It is now almost 18 months since Old Trafford was first bathed in the green and gold of protest. The Glazer family’s decision to borrow more than £500 million on the international bond market sparked a new wave of supporter protest, and a level of anger not seen in Manchester since the reclusive Americans first appeared in the city. Yet that protest has achieved very little bar a thousand headlines and last summer’s season ticket prize freeze. Small fry compared to the regime change that became supporter groups stated aim.
But with next year’s ticket prices shortly announced, will Manchester United’s executive management stick or twist; fending off protest for the summer or provoking another wave of anger?
Indeed, the decision to raise prices (or not) at Old Trafford – rises have been announced by both Arsenal and Chelsea recently – will have already been taken, despite disingenuous claims by the club that it has not. The imminent announcement on ticket prices will be the first salvo in another summer-long battle of wills between supporters and United’s ownership.
Last summer’s price freeze bought the regime few friends, with thousands of fans still walking away from season ticket ownership, but the relative absence of green and gold at Old Trafford this season has marked a lull is supporter protest. The Glazer’s decision to raise, lower or freeze prices for next season could add new verve to the protest. Or perhaps kill it stone dead. Another freeze will buy the regime more time; price rises could spark yet more anger and another call to boycott season ticket renewals.
And although the regime has not once lowered prices in six seasons in charge at United, there is precedent at the Glazer’s NFL franchise. In fact, with attendances at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers falling so steeply that the team’s TV coverage was blacked out by the league, the Glazer family chose to cut ticket prices by up to 30 per cent. It was a move born of financial necessity – blackouts, designed to keep attendances high, are costly to franchise owners, and the regime had been forced to buy its own tickets for many matches last season.
The family made the most of its decision though, claiming the owners to be supporter-centric in a time of financial hardship in the United States.
“Our organization has spent a lot of time listening to our fans at this time when our team is thriving and our economy is not,” Joel Glazer recently said recently.
“As a result, we are now offering several pricing changes in response to our community’s needs.”
The move has raised hopes that the Glazer family will similarly reduce costs at Old Trafford, which have increased by 50 per cent in aggregate since the Americans took control. Unsurprisingly, the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) has called for fans in Manchester to be afforded the same treatment as their counterparts in Florida.
“Joel Glazer said he’s listened to the Tampa fans. Well it’s about time he listened to Manchester United fans and responded by cutting our ticket prices too,” MUST Vice Chair Sean Bones said in a statement.
“Manchester United supporters should not feel they are subsidising the Glazers’ American Football Franchise as well as their debt. After the huge price rises our fans have endured while the Glazers have been taking out millions of pounds from our club if anything we deserve bigger price cuts than the Tampa fans.
“Anything other than an equivalent cut in prices at Manchester United will be seen as a slap in the face for United fans.”
There are, however, key differences between the financial model at Old Trafford and that in Tampa. First, and certainly most important, there is no TV blackout system in the Premier League. There is, therefore, no chance United’s TV revenue will fall sharply under the current rights contracts, unless the club fails to make the Champions League. With that possibility remote, Old Trafford bean counters are under no financial pressure to act on ticket prices.
There is also little pressure on attendances in Manchester. While thousands of supporters have given up season tickets, the scale of United’s support is such that matches are mostly sold out or as close to it to make very little financial difference. The family’s decision to increase individual non-member match ticket prices this season, and retain the despised automatic cup match ticket scheme, underlined the Glazer’s confidence is continuing to sell in volume.
Indeed, the evidence supports a rise in prices at Old Trafford this summer, backed by another aggressive marketing campaign aimed at selling season tickets. Already, the club has marketed its non-existence ‘season ticket waiting list’. While the list is nothing more than an email marketing database – offering no priority tickets to supporters who sign up – there is also no shame within the regime about using every available tactic to sell tickets. After all, how can there be a waiting list when United failed to sell all available season tickets last summer?
Still, the question for the regime is whether it feels the need to pacify United’s supporters with price cuts and star names, or not. History points to another summer of promises over money available for transfer spend spending; and misleading statements that United is a club built on ‘making stars, not buying them.’
If the close season also includes a price hike, green and gold may also return next season.