West Ham United announced last week that they would slash season ticket prices for the 2016/17 season to less than £300 for an adult ticket, a price cut of between half and two-thirds on this season’s prices, depending on the location.
Why the 2016/17 season and not next season?
Simple, said West Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady, that season marks the start of the Premier League’s new £5.1 billion television deal, and with it, a significant cash boost to every club in the top flight. This windfall, Brady said, would be passed on to the fans at West Ham in the shape of a reduction in ticket prices.
But 2016/17 also marks West Ham’s first season in their new home at the Olympic Stadium.
The Boleyn Ground, where the club have plied their trade since 1904, holds 20,000 fewer supporters than the Olympic Stadium’s expected 55,000, and while West Ham are undoubtedly a club in demand – their average attendance last season was just over 34,000, putting them in the top 50 European clubs – it remains to be seen whether they have the draw to fill the substantially larger site.
Nothing would be more embarrassing to West Ham than being forced to explain why a stadium they bid for the right to use, a stadium paid for by the taxpayer, a stadium they faced stern opposition for, is half empty every week.
It’s a risk that’s significantly diminished in correlation with the reduced ticket prices. Pointing to the inflated television deal is a smart PR move, which works on three fronts:
One, it gives them a reduction in prices without having to admit they were concerned about filling the bigger stadium.
Two, it sets them up to build a narrative of accessible top flight football in a stadium with a national legacy, drawing in younger people, families, and new and part-time football supporters.
Three, it gives them first mover advantage on the new television deal, and puts the pressure on other clubs to follow their lead.
One club unlikely to be able to follow West Ham’s lead is Leyton Orient, whose Brisbane Road ground is less than two miles from the Queen Elizabeth Park site where the Olympic Stadium is situated. Orient will soon find their burly East End neighbours in much closer proximity, and the proposed price drop will bring the cheapest tickets at West Ham below the price of tickets in three of the four stands at Orient.
Then Leyton Orient chairman Barry Hearn launched a legal challenge to West Ham’s proposed move to the Olympic Stadium, which was settled out of court last year, with Orient set to receive compensation for lost revenue. And it’s not difficult to see how they could lose out. With the side two points from safety with a game to go in League One there’s the very real prospect of bottom tier football at the pre-war Matchroom Stadium trying to compete with Premiership stars in the sparkling venue where Mo, Jess and the gang won their gold medals. There’s just no contest. It’s a brave parent who takes their child to Orient when all their school friends are going to watch West Ham.
Come August next year, the walk to Brisbane Road will be made through a sea of claret and blue shirts, and evening fixtures will kick off with the glow of stadium lights on the horizon behind the Tommy Johnston Stand.
The disembodied voice of Bobby Moore will float across the cornfields of Stratford: “If you build it, they will submit the most competitively-priced bid during an open tendering process and, pending the result of a prolonged legal challenge and following completion of an extensive site redevelopment, they will come.”
“They will squint into a sky so blue it hurts your eyes just to look at whatever that weird sculpture tower thing that looks like candy laces wrapped round a slinky is.”
Cars will queue into the distance not knowing for sure why they’re doing it, people in half-scarves will visit the Westfield Shopping Centre and they’ll pass over the money without thinking about it, and, at the end, David Sullivan will play catch with his dad and we’ll all have our hearts warmed.
Putting aside the valuable lessons we’ll all learn about the power of believing in our dreams, the 2016/17 season will herald a shift in power structures of football. An average attendance in the high 50-thousands would put West Ham in the top 10 among European clubs – firmly up there with Arsenal and amongst the German clubs with their low-price ticket models. The enhanced television deal will create a new relationship between the top flight and the rest of the football league, one with an accentuated divide. And the geographic impact, West Ham United will move from the confines of Green Street to the regeneration mecca that is East London Zone 2, within striking distance of The City and with fast trains all the way through Kent.
Somewhere there’s a room full of commercial managers dreaming of clouds of money so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. And somewhere there’s a Leyton Orient fan wondering if they’re going to have the Tommy Johnston end to themselves next year.