happen to agree. There’s little incentive there for floating fans. If you didn’t support a club would you rather go and watch Manchester City for around £25 once every two weeks or watch Stalybridge Celtic every week? Aguero or Steve Tames? It’s hardly a tricky one…
For me though, well, I’d be expected to spend three months’ wages on an engagement ring, why not a few extra quid a week for my one true love?
Image from grassrootsgroundswell.