Harrogate Town fans' concerns over ticket-price increase and recent decision-making addressed by CEO Sarah Barry - part one

Harrogate Town Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Sarah Barry has addressed supporters’ concerns regarding the recent rise in match and season tickets and the reallocation of seats in the Main Stand at Wetherby Road.

By Rhys Howell
Thursday, 23rd June 2022, 12:30 pm
Harrogate Town supporters at the EnviroVent Stadium. Picture: Matt Kirkham
Harrogate Town supporters at the EnviroVent Stadium. Picture: Matt Kirkham

The cost of attending matches at the EnviroVent Stadium is set to go up across the board after prices were frozen for the season just gone, the club’s first as a Football League outfit that fans were permitted to attend.

The Sulphurites, who announced in May that they will invest £3.5million in ground development and other off-field improvements, have stated that the extra revenue they hope will be generated by ticket sales will help ‘provide the foundations for us to remain competitive in the top four tiers of English football.’

Existing season ticket holders will once again benefit from a reduced rate, though adult renewals will cost either £50 (standing) or £71 (seated) more, while under-18s face the most significant rise with fees more than tripling.

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Sarah Barry, Harrogate Town's Chief Executive Officer

For existing season-ticket holders to renew the cost will be: adult standing £319 (previously £269, up 18.58%), adult seated £365 (from £294, up 24.14%), concession standing £255 (from £189, up 34.92%), concession seated £292 (from £214, up 36.44%), U18 standing £159 (from £50), U18 seated £183 (from £75, up 144%), U12 standing £99, U12 seated £129.

Prices for new season tickets are higher still. Adult standing £349 (previously £289, up 20.76%), adult seated £395 (from £314, up 25.79%), concession standing £285 (from £204, up 39.70%), concession seated £322 (from £229, up 40.61%), U18 standing £179 (from £50, up 258%), U18 seated £209 (from £75, up 178.66%), U12 standing £129, U12 seated £159.

The cost of buying individual match-day tickets has also increased, with an adult standing ticket now £20, adult seated £23, concession standing £16, concession seated £19, U18 standing £8, U18 seated £11, U12 standing £6, U12 seated £9, while U5s go free.

With plenty of Town fans expressing their displeasure regarding the new ticket prices, and the Sulphurites' decision to relocate certain supporters from padded seats, Harrogate Advertiser sports editor Rhys Howell sought feedback from members of the club's fan-base before presenting 22 questions to Barry.

Harrogate's CEO answered every single point put to her during an interview which lasted for more than 50 minutes.

Her responses to the first 14 of these questions are detailed below. The second part of this interview will be available to read on www.harrogateadvertiser.co.uk later this week and in June 30's edition of the Harrogate Advertiser.

1. Did the club do any ticketing benchmarking across their division before arriving at ticketing prices for 2022/23?

SB: “Absolutely. We really have done our homework and have benchmarked our ticket prices against the competition.

“It was one of the first jobs I was involved in when I joined the club last year. The process was already underway before I took on this role, but we subsequently added League One and National League clubs and compared ourselves with the level above and below.

“It was something that we had to look at closely, but I think that our prices are in alignment with the level.

“The increases were necessary. It is out there and has been reported that we made a £1million pound loss [during the club’s first season in the Football League]. As things stand, the club is not sustainable and ‘sustainability’ is the key word here. It is my job to address this issue, to try and close the gap and I have to try to do it fairly and sensibly.

Harrogate Town has a very generous owner who puts so much into the club. But we can’t continue to run a business based on his generosity. We have got to start to operate as if we didn’t have him to rely upon, and work toward becoming more sustainable so the club can stand up on its own.”

2. I’m interested to know the reason for the price increase for an under-18 standing ticket. Last year it was £50 and now it’s £159. The club has always encouraged younger fans to attend matches as they are the future, however this huge hike in price will mean many teens will not purchase a season ticket this year.

SB: “I’m not surprised that the cost of the under-18s tickets have been the most discussed because obviously these tickets are the ones that have increased the most in price.

“I will not criticise the decisions made before I joined the club because that would not be right, but we cannot survive on charging £50 for an under-18s season ticket.

“Decisions were made coming out of a pandemic after a season where fans could not attend and so that is why there was the price-freeze last year. There was also a huge backlash in the past when the club attempted to increase prices.

