Back in April the disgust in Simon Grayson’s voice was evident when, before a visit to Leeds United, the then-Preston North End manager was asked for his views on the cost of supporting his team at Elland Road.
“It is bordering on a disgrace that it is £37 for a Championship fixture and £42 on the day,” Grayson said. “There’s got to be some thought for supporters who want to go and watch football matches. How can Championship clubs charge more than Premier League teams to watch their team play?”
The question still hangs in the air five months later and, notwithstanding that it could help enormously if more people close to the action spoke as bluntly as Grayson, there is at least some suggestion of a positive response. A division that is consistent in its geographical diversity presents a particular strain on regular away fans in particular and, with evidence mounting that a tipping point was not far off, some of its clubs are beginning to cotton on.
It may come as some surprise that among the biggest instigators of a shift back towards the supporter were Ipswich Town, who were one of the worst offenders in previous campaigns. Asking Wigan fans to pay £32.50 for a Tuesday night visit last season seemed extreme, as did the £37.50 charged to Sheffield Wednesday supporters on a Saturday; few justifications for that kind of pricing sit well and, during the summer, Ipswich reacted to the complaints.
Their head of ticketing, Lee Hyde, hit upon the idea of a reciprocal away ticket deal by which supporters of consenting clubs would pay £25 to attend Portman Road this season rather than a default rate of £30 or £35, with Ipswich fans charged the same for the return match. The club’s location matched benevolence in being a factor: beyond London and Norwich it is one of the more arduous away trips and at some point there needed to be an incentive to get backsides on seats.
At this early stage the scheme has had mixed success. Twelve of Ipswich’s rivals swiftly agreed to Hyde’s idea, with a number still giving it consideration; that was before the season, though, and a lack of further takers since then suggests mutual goodwill in the second tier has its limits. They will not name names but the picture will reveal itself gradually: all of the first four visitors to Portman Road in 2017-18 – Birmingham, Brentford, Fulham and Bolton – will have been charged £25.
It is clearly not a deal for everybody and last month the QPR chief executive, Lee Hoos, explained why his club had rejected the bargain, saying: “The running costs of our stadium are substantially different than Ipswich and this price point simply doesn’t work.” At least Hoos, whose club offers visitors a restricted view ticket for £31, showed some of his working in advance and it is fair to note the financial climate many Championship clubs are working under before roundly criticising the lack of willingness to subscribe to a ticket cap similar to the Premier League’s £30 limit. Top-flight organisations can afford more than ever to be creative in their offer to matchgoing fans; in the Championship there are starkly different strains and the risk of being undercut needs to be balanced alongside the obligation to make ends meet.
There is a sense that, for the division to keep its relevance, change needs to happen at a faster rate. The Football Supporters’ Federation, influential in calling for that Premier League cap, contacted supporters’ groups across the Championship before the season and urged them to lobby their clubs for better prices. Ipswich are hardly the only club alive to the issue: Hull charge away fans as little as £18 in some areas and, on Friday night, theirs will pay £15 at Derby. A number of others come in below the £25 mark but it will take more to reverse the overall trend and make the Championship a far more appealing proposition for those travelling.
Some will need more persuading than others. Had Grayson not been appointed Sunderland manager during the summer he may have had more to say when Preston, visiting Leeds again in August, were asked to pay an even higher rate of £39 in advance and £44 on the door. The match finished goalless. If the cliff edge does arrive then nobody can say they were not warned.
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