The relationship between attendances at football matches and ticket prices – some thoughts

I have recently been working on a project for Coventry City which, although not directly related to ticket pricing, has prompted me to think about the relationship between ticket prices and attendances at football matches.

Coventry City’s ticket prices are some of the lowest in the Championship (the second tier of English football). An adult season ticket for the current season cost as little as £259 which works out at a little over £11 a game for 23 home league matches. To attend an individual match costs from £19 for an adult if the ticket is bought before the day of the match.

Despite this keen pricing strategy the club have not seen any uplift in attendances this season. Season ticket sales were slightly higher than last season but it’s fair to say that the crowds for individual games have been disappointing.


A sparsely populated Ricoh Arena

Many clubs, including some in the Premier League, are currently finding it difficult to attract supporters against the background of the longest recession on record. On phone-ins and on websites many fans suggest clubs slash prices to fill the empty seats at grounds. During a survey, when asked what else Coventry City could do to encourage them to attend more home games, one supporter said:

“Reduce the ticket prices. Its not rocket science to work out that 30,000 tickets sold at around £24 is much better than 16,000 sold at £32! Show the fans that they matter and are not just a source of funding for the club.”

I’m not so sure that this “charge less and they will come” school of thought is correct. To begin with, for most supporters the ticket price is only part of the cost of attending a football match. Additional funds need to be found for transport, car parking, refreshments, programmes and perhaps even merchandise. Even if ticket prices are low supporters need to find the money to pay for these extras, meaning that lower ticket prices may only have a marginal effect on their total cost of attending a game.

We also recently asked Coventry City fans without season tickets if they planned to see more or less games this season than last season. Encouragingly, a slightly higher proportion said they are planning to see more games (26% of fans) than said they are planning to see less (19%). Interestingly, when asked why they are planning to see more games few fans mentioned the lower prices, rather supporters were most likely to say that their individual circumstances had changed allowing them to attend more games. These changing circumstances included having more disposable income, more time to go to the football, moving nearer to the Ricoh Arena (Coventry City’s home ground) and their children getting older and becoming more interested in football. These are all factors that the marketing department at the club would find difficult or impossible to influence.

However, when those supporters who planned to attend fewer games were asked why, the most often given reason was the cost of going to matches with the perceived poor performance of the team the next most frequently mentioned.

It seems that Frederick Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene theory of job satisfaction may be relevant to attending football matches. From my research price seems to be a “hygiene factor” rather than a motivation to attend games. Increasing ticket prices causes dissatisfaction but reducing them does not provide long-term motivation to attend games.

I don’t have any empirical evidence but the primary motivator to attend games must be the performance of the team. The product is a more important part of the marketing mix than price reflected in the fact that the successful teams in the Premiership still sell out their home games despite the current economic situation. Since moving to the Ricoh Arena in 2005, Coventry City have only managed to completely sell out the stadium once, for an FA Cup quarter final tie against Chelsea in 2009, even though the game was shown live on terrestrial TV. In this instance ticket prices were almost irrelevant; fans were attracted by a combination of the success of the home team, the profile of the visitors and the occasion.

Apart from success on the pitch other motivating factors almost certainly exist, perhaps playing in a new stadium with modern facilities (most teams have an uplift in attendances when they move to a new stadium) but a winning team will be far the most important factor in attracting supporters to games.

The life of a football marketer is a difficult one. Although ticket pricing is within their control (unlike, for example, team performance, supporters’ disposable incomes and the location of the stadium) it appears to be a blunt weapon to use to attract supporters. Price cuts may lead to temporary improvements in gates but they will be unsustainable without success on the pitch. They can also create an expectation of low prices and promotions with supporters becoming resentful if they don’t get them.

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