“The result of the previous decisions was that under-18s were paying £2.17 to watch a League Two game of football. Yes, if you look at the percentage increase, it does look much worse than saying that under-18s are now paying £6.91 per game.

“That cost is comparable at our level and below and there isn’t much that you can go and watch for less than that amount. I think an under-18s ticket at the Odeon in town is £9, so I don’t feel that £6.91 is bad value. I think it’s reasonable.

“We’ve probably made a rod for our own back with some of the previous decisions like the adult and under-18 bundle which meant that the under-18 ticket worked out as being pretty much for nothing.

“As I’ve said, we can’t survive off charging £2.17 for under-18s to watch League Two football. The operating costs in the Football League are significantly more than they were in the division below and that is something which we have had to address.

“The cost of putting on a match, running costs, staffing, it has all gone up. There is more expense involved in complying with the EFL, with various governing bodies. We have had to employ more people, it’s something that we just needed to do.

“We also no longer have the revenue from the 3G pitch which was rented out pretty much every night of the week. We haven’t passed that on to the fans, but it is still a factor that has to be considered.

“We will still be in a situation where the club makes another huge loss at the end of the coming financial year, but as I’ve stated, it is my job to start to narrow the gap.”

3. Could the club not have softened the blow of the U18 increase and put those tickets up gradually over a few years?

SB: “I don’t think people will want to hear this answer, but they should probably have gone up by more than they have already.

“We have had a lot of conversations about this and we’ve tried to keep it down, keep it as low as we possibly could. We’ll try and stagger the increases that we need to make.”

4. Why are pre-season friendlies no longer included in the season ticket price?

SB: “The cost of staging a game here is exactly the same regardless of whether it is a league game, a friendly or a charity match and it’s a big increase from what it was when the club was in the National League.

“Safety is obviously a priority so for stewards and for medics, we are talking a lot of money. I don’t have the exact figures to hand, I’d have to work them out to get an accurate number, but we are talking tens of thousands of pounds per game.

“Quite simply, it costs more now to stage a game. We haven’t passed the full increase in those costs onto the fans [through the rise in ticket prices], if we had the prices would have gone up even more.

“But, we do need to cover the cost of playing these friendlies, so we are charging admission this summer, albeit it is a lot lower than the cost of attending a league match and we will try and keep it as low as we possibly can.

“We’re also offering the three games for the price of four deal, and I will say that I think we are playing four big Yorkshire clubs, I think these are good pre-season friendly fixtures.

“The other thing you have to consider is that we have to make an agreement with the opposition about the gate money. It is not only our decision. We have to come to that agreement and we have to cover the cost of putting the games on.”

5. Would the club reconsider their stance on charging ST holders admission to friendlies? As an act of goodwill.

SB: “As I think I have explained, charging for the pre-season games is necessary because we need to cover the cost of staging them.”

6. We’ve got the third lowest fan base in League Two and need to increase attendance numbers going forward to move onto a sustainable footing longer term. With local clubs, divisions higher charging less for a season ticket, isn’t this likely to put a lot of ‘first-timers’ off?

SB: “I don’t think I can answer that question. Obviously I hope that it doesn’t, but we will have to see in time what the numbers are.

“As a club we are still growing. We are still trying to grow the fan-base and Harrogate isn’t traditionally a big footballing town. Of course we don’t want to put anybody off, but, as I have stated, these prices are comparable, so I don’t think that should be the case.”

7. Huddersfield Town often do ‘everyone for a tenner’ admissions. These promotions sell out the ground and get a lot of new people trying football. Why don’t we attempt things like that for one-off games?

SB: “We can’t just do promotions willy-nilly. You’re allowed to do so many per season and I believe that the limit is four.

“Again, it is not just a decision that we can take on our own. You have to get agreement from whoever the opposition club is because whatever we are charging our supporters, we have to offer the away fans the same prices.

“But, when the fixtures are released later this week we will sit down and have a look at them and try and work out where we can look to do something with regards to a ticket promotion.

“There might be a Tuesday night somewhere, for example, where we look at the expected numbers and consider the options. But, some of the games, the ones against the bigger clubs, it’s just not possible to do it due to our capacity.

“We also do offer promotions with organisations like the NHS or for things like the Armed Forces, junior clubs, schools, our player development centre.

“We’ve been asked why we can’t match or run similar offers to the likes of Bradford City and Huddersfield Town, clubs with humongous grounds and much, much greater crowds than us.

