One observation about the crowd when I attended my first game at the Camp Nou (in October 2014, against Ajax in the 2014-15 Champions League) was how people around me all seemed to know each other. There were friendly nods and handshakes, and it was evident that these men and women were familiar with each other. They all arrived and departed independently, though, and there wasn’t much conversation during the game, suggesting they were acquaintances rather than friends.
On my second visit to the Camp Nou (ten days ago, for the 2015-16 Champions League game against Arsenal), I noticed hordes of empty seats. I was in a stand two tiers higher than where I had sat for the Ajax game, and despite that stand being priced at a princely €150, there were plenty of empty seats (my wife sat next to me for the duration of the game despite her assigned seat being one rank and a few files away). It was a cold and rainy day, but not so rainy that €150 be treated as “sunk cost”!
The common feature that explains both these phenomena is the “season ticket”. As the official club website explains,
The complete season ticket gives members the right to attend, always from the same seat, games played at the Camp Nou in official competitions: Spanish League, Champions League, Copa de Rey and UEFA Cup (emphasis added)
The reason people seated around me at the Ajax game were acquainted with each other was because they were season ticket holders, and would watch every game seated in close proximity to one another. And the empty seats for the Arsenal game were a result of season ticket holders, for whom the marginal cost of not attending the game was far less than €150, not attending the game (there is a “free seat” program that lets season ticket holders sell their ticket through official channels, but considering that the decision to not go would have been made in the last minute (given the rain) many season ticket holders may not have exercised this option.
Football clubs (and other performance venues) sell season tickets in order to create a “base load” of demand for their tickets. While these season tickets are sold at a deep discount (relative to what it costs to buy a ticket for each game), the fact that they are sold at once and at the beginning of the season means that the club can be sure of a certain amount of revenue from ticket sales, and can be assured to fill a certain proportion of seats at the stadium in every round.
Season tickets are also important because they help create a sense of loyalty among the fans, and the same fans sitting in the same spaces week after week can bond and help create a better viewing atmosphere at the club. In other words, season tickets seems like a no-brainer. Except that Hull City, which plays in the English Championship, has decided to do away with season tickets starting next season.
The official statements related to this move seem like sanitised PR (refer link above), but the linked article gives away an important piece of information that suggests why this new ticket scheme might have been brought into play:
The club said the Upper Stand would be closed, meaning 1,800 fans must be relocated, but would be opened for high-profile matches
While the club doesn’t want to admit it, the reason it is doing away with season tickets is that attendance at the KC Stadium has been falling, and it appears that there have been lots of empty seats in the stadium.
As I had noted in my earlier piece on pricing Liverpool FC tickets, there are network effects to watching a football game in the stadium. You gain value not only from what happens on the pitch, but also from the atmosphere that fans at the stadium (including you) build up. And while there are many ways in which fans can affect the watching experience of co-fans, it shouldn’t be hard to understand that empty seats do not add to the stadium atmosphere in any way.
The problem with season tickets is that even with programs such as “free seat” (where the season ticket holder can get paid for giving up their seat), the cost for a season ticket holder to not attend a game is extremely low. And when several season ticket holders decide to not attend certain games, it can lead to rather low attendances, and diminished stadium experience for the fans who do end up attending.
This network effect – of fans helping shape experience of fellow fans – makes the sale of football season tickets different from that of long term cargo contracts, for example. You not only seek to assure yourself of revenues by selling season tickets, but also seek to fill a certain portion of the seats for every game through such a program, and help create the experience.
And when your fans are being delinquent (by purchasing season tickets but not attending), your first action would be to increase the price of such season tickets so that only “serious fans” will buy it and the (sunk) cost of not attending a game is higher. It seems Hull City has already gone through one such exercise, and raised its season ticket prices, which hasn’t helped drive overall attendances.
Hence, the club has decided to do away with season tickets altogether. With the new rolling monthly ticket program, fans will purchase if and only if they are confident of attending a certain number of games. On the one hand, this pushes up the cost of not going for a game, and on the other, allows the club to manage its revenues on a larger portion of the tickets.
From a revenue point of view, this is a risky strategy, as the club foregoes assured revenues from season tickets in favour of more volatile monthly ticket revenues, and greater tickets to sell in the open market before every game. However, considering the network effects of watching football in a stadium, what the club is banking on is that this measure will help them fill up their stadium more than before, and that the improved atmosphere that comes out of that can be monetised in the long run.
It’s a bold move by Hull City to improve football attendances. If it works out, it offers a way out for other clubs that are currently unable to fill their stadiums. But you must remember that optimisation here takes place on two axes – revenues and crowds!