Supporting a Premier League football team is an expensive habit, particularly for the most loyal fans who follow their club every week, home and away. Sunderland already offer some of the most competitive prices in the Premier League, and the club's decision to freeze and in some instances reduce those prices for those renewing or purchasing a season card before April 5th is to be welcomed, though not unreservedly.
Firstly, the positives; working out at just over £21 per match and representing a massive £186 saving on individual match day prices, the North Stand represents brilliant value next season as prices are reduced to match those in the South Stand. The South Stand remains a concession area, so the £108 saving there over the course of the season looks less impressive, but it's pleasing to see the club bring parity to the cost of a season card at the two ends of the ground.
Whilst the reduction in price of a North Stand season ticket is encouraging, it is a shame that it has to be done at all. When the South Stand was given to home supporters the club made a silly, but thankfully rectifiable error, by having a price discrepancy between the two ends of the ground. I'm confident that I am not the only person who was motivated, at least in part, to move from the North Stand to the South by the cheaper price for an effectively identical view of the pitch. Given the context, it is not surprising that there are people in the South Stand upper - where standing is "permitted" - that choose to sit. Perhaps the parity in prices will see a migration of supporters back to the North Stand, unless they are put off by the idea of having away fans sat behind and above them. If people fail to move, issues with standing may continue to flare up next season.
The most impressive element of next season's prices comes in the concession areas where the costs of family tickets are nothing short of superb. It cannot be argued that the club are doing anything other than their utmost to attract the future of the club to the Stadium of Light. With football at the very highest level easily accessible on television and the internet, kids can effectively choose to support anybody they want from around the world. This evidently happens, even in the North East where family ties to clubs remain generally strong. These family links are vital, as is the notion of a match day experience. Being in a football ground, watching a match in the flesh, is something that simply cannot be replicated sitting in a living room watching a television. The club is to be commended for offering adult and child tickets in the Family Zone for a combined price of £425. That match day, parent/child bond, even in the sanitised modern football arena is simply incomparable and ensures future support.
Despite the competitive pricing, it does feel like loyalty is sometimes left unrewarded. The timing of the season card price announcement came in the week building up to the Fulham game. Ordinarily, there would be nothing remarkable about that, but the match against the West London side had seen season card holders provided with the opportunity to get additional tickets for friends and family for £10 each. Despite making use of these offers a number of times, I have done so almost begrudgingly. As much as I want to see the Stadium of Light full, it would be nice to feel my loyalty was being rewarded by the club, rather than me rewarding someone else through my allegiance.
In the South or North Stands next season, a £10 ticket would not represent a huge reduction on the average £21 per game cost of a season card. Over the course of the season, this is not a great deal of money, given that these special offers do not happen every week and never for Category A games. However, the price applies to all sections of the ground. Season cards in the East Stand, for example, cost up to £525 in the prime, central sections, which represents one of the lowest savings on game by game prices when spread out across the 19 games. Ally this to the fact someone can pick up a ticket for £10 in the same area of the ground on a number of match days and the idea of buying your seat for the season becomes less appealing. £525 works out at approximately £27 per game, yet for 3 or 4 matches someone can sit in the same area for £10. That seems highly unfair.
Given the huge television deal on the horizon for Premier League clubs next season - and assuming the club are planning for another top flight campaign - it would have been nice to see season card holders given bigger savings. A proper price cut across the board would attract more fans, and with Ellis Short himself having expressed a desire to see a full stadium packed with passionate Sunderland supporters, it's a shame that the opportunity has not been grasped.
The additional offers to card holders, this season at least, were not particularly creative and frankly, a little bit pointless. Supporters want to see a winning football team or at least some excitement. Generally speaking, a discount on an already overpriced beer and a burger for turning up to the ground early is at best a poor incentive, at worst an unimaginative, lazy attempt to get fans to the ground early in the hope they will spend more money after making use of the "deal". There are very few genuinely appealing rewards, and while some supporters may feel differently, I'm confident that the majority of fans are not going to make a decision on signing up for a season of home games based on a handful of restaurant discounts.
Football supporters who are willing to give up their time and money for the 19 home league games deserve better enticements. They want to see football, obviously, so why not make any offers associated with the card football related. Other clubs, Arsenal and Manchester United being principal examples, force early cup games into the price of their season tickets. It would be a nice touch if Sunderland took that template and tweaked it. Instead of an increased price enforcing the purchase of these tickets, why not offer them within the standard price of the season card. Football supporters want to watch football but a midweek game against Morecambe, even for £10, tends not to appeal. If the ticket for that round is already included at no extra cost, it would help to fill the stadium. Those are the sort of games, with that in mind, which should also be used for friends and family offers. That way, everybody would feel they were benefitting.
If the Premier League and its clubs continue to commodify football, converting supporters into customers as they do so, then the product they offer us must match the price we pay. Of course, many of us will go on supporting regardless, but when £400 is seen as cheap - and by modern standards it is, relatively speaking anyway - then some will simply give up. We live in tough economic time, particularly in Sunderland, where there are 42 applicants for every job. For many, £400 would not be an option even if we did play exciting, winning football. The club is at least trying, but with the massive television deal on the horizon, a chance to break the mould and perhaps fill the stadium has unfortunately been missed.