17 June, 2010 – “Anybody who is trying to say there has been a poor uptake is lying” – Manchester United spokesperson, denying sales had fallen short of expectations.
1 September, 2010 – CEO David Gill admits season tickets sales are just 51,800 this season, despite 54,000 season-long seats being available at Old Trafford.
United’s admission that it failed to sell out of season tickets for the first time in memory has exposed as myth both the supposed 17,000 person waiting list and supporters’ enduring ability to soak up ever-increasing prices. After all, aggregate season ticket prices have risen 48 per cent since the Glazer family’s arrival in Manchester five years ago.
Additionally, the UK economy has experienced one of the deepest recessions since the Second World War, with unemployment in Manchester now at 5.4 per cent compared to a national average of 3.6 per cent. Indeed, Gill has claimed pleasure with sales in the UK’s depressed economic environment.
“Last year our target was 54,000 season tickets, we’ve sold 51,800, which is pretty good in the current climate,” Gill claimed.
“We’ve sold more season tickets than the capacity of most Premier League grounds. Our executive seat sales are on track as compared with last year in a different market.
“I think the bare facts are that the club is in good financial shape. The ticket sales have held up.
“We sold out for Newcastle United and West Ham United but we are not complacent and we’ve got to keep working to make sure that we fill the ground for every game and we’ll do that by playing great football, attractive football, exciting football that brings fans in.”
Yet there is something insincere about the Gill’s stance, with the club’s attendances not drastically affected by either the early ’80s or ’90s UK recessions. More to the point, unemployment has not increased at all in the local area over the past year, with the economic climate no worse in summer 2010, when technically the recession has ended, than 2009 when it had not.
Anecdotal evidence points to a large number of supporters heeding the call by the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) and Independent Manchester United Supporters Association (IMUSA) to swap a season ticket for a One United membership, and apply for games on a match-by-match basis.
Duncan Drasdo, chair of MUST, says that the Glazer family has now run out of room to force price increases on supporters in future seasons, with United’s core match-going support eroded over the past five years.
“Up until this season they increased ticket prices aggressively every year and could get away with it because the loyal fans they forced out were replaced by others still prepared to pay the increased price,” said Drasdo.
“The failure to sell out season tickets is very significant as the Glazers depend on an excess of demand over supply to exert control over supporters.”
Just as the Green & Gold protest movement forced the club to freeze ticket price increases for the first time in five years, then the eradication of a waiting list for season tickets will colour the club’s ongoing price strategy.
Not that the shortfall in sales will make a significant financial difference to the family’s plans of course. United’s revenues will suffer little for 2,000 season tickets remaining unsold, unless the corresponding sale of matchday tickets also falls short against the least attractive opposition this season.
Evidence points to the club’s £104 million match revenue holding reasonably steady in the current financial year unless the Sir Alex Ferguson’s side crashes out of the Champions League in the group stage. The Glazers’ business model is essentially predicated on United qualifying for Europe’s premier competition and then making the quarter-finals at least.
Yet, should the failure to invest in the transfer market this summer on established stars impact more heavily than expected, the aggressive marketing campaign to sell season tickets this summer may have to increase a notch more come June 2011.