The contradictions of the Mike Ashley regime continue – only this time that might actually be a good thing.
Newcastle United have long been painted as a club that confound expectations, a narrative that hardly lost momentum when Ashley took the extraordinary step of appointing Joe Kinnear as director of football over the summer. But this latest move – to try to spark their Premier League rivals into taking action on the scandalous over-pricing of away tickets – is a welcome and much-needed step forward for a club that is pledging to play a vanguard role in driving ticket costs south.
According to John Irving, Newcastle United’s finance director, Ashley’s attitude on pricing is driven by one thing: to fill every single seat in the stadium. That means innovative ticket deals, match packages and – most of all – reducing the cost of going to games, both at home and away.
This latest idea, a first of its kind in the top flight, is to try to drive down the cost of going to away matches by agreeing reciprocal deals on prices. It is being billed as the first shot in a revolution in the way clubs deal with away fans, but it is underpinned by what seems like common sense.
“Price is key,” says Irving as he looks to sum up United’s approach. “Supporters have a choice on what they want to spend their money on, and if we want to fill the stadium, we need to reduce the price. We won’t shy away from discounting tickets at all. The owner is happy to lead the charge on that and to be honest we probably are. We believe it is the right thing for football.
“Premier League attendances are down and the only way to attract people to football is to put prices down a little bit.”
Newcastle fans have long felt they are being stiffed by opposition clubs because they travel well – and now they have proof. United’s own figures show that only one club charged them less than £30 last season – Wigan Athletic, for a game that was on Sky TV.
Most of the rest charged £40 or over which, in the case of three clubs, was double what their fans paid to come to St James’ Park. The club don’t want to be drawn into criticising individual clubs but Norwich looks like a case-in-point, having whacked Newcastle fans with a £45 ticket for a match which came just after Christmas.
United fans can expect the same treatment this year. The Journal understands Norwich will charge £35 this year having turned down Newcastle’s offer of £20 and £5 for concessions. It seems United are likely to increase their price of £26 last season to match Norwich’s £35, partly out of frustration at their attitude.
It seems like a pricing policy that will only increase resentment and accusations that the Premier League is out-of-touch with the common fan, and the reciprocal pricing initiative is designed to halt that.
“If we can get it to places where our fans paid £30 and their fans paid £20 and you can knock them down to £20 then great,” Irving said.
“Of course we will ask every club, but we already know there are a couple of clubs that won’t do it. It isn’t going to fit for everyone and we won’t do it for everyone. That’s fine, we aren’t pushing it for everybody and we accept it isn’t a solution for every single club.
“Our statistics show we were cheaper than 17 clubs when it came to away tickets. If we can get those clubs to come down to us then great, and if it means we’re taking 3,000 fans everywhere then even better.”
There is, of course, a jarring contradiction here and it centres around the owner. Newcastle supporters will march on Saturday to try to campaign for Ashley to leave the club, but this pricing policy will actually benefit many of those walking to the ground.
The cynics will say it has been timed to dampen enthusiasm for that march. Indeed it is difficult to square an owner who confounds and frustrates with his damaging football decisions with the one who sanctions cut-price ticket deals.
There is no easy answer other than to give credit where it’s due. Ashley has made monumental errors that have set Newcastle back, but trying to cut the cost of going to football matches is certainly not one.
“The number one priority is to fill the stadium. Whenever I talk to the owner about tickets and pricing he says ‘Get people in the stadium’,” Irving explains.
“It is not to get people to spend more money on drinks and whatever, it is about creating the atmosphere and having a full stadium and creating the idea that coming to Newcastle might be like the old days again where it was hard to get a ticket.
“We’re selling 10,000 tickets for Liverpool and it is a hard slog, even when the big teams come. We do good deals on season tickets and we’ve done deals in the last few years where we reduce them down. We put match packages on. Anything we can do where we can be a bit smarter then we’ll continue to do it.”
Newcastle insist they are not taking the loyalty of their large local fanbase for granted.
“Every club has to work at it. Even Manchester United don’t fill their stadium every week,” Irving said.
“I think we’re already down the line of doing these things to get people to come in. This initiative is great because it helps our fans travelling and it will help to get fans into the stadium – both home and away supporters.
“There is still a lot of things to do, on season tickets and the rest. It doesn’t stop here. If we can get 10 clubs to do reciprocal deals then great.”
Cup games will continue to be charged at a low price, Irving assures The Journal.
“We priced the Cup games and European games competitively because we understand we’re asking people to pay £600 for a season ticket,” he said.
“If you keep charging them out at £30 you’re going to play in front of 10 or 15,000 because people have a decision to make. Last year’s European ticket pricing was a massive success, I thought.
“The quarter-final against Benfica was a sell-out. The thinking behind Leeds was the same. Smart ticket pricing is about having 52,000 tickets to sell. Charging £30 is not going to sell out.”