“I think that Bradford average 16,000, so we don’t have the ability to compete with a club like that. If we could compete on price and promotions then we would not think twice.”

8. How many season tickets did we sell last year? What is the target sales for this season?

SB: “Last season, including half-season ticket sales, we were just short of 900.

“The target this season is to try and do the same. If we do that, then great.

“It’s difficult, we haven’t got a massive history to fall back on.”

9. What portion of the season ticket price increase is made up of Ticketmaster's fee?

SB: "We are absorbing Ticketmaster's fee, the same as we did in our arrangement with our previous ticketing partner. Our arrangement with Ticketmaster is exactly the same in that regard."

10. Earlier in the season, after the fans' forum, there were things said about adding additional options for season tickets so that those who cannot attend every game still have an option to purchase some form of season ticket or at least benefit in some way from attending regularly. What is happening with this as there are no options for this?

SB: "It is something that we are hoping to bring in. We are working on it as patiently and as efficiently as we can with Ticketmaster Sport.

"The first priority had to be getting everything set up and sorted out for the existing season ticket holders, but there will be other options.

"We don't want to try and run before we can walk, however we will be able to offer something this season.

"There absolutely will be multi-buy options for supporters that don't involve them buying a season ticket."

10. Do the club extend their search for revenue away from the fans? Sponsorship of the advertising board and padded seats would bring in plenty of revenue.

SB: "Yes, of course. I don't know one sports team that can exist without sponsorship or income from the corporate side.

"But, in the case of the padded seats, sponsorship doesn't solve the problem of not having enough of them."

11. What is the club's response to supporters who will not renew their season ticket and instead spend that money attending more away games and boosting the coffers of League Two rivals?

SB: "It is hugely disappointing to hear that. We want more people to come and more people to come more often.

"Some of the tickets they will be buying at other grounds will be cheaper, some will be the same price, some will be more expensive.

"As I keep saying, our prices are comparable and I'm sure that everybody wants Harrogate Town to be a sustainable Football League club, which is why we've had to make these increases.

"We are competing with some huge clubs in this division and we want to be up there with the big boys.

"I'm disappointed to hear this, but I can't control it. We just ask everyone to look at it from the point of view that this is a business, not just a football club and we have to try and balance things, but do it fairly."

12. Do the club believe in a cost of living crisis the increase in children’s tickets is either a smart business move or justifiable?

SB: "I get it, but as I have said, I think these prices are fair and are comparable. I'm not going to say that I think it is 'smart' because that would not be the right thing to say.

"People are entitled to have their opinion and I respect that, but everything has gone up in price, everything.

"The prices of the under-18s tickets are comparable. If it is someone's opinion that it is not justifiable then I don't think I am going to be able to change that."

13. Why did the club not engage more with the fans over their most recent decision-making [ticket prices & seat reallocation]?

SB: "If any business was to ask fans or customers what prices they wanted to pay, what do you think the answers would come back as? There are certain things that we just have to make decisions on.

"And, it's not just one person deciding something, making a decision and then we run with it. These things have been discussed at length, we've done our research and we've been backwards and forwards.

"I don't want to say this, but I will say it. We do have to run this as a business, not just a football club.

"In terms of the communication of these decisions [on ticket prices and seat reallocation], we communicated with the fans as soon as we possibly could."

14. Is the club aware that it deters fans each season due to the way they communicate with fans and how some fans are treated?

SB: "As I have said previously, everybody is entitled to an opinion, including me, and I am wondering if it is what we are communicating that some people don't like rather than the way we are communicating?

"We are communicating. We are communicating with our supporters more than we ever have done before.

"We have tried to be more personable. For example, when we have been informing supporters about seat reallocations we have attempted to ring every single person and speak to them rather than just sending them a cold email. Those who we couldn't get hold of, it has had to be an email, but we have tried.

"I will speak to anybody who wants to have a conversation. I'm happy to do it in person, on the phone, I've even had video calls. I will always make sure that I give a response."

"In terms of how fans are treated, I'm not sure what to make of this. I don't believe we have treated anybody badly, though some supporters have had to be issued with bans.

"I'm happy to answer any questions on specific treatment any fans have received but without details I can't really say too much."

Part two to follow, covering topics including reallocation of seats, fans' forums and supporter liaison.