We talked about Leeds United’s season ticket renewal prices at some length on the most recent Square Ball podcast, but time constraints meant we couldn’t cover every implication of the increases. One aspect that I would have liked to include is the way that football pricing has created a discord between what represents a fair deal for football fans, and ‘good business’ for the club.
A quick-and-dirty poll on Waccoe in the wake of the pre-release leak of the renewal prices showed three main positions being taken in response: most season ticket holders will renew as early as possible at the lowest rate; a fair proportion of current season ticket holders cannot afford the increased price and will not renew; and almost everyone who was hoping to buy a new season ticket next season has seen the price and changed their mind. It’s a rough and ready sample, true, but if it was repeated across the wider Leeds support then we could be looking at hundreds, and perhaps thousands, fewer season ticket holders at Elland Road next season.
To me, this is a problem, and one that is only likely to get worse as prices increase season by season. The answer from the club, and even from some supporters, is that as long as the increased prices mean that despite fewer sales the club makes more money, then that represents good business for the club. The important thing here is revenue, and if revenue increases, the club – sorry, the business – is being run well.
Leaving aside for a moment my distaste for talking about football clubs in business terms, I would argue that no business that has a customer base that is reducing year on year can be said to be run well, no matter how much money is made; especially when the product is one that attracts such incredibly strong brand loyalty. Put simply, Leeds United fans always willingly hand over fistfuls of money to follow their team, but if as a result of your pricing policy Leeds United fans are not buying Leeds United tickets anymore, then there is something wrong with the way you are running the business. In any business, when sales are down, alarms start ringing. Increased revenue is all very well, but by that logic the business could survive by selling just one £10m season ticket; but what if, one day, that one remaining customer changes his mind?
And in any case, Leeds United Football Club is only a business because the people who run football – and profit from it – tell you it’s a business. The twenty years since BSkyB and the Premier League have made fans numb to the surreal finances of the modern game, where second division footballers are paid bonuses that make city bankers jealous. That dissonance means that fans have become used to doing sums like this one: “If we lose two-thousand season-ticket holders, it’s okay, because the club will make more money and that is good for business.” In the context of the modern game, that sounds like a reasonable statement.
But two-thousand season-ticket holders are not just a space on a balance sheet. They are two-thousand Leeds United fans, two-thousand people who would love to spend their Saturday afternoons at Elland Road but can’t, because their presence would be “bad for business.” As football spins further away from its own reality, from the ordinary people who pay to support its lavish transformation from the people’s game to the rich people’s game, it is more and more important that we, as football fans, don’t get drawn into its twisted logic. We have to remember that every single Leeds United fan through the turnstiles is good for our club, and that the club’s first duty should be to ensure that as many of them can join in as possible.