Thursday, 21 April 2011

Getting bums on seats – and keeping them there

Reading the tweets of a fellow Blade this week I thought "that's a good subject for a blog post", but before I had chance to construct my thoughts I was contacted by the tweeter in question asking if I would host his musings on the subject on A United View. So it's my pleasure to welcome my first solo guest poster on A United View, David Jones (a Doncaster-based Blade and not the Sky Sports presenter) and his thoughts on how you solve a problem like fan apathy.

Here's a little thought experiment for you. Imagine, if you will, that you're Doncaster Rovers chairman John Ryan.

Now, once you've finished straightening your cufflinks and practicing your disarming grin in one of your many full-length mirrors, turn your thoughts to the club's most pressing problem: attendances. Rovers are the Football League's rags-to-riches story, having shot from the Conference to become established in the second tier and, on their day, playing reputedly the most attractive football outside the top flight. Yet for all this they can't fill their shiny new 12,000 capacity Keepmoat Stadium, even for local derbies.

Keepmoat seats kept empty by absent Doncastrians

For their first season in the Championship, 2008-09, Rovers sold more than 8,000 season tickets. But despite becoming established at that level the town is yet to take the club to its heart. This year's Keepmoat attendances so far have averaged under 10,000 and the club is curiously quiet on how season ticket sales are going, with rumours suggesting that by early April the number was limping towards the 3,000 mark. So you, as chairman, decide to throw £100,000 of your own money at attracting more fans to the club.

A quick bit of maths suggests that the money could be spent reducing the price of each one of those 3,000 season tickets by more than £30. Or here's another thought. Let's assume Rovers' lowest early bird price, £340, represents the smallest amount that the club can afford to charge for a limited number of seats within the stadium while still covering costs. In that case you could, with that £100,000, enter everyone applying for a season ticket into a lottery, with fully 300 winners – announced on the eve of the new season - getting their seat paid for in full by the club.

300 cashback winners, out of, let's say, perhaps 6,000 season tickets sold – that's a one in 20 chance of getting your money back. With odds like that, chances are that many supporters wavering over whether or not to commit to a ticket for next season would fancy their chances and take the plunge. After all, you've got to be in it to win it.

Or you could just do what John Ryan does best, and blow the £100,000 on a grand gesture that will grab headlines in the short term but do nothing to address the underlying issues that threaten to sabotage the club's renaissance.

No prizes for guessing which option the real 'Mr Doncaster Rovers' took – he made the unprecedented decision to give away free tickets to all home supporters for Good Friday's relegation 6-pointer against Crystal Palace.

On the face of it, this is a laudable move: the stadium is likely to reach capacity for the first time this season, many casual supporters will see the team play for the first time and, in characteristic Ryan fashion, there's the added bonus of guaranteed publicity for the club.

But the question is how many of those taking advantage of the freebie seats will come back – especially with the club on its most wretched run of form in recent memory, its trademark 'Arsenal of the lower leagues' style a distant memory as a crippling injury crisis exposes the limitations of trying to build a robust squad on Rovers' shoestring budget. Friday's match may bring a carnival atmosphere to the stands, but it's not likely to be a great advert for the entertainment value of Championship football.

Anyone can fill a stadium by letting people in for free, doubly so in a town where people will “have owt for nowt”, but the key to long-term success is to build up those attendances week in, week out.

But while Rovers supporters rightly idolise John Ryan for the transformation in their club's fortunes that he has overseen, an increasingly vocal section of the hard core support is becoming frustrated with his methods.

'Good Free-Day' is just the latest in a string of money-off promotions aimed squarely at casual supporters, and long-standing season ticket holders - who have already seen their annual subscriptions soar since the club left Belle Vue to become tenants of Doncaster Council - are beginning to feel taken for granted. Speaking on local radio this week, Ryan hoped that season ticket holders would see the positive in what he and the board were trying to do. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests fans who have followed the club since its non-league nadir are not renewing their seats for next term, and that's a warning sign the club cannot afford to ignore.

This isn't something that you'll have heard said very often this season, but in this regard at least Doncaster would do well to follow the example of South Yorkshire neighbours Sheffield United.

For all the faults of the SUFC board, the club's track record on season ticket incentives has been a good one – fans who renewed after relegation from the Premier League were promised a free season ticket the following year had the club been promoted (an offer that admittedly seems less generous with hindsight); and for the last two seasons a child's season ticket cost £10 when bought with an adult's, though that offer has now fallen victim to the club's perilous financial position.

They, too, have gone for a bold gimmick to boost attendances for 2011/12 – but it couldn't be more different from Rovers' approach. All season ticket holders who renewed their seats by mid-April have been guaranteed a price freeze, not just this time out but also for 2012/13. It's an offer that rewards loyalty, and softens the blow of relegation to League One with the promise that, even should the Blades immediately bounce back, those who've stuck with the club through its 'annus horribilis' will still be paying as little as £300 for their seat the following season.

And it's an approach that seems to have paid off, with more than 10,000 renewals sold by the deadline – well off the high watermark seen in happier times, but just about enough to keep the club afloat and certainly enough to ensure that that Bramall Lane will be one of the best attended grounds in that division.

Even now that the deadline for cheap renewals has passed, those hardy souls buying a Blades season ticket for the first time can pick up an adult seat on the Kop for £369 – fully £50 cheaper than the lowest-price seat currently available at the Keepmoat (where the cheapest seats became a staggering £80 more expensive at the end of March).

It's easy to forget in an age that demands instant results, but the fans who go to games year in, year out, are the lifeblood – and a major revenue stream - of any club. And any chairman ignores this at their peril.

You can follow David on twitter here @jonesthescribe


  1. Ok, an interesting slant on John Ryan's grand gesture, but you appear to miss out some valid points, seemingly in classic "f**king lazy journalist" style (well done, a glittering career beckons).

    Primarily this is an exercise to provide 14000 supporters for a game which could determine where Rovers play their football next season - lose, and we could be travelling to Bramall Lane again next season, win and we will see the salubrious surroundings of Portman Road again. It really is nothing to do with securing long term fans. It is a £100k stake to win £3million; the income received from staying in the Championship.

    Of course, you could argue that we could win the game WITHOUT a full house, and that is hard to argue against, but hey its John's club so its his call.

  2. RTR - You are entitled to respond but the language and abuse is out of order.

    You make accusations of lazy journalism and the absence of some valid points, yet the only comment you make suggests that there is a lack of emphasis on the importance of the match. Fair enough. But apart from that you suggest nothing else.

    David's point is that if there was £100k to be made available, maybe it could be put to better use.Personally I think a subsidised ticket and some sort of refund for ST's could have worked. Alternatively, with such a small squad I am sure O'Driscoll could have made good use of it in the transfer or loan windows.

    You're of course right it is John Ryan's club to do with what he wants. However, I recall him stating that last Summer that, along with fellow directors, he had pumped £1m into the club. To support the investment in Billy Sharp and subsidise the running of the club. If he penalises existing loyal season ticket holders enough for them not to renew, then they potentially head into the Summer needing an increased level of financial propping up, or to lose a prized asset to maintain the status quo. I guess it depends how long Ryan and his fellow directors are willing to continue with that cycle.