Just not the ticket

2010-09-25 00:00

THERE aren’t many more depleting sporting experiences than watching a game in a stadium that is so empty that you can hear the coaches screaming instructions to the players.

In one of the opening matches of the Premier Soccer League season, Wits University met champions SuperSport United at Ellis Park in front of a crowd that might have been embarrassing at a schoolboys’ game. The stadium was so empty that even on TV you could hear Brent Carelse swearing at the referee to be sent off for SuperSport 10 minutes into the second half.

Admittedly, the champions have never been able to draw a big crowd even in Pretoria. It must be hard to market a club that’s named after a pay-TV channel, even one that has been overwhelmingly successful. Wits usually draw a decent little crowd at their Milpark home ground. The decision to hold this game at Ellis Park seems not to have sensible in terms of creating a spectacle and marketing the PSL.

The low attendances on the opening weekend of the new season were repeated around the country, with the notable, and pleasantly surprising, exception being the Cape double header at Cape Town Stadium.

In Durban, there couldn’t have been more than 4 000 people in the 70 000-seater Moses Mabhida Stadium to watch AmaZulu’s opening game against Maritzburg United. The trend has continued in the weeks that have followed as PSL attendances that were already not overly impressive have sagged under the weight of the now doubled R40 ticket price.

The exceptions have been, unsurprisingly, where Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs have been involved. All 70 000 tickets were sold for the first leg of the Soweto derby MTN8 semi-final first leg at FNB Stadium, and another sell-out crowd will watch tomorrow’s second leg at the same venue.

Chiefs’ meeting with Maritzburg at Harry Gwala Stadium was sold out too, though unusually it took until the day of the game to flog the last of the 12 000 tickets. In United’s only other home game, their 3-0 defeat to Lamontville Golden Arrows, an attendance of some 3000 was one of the lowest the club has drawn in the PSL. This must be a disappointing development for a club that was starting to enjoy the support of the city it inhabits and drew an average 6500 fans last season, the seventh-highest in the league.

These sort of figures lead one to the deduction that: 1. the PSL might just have shot itself in the foot by doubling its minimum ticket price in the wake of the World Cup; and 2. if the league persists with the R40 tag, it’s going to present some serious challenges to the marketing departments of small to medium-sized clubs.

The league has justified its hike as necessary to cover higher costs of renting World Cup stadiums. But there are a few flaws in this argument. Firstly, only two PSL clubs, AmaZulu and Ajax, have named new World Cup stadiums as their official home grounds. Secondly, the public has already paid for the cost of building the stadiums out of their tax money. Why should global recession-crunched Joe Public also bear the brunt of running stadiums? The PSL is flush with money in the wake of its massive TV and sponsorship deals and turns over a healthy profit.

Third, and most important, R40 is just too much to charge for the product on offer. The PSL is a healthy league of a high, competitive standard for a country like South Africa where organised national football is only some 40 years old. Games between the top clubs are a spectacle, with World Cup stars on show and because of the crowds they draw. Matches between smaller-name teams can be more hit-and-miss. It’s the 15th-richest league in the world and going places. The football is keenly fought and often entertaining. Like any league in the world, there are games where you’d rather be having a snooze. Of course, the league is still miles removed from the top European leagues, where the world’s best players compete.

In contrast, the cheapest ticket for a key Currie Cup game last Saturday between the Sharks and the Cheetahs was R50. So a ticket for a top game in the world’s strongest domestic rugby league is just R10 more than for the 15th-richest soccer league. The sums just don’t seem to be adding up. Even more so when you consider that the target market for rugby is an audience with a high disposable income, and for football the opposite.

Half the spectacle at South African matches is the crowds, and if these shrink then you’re detracting from the product you’re offering. Okay, if PSL attendances overall fall, say, 20% with the price hike, it’s still a sizeable amount more in the coffers for the league. But at what cost to the product on offer?

For teams like Maritzburg and AmaZulu, it’s going to take some creative thinking to get decent crowds into their stadiums again. Moses Mabhida is next to a brand new train station. Perhaps a deal with Metrorail for a special dual ticket, subsidised by the club, for, say, R30, to get people into the stadium from townships for AmaZulu games.

Maritzburg could do the same with buses from Edendale, Sobantu and Northdale. Charge R10 for the ride to cover the bus costs, and R20 (with the other R20 subsidised by the club) for a limited number of tickets. This adds up to additional people brought in, more exposure for the brand, and a better product on offer, at minimal profit but no cost either.

It just might work. But it would be a lot easier, and cheaper on the fans’ pockets, to just go back to the R20 ticket price.

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