This is no way to exploit promotion

By Richard Oldroyd
Last updated : 14 May 2014

As the final whistle blew, Scott Arfield turned to the Longside and clenched both fists in joy, before being swallowed by a mass of claret and blue bodies. It was a gesture which encapsulated the culmination of a shared 9 month journey.

One of the beauties of watching Burnley in successful seasons like this is the sense of collective ambition and purpose that develops along the way. It is a club whose shareholders remain local men and whose players almost by necessity include unexpected and modest heroes like Arfield, Dean Marney and Michael Duff, playing for an opportunity they know may never come again.

This season, that collective spirit grew with every milestone successfully ticked-off along the journey:  beating QPR at home, drawing with them away, sweeping Forest and Derby aside in successive weeks, that long-awaited victory at Ewood. It got stronger as the away followings went through the roof at Charlton, at Watford, at Barnsley and Blackpool. Those hopes and aspirations, shared by players, directors, management and fans alike, found fulfilment on Easter Monday.

The bonds with the players are never quite as strong as we supporters imagine, because they play and move to make their livings. But you hope that those with our directors – fans like us, they tell us – are more authentic. Part of the pride at this promotion was doing it in the face of so many clubs whose directors and owners are outsiders, remote and disconnected.

Perhaps we all got a bit carried away with it. Certainly John B must have done, when he wrote this in the programme for the final game of the season against Ipswich: “We are a club built on passion, belief and the understanding that without our fans and the community, we are nothing”.

Fine words. But people are generally judged on actions, not words and those actions this week feel like a smack in the mouth: season tickets hiked to a level above those of an established Premier League club like Stoke City, even before an outrageous £100 'retainer' is added to price tag. At best, it is a clinical business strategy formed in the mind of an accountant rather than the heart of someone who wants to bring club and community together.

That pride in our promotion has been tarnished in the last 48 hours because it turns out Burnley might as well be owned by any megalomaniac in the world for all the good that community connection has done for ticket prices next season. One silent fear of many football supporters is that promotion to the Premier League will be a double edged sword because ticket prices and publicity will move the club out of reach of its heartland supporters. These prices make that fear a little more real today than they were last Friday.

Over the years ticketing has been a difficult and emotive issue. I know Barry Kilby wrestled with the challenge of balancing revenue with affordability during the lean years when he was scrabbling about to make ends meet. But then, in those days we didn't have a 60 million windfall from the Premier League to factor into the maths.

Last time Blackburn Rovers were in the Premier League, they offered adult season tickets for £225. That might have been an early bird ticket, but still tickets were available for many home games at £17. Even for the top billed fixture against Manchester United, tickets started at £27.

And yet, one town down the valley and against a similarly challenging economic backdrop, a season ticket cannot now be purchased without parting with more than double the cash Rovers demanded. There isn't a hope of walk-up ticket prices matching those at Ewood. The most expensive season ticket is now £100 more expensive that the equivalent 12 months ago, for 4 fewer games – a rise of almost £10, or 50%, per game.

The argument might be that these are premium seats with the best view. Nothing wrong with that if price inflation is limited in other parts of the ground – except that it isn't: including that retainer, a family of 4 must now shell out nearly £1,500 to sit in the lower tier of the Jimmy Mac. It is a price tag which our board of directors and chief executive must know is beyond the reach of many people who live in and around the town. They must have considered that and disregarded it.

Why? The club's rationale appears to be that the increase in ticket prices are justifiable because committed fans will have renewed in March, and that the retainer is justified because only those who fail to show loyalty for a further season will ultimately be penalised by what appears to be an interest-free loan to the club.

It is bewilderingly lofty, dislocated logic.  It assumes, firstly, that all of those who failed to buy tickets earlier in the year did so out of indifference. It implies that there is something wrong, even punishable, about people being swayed to make the commitment to buy a season ticket because the Clarets will be playing Premier League rather than Championship opposition next season, and vice versa a year later. It disregards entirely the plight of the Burnley supporter whose circumstances mean a two year commitment is an impossible gamble, or simply does not have multiples of £100 freely available. So too the interests of the Burnley supporter who can only attend perhaps 10 games a season, but whose matchday ticket price looks set to upwards of £10 a game more than last season as a result of what should have been the happy event of promotion.

And above all else, it passes up the opportunity to use the financial windfall of promotion to build a future for Burnley as a top 30 club by renewing its fan base at a time when all of Burnley's direct rivals for young fans – Blackburn, Preston, Bolton, Leeds and Bradford – are at a low ebb.

Moreover, that logic may just hide a cynical calculation that the decreased capacity of Turf Moor – with no home fans in the Cricket Field Stand, and increased media space reducing the home capacity even from this season – will drive some to buy tickets out of a fear that otherwise, they might miss out for the biggest games. That is no way to run a community club.

Even the reaction of season ticket holders who have previously brought their tickets appears negative. Rarely have the internet forums – not just that on this site – and Twitter been so united. Perhaps that is the thing: these are solutions to problems which do not exist. There is no problem with people pushing the boat out to be part of the Premier League experience and there is an awful lot of upside if even a handful of those become committed Burnley supporters. And in any event, the £100 retainer uses an almost sinister form of financial blackmail to solve a problem which applied to around of half of supporters last time we were in the Premier League – because despite a dismal end to that season, not far short of 12,000 bought season tickets for the following Championship campaign.

Maybe the club will achieve an accounting triumph by selling its stock of season tickets and maximising ticket income this season and even next. But that extra cash will be pretty modest relative to the TV income Rovers, Wigan and others used to flood their communities with cheap tickets. And the damage such a negative marketing campaign will do to the esteem in which the club and its directors are held will probably render that victory pyrrhic.

At a stroke, the club and its owners have forfeited their right to trade upon its and their connection with the community. That is a great shame, because I know that overwhelmingly those connections are genuine. Yet the situation can be retrieved by reconsidering and then reversing this unfortunate decision.

That, of course, is what a community club would do. Particularly one which understands that, without its community, it is nothing.

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