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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
Editorials:
Paying the price
By Baz Barry
 
My personal circumstances, I'm sure, are not unique.

I have a young family, an old mortgage and a disposable income that hasn't changed since May. I can't / don't get to see every game - only seventeen last season, of which eleven were at home - so a season ticket doesn't make economic sense. I've done my forty games a season, years ago, but now I have to be more responsible to others. I'm still as passionate about my team as I was when I first saw the light in 1976. But, for the first time in those twenty-four years, I feel alienated.

I'm being priced out from watching my beloved Golden Boys and I despair.

I had hoped my club might resist being sucked into the cauldron of Murdoch-induced elitism and profiteering but sadly it's not to be. I loathe the commercialism that we're now very much part of. A commercialism that is changing the soul of football, seemingly unchallenged, and dramatically altering the fan base for the sake of the players' inflated wages and a better return for the shareholders.

Last season, the combined ticket cost for an adult and child was 19 (14 adult, 5 child). This season the minimum price, allowing for membership discounts, is 34 (20 + 14). That's a 78% increase. A 78% increase from the original "Family Club", that has repeatedly stated, and as little as a year ago, that its future lies in attracting young fans. How can that club hold onto those intentions when child prices have risen from 5 to 14? The philosophy has been kicked in the teeth for the sake of a better bottom line. And the figures quoted are for the lower Category C matches. Look at the top of the scale and we have an adult at 26, a child at 19 and a 139% increase. Family Club? My bottom.

Our season ticket base has jumped from five thousand odd to thirteen thousand, the majority of newcomers coming in at the full price of 420 instead of any pre-play-off offers. "There can't be much wrong with thirteen thousand season tickets", I hear people say. Fine - to a point, I agree. To the point that we have crowds of under sixteen thousand for our first two home games. To the point that only nine hundred paying punters bothered with the Wimbledon game. To the point of the lost revenue of five thousand empty seats. Any thoughts of the attendances against Wimbledon and Bradford being "a disgrace" are clearly being counterbalanced by the public's reaction to disgraceful pricing.

Yes, I know the club has to find 2.5m to pay off Petchey and fund the Premiership wages of the players. But I also know GT has nobly stated he's going to give the existing players a chance to survive, and that if and when he brings in some new talent he won't be breaking the wage structure he has in place. Costs are increasing but I suspect no more than income.

And then you have the price increases of programmes, player sponsorship, Junior Hornet membership. The shambles of a club shop trying to sell another new shirt at 40% more than local sports retailers. The laughable marketing department cold-shouldering old corporate sponsors, individual Vice Presidents and author, Trefor Jones.

And of course the dark shadow of unknown figures in penguin suits changing their minds about controlling the club's shares. (I've seen penguins in their natural habitat in the Falklands Islands and unexpectedly, for such a beautiful, cuddly bird, they stink like high heaven.)

Is it any wonder that fears are being raised?

At the first signs of rumblings of discontent in the local media, Howard Wells presents the club's defence with GT in tow. Classic stuff. Only the other night on Channel 4 there was a documentary about the training of McKinsey consultants, allegedly the best management consultants in the world and, by definition, the best corporate minds in industry. The programme showed them working on a real case study where a struggling Scandinavian newspaper group needed to persuade its unions to accept redundancies prior to automation and survival. And the strongest tip the trainer would make to his young consultants to be? Ensure the top man is speaking from the same script. Get him to deliver the messages of doom because the unions will more readily accept a personal explanation from someone they respect.

So GT and Howard Wells presented a united defence which appeared to be a three-pronged justification of the club's activities. They could only benchmark the pricing against local Premiership clubs (and what else could they do?). They'd been rushed into decisions that they weren't prepared for and they might make mistakes that they'll have to correct. And thirdly, any dissent is a distraction to the on-pitch cause.

By looking at the figures quoted in the "Go For It" Premiership Guide, published jointly by the WO and the club, the full season ticket price of 420 was pitched alongside the likes of Arsenal (416), Chelsea (410), Spurs (430) and West Ham (430). But we are not those clubs and never will be. We don't have their stadiums, their huge cosmopolitan wage bills and their inherent fan base. We should be undercutting them to attract their fans to us, not matching their prices. There's no price incentive for the local floating fan to come to Watford when they know the cost is the same to go to Tottenham. And the club knows we're not the same. We've been told before that we have to model our top-flight existence and aspirations on the likes of Leicester (355) and Derby (260). I'd add the likes of Wimbledon (220), Southampton (357) and even Bradford (187) to the equation and you can see why the contradictions stick in the throat.

And once the season ticket prices are set the minimum match day prices (including membership discounts) invariably follow. Watford 20, Spurs 20, Arsenal 15, West Ham 25, Chelsea 24, and then Leicester 17, Derby 16, Wimbledon 15, Southampton 21, and Bradford 18.

So what else could the club do?

For a start they shouldn't be surprised that fans are resentful about 50%, 80% and 138% price increases that are squeezing them out from seeing their team. More importantly they should have pitched the prices at more realistic, competitive and affordable levels. Simplistically, that way there would be more season tickets sold, more match day attendees, few empty seats (thus better revenue), and a better atmosphere for the team to perform in. And make sure the away fans have only their 2,250 allocation of half of the Vicarage Road stand, and no more.

Lastly, the club should grab their own fallback option and admit they've got it wrong. They should rebate those who've got a season ticket already, reset the prices all round and fill the place up.

I'll support the team as loudly and passionately as the next fan, if not more so this season because I know I won't see my Golden Boys as often. One experience we should all have learnt from at the end of last season is that the team performs best in a fervent atmosphere and I'll give my all before, during and even after a game. But I reserve the right to object to what I see is wrong, to voice how I feel I'm being treated as a result of the blatant profiteering.

Strike me down with a bolt of thunder for the blasphemous criticism of the contradictory way the club is being run, but our inbred, non-transferable allegiance is being exploited, and it stinks.