Why I think Port Vale should let ALL youngsters in for FREE

OVF editor Rob Fielding believes that Vale could be in real danger of losing a generation of younger supporters unless the club takes a radical, long-term approach to youngsters.

Rob Fielding writes…

One of the age-old debates at Vale Park is about the attendances or rather lack of them. I believe it is high time for the club to engage in some long-term planning.

For me the question is how can Vale not afford to let youngsters in for free…

While I think that the planned reduced pricing for kids next season (£20 a season for under nines) is a step in the right direction, I would go a lot further and propose that the club let all youngsters up to the age of 16 into the ground for free.

That’s all very well you may say but how can Vale afford to let youngsters in for free? But for me the question is how can Vale not afford to let youngsters in for free.

Yes, it’s radical, but let me explain…

Some background

I was interested to note an interview with Stoke City CEO Tony Scholes about their approach to growing their fanbase. He certainly had some ideas that resonated with me. Here’s some quotes:

“Importantly, 25 per cent of our crowds at the Britannia Stadium are under the age of 21 — our support base for the future!”

“We have also worked hard to address the issue by introducing initiatives that have made it easier for local young people to attend games.”

From a selfish point-of-view the Stoke initiatives are harming Vale because they are hoovering up young fans in the city and it’s time for Vale to follow their neighbour’s lead. Otherwise, there is a very real danger that Vale could lose a generation of youngsters and become a club in deep decline.

In the short-term – it adds up

Here are some rather obvious reasons why Vale should be bringing youngsters in for free:

  • They are competing with a neighbouring Premier League club who is targeting young supporters. Surely, the only way to counter that is to make Vale even more attractive – in this case free, for youngsters.
  • Vale Park is at nowhere near full capacity – surely it’s better a seat is taken by a non-paying youngster than left empty.
  • Stoke-on-Trent in general is not an affluent area – there have been comments from many existing fans about how expensive it is to take their children to the match.
  • The kids may not pay for a ticket but the club could still make money. Put on a range of kid-friendly food and drink at the concourse and they will be making increased refreshments profits from the extra supporters in the ground.
  • And the counter argument to the last one – if the club is only getting £20 a season from some kids, it’s not a massive loss to let them in free instead.
  • There’s also the trade at the club shop to bear in mind. Children like shirts, scarves and other memorabilia. Get them into supporting the Vale and increase the club shop sales.
  • And then there’s the unquantifiable side of this initiative – that is, if you improve the atmosphere at Vale Park with more enthusiastic young fans where could that take us? Would a larger, more vocal crowd rub off on the players? It’s by no means certain but it probably wouldn’t harm things.

In the long-term – it adds up

Not all kids will become life-long fans. But of those that do their life-long devotion will bring in thousands of pounds…

Obviously not all kids taken to Vale will become life-long fans. But of those that do their life-long devotion will bring in thousands of pounds to the club. So, if the club bring in 500 children for free and just ten of them become lifelong fans then that’s tens of thousands of pounds of income for the club over the years *

* Let’s say our fans become Valiants at aged ten. If they are regulars then they are probably going to bring in £300+ per season once they turn 18 and pay adult prices. If they do that throughout their lifetime that equates to tens of thousands of pounds PER FAN. Not only that but they could eventually bring their children to the Vale too…

So, in effect for the short-term loss of some junior ticket revenue, you will potentially be gaining some long-term revenue worth much more.

So, how does the club do it?

The first step is obviously to cut the price to zero. That’s the easy part as I don’t think the club will be making an awful lot – and certainly not from the £20 under-nine season tickets. However, clearly there is a psychological element to charging nothing compared with £20. “Free entry” always sounds more appealing.

I also believe other things need to be in place too:

  • Bring back the summer family fun day and make it work (i.e. a half-hearted effort won’t work). It’s not rocket science to organise – a tour behind the scenes, some first-team players to sign autographs, a prize raffle, a penalty shoot-out competition, stalls by supporters groups (such as the Vale Volunteers and the Supporters Club), some food stalls and some fun and games (e.g. a few rides and attractions). If you throw in a goodie bag for every child it’s sure to make for a memorable day for them. If in doubt the club could do worse than speak to Milton Keynes who organised an amazing family fun day when Vale visited last season.

Meanwhile on match days:

  • What about following Milton Keynes’ lead and designating certain games as “family” games? The match I witnessed at stadium:mk had fair ground rides, a flight simulator, food and drink stalls, face painting, local clubs and societies trying to sign kids up and loads and generally loads of things for children to do. Not only would a lot of those things probably be free of charge (so no cost to the club) but it’s going to enhance Vale’s place in the community if they can do this sort of event that benefits local firms and organisations as well as the club and the young fans.
  • Can there be relationships with local schools that can bus in a whole load of kids in one go? You may even want to invite the teachers along for free as well to look after their charges. This approach certainly helps as otherwise you’re relying on adults brining their own children along – something that is not always possible for a variety of reasons. Perhaps this can be combined with the use of the Vale Park education facilities – with the school children using them before the game – that’s sure to go down well with local schools.
  • A simple one this but has anyone actually considered asking the kids what they want? What sort of things (within reason) would they like to see at the stadium. And while they’re at it, it probably wouldn’t be any harm to ask the adults what they want too. The club should know the views of the young and old  supporters rather than guessing what may be best for them.
  • Have a proper family stand. Not a small section but a dedicated stand to make a statement. Make the area family-friendly (so make it clear that there’s no swearing or unruly behaviour) and tailor it to your market (that means more kids-friendly items for sale on the concourse), some players on hand to sign autographs at half-time, some competitions (how about a dedicated kids half-time raffle) and what about free Wifi?
  • Little things will go a long way. How about a certificate and a photo with a player for every child who is making their first trip to Vale Park? It’s little mementos like that which can transform someone into a life-long fan.
  • Finally, the overall match experience needs to improve. You can’t expect a family-friendly club if there is incidents of racism and violence. The club needs to have a good working relationship with the authorities, ideally it needs to re-introduce and re-affirm its Valiants Against Racism programme and encourage people to report offenders. Ultimately, it is down to individuals to stop this sort of behaviour but the club should be doing all its can to assist in incidents being reported and acted upon.

And in conclusion

If the club sticks with it, believes in it and does it right, there is every chance we will start seeing a young and vibrant fanbase beginning to develop…

  • This is a long-term thing. It’s not something to be used/not used at a drop of a hat. Ideally it needs an owner who has a long-term commitment to the club who is prepared to give this time to work. It is not going to provide instant results. It needs at least five or six years commitment as a bare minimum but personally I think it should be put in place and then never halted.
  • It needs to be part of the club philosophy/identity – that is we are rooted in our community, we want young fans to enjoy their football club and become involved. For those reasons, we are prepared to commit long-term to this venture.

But if the club sticks with it, believes in it and does it right, there is every chance we will start seeing a young and vibrant fanbase beginning to develop at Vale Park.

And maybe a few less of those empty yellow seats…


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