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Matt Maher: Clubs like Villa and Wolves sell a dream, but someone has to pay...

Since winning promotion back to the Premier League both Wolves and Villa have experienced an unprecedented demand for tickets.

Aston Villa players celebrate in front of the fans
Aston Villa players celebrate in front of the fans

Aside from the period when both stadiums were closed due to the pandemic, never has it been harder to get a seat at either Molineux or Villa Park.

Last Saturday’s attendance of 40,290 for the match between Villa and Norwich was the lowest at Villa Park for a league fixture in more than three years – and only because the visiting team sold less than half their allocation. Home areas were once again packed out, sales of season tickets have been capped at 30,000 since 2019, with more than 24,000 now on a waiting list and plans to increase capacity beyond 50,000 are soon to be submitted.

It is a similar story at Molineux, where only twice since the club returned to the top flight four years ago have attendances dipped below 30,000 for a Premier League match. A new attendance record for the ground as an all-seater venue has, meanwhile, been set several times during that period.

Such high demand for seats leads to the inevitable question of how much they should cost? Confirmation this week of the most significant rise in the price of Villa season tickets for more than a decade prompted perhaps the first serious backlash against the club’s hierarchy since billionaire’s Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens rescued it from the brink of administration in 2018.

There are echoes of the situation at Wolves 12 months ago and part of the PR problem for Villa now is the same as their neighbour’s then. Namely, putting up costs after a season which has fallen some way short of expectation.

Despite plenty of public discontent, sales for season tickets at Molineux remained strong. Yet it was telling that, amid the social media reaction of Villa supporters to news of their own price hike, was concern from Wolves fans about their club’s still-to-be-announced renewal prices.

Even with the increase, the cheapest season ticket at Villa Park for next season is still lower than the cheapest at Molineux this. The Wolves 1877 Trust has already issued a public plea for the club to freeze prices after three straight years of increase and this week expressed disappointment at a rise in the cost of membership, which now stands at £38 for adults. We shall watch this space.

Villa claim their new pricing structure was established following a comprehensive review of ticketing policy, which found Villa Park to be among the cheapest top flight venues over the past decade.

It is a fair argument. A series of price freezes, primarily designed to keep supporters coming through the turnstiles during the years of decline, mean season ticket holders who took advantage of early bird offers have seen the cost of their ticket remain relatively static. Since 2012, the price of the cheapest ticket has risen from £295 to £370, an increase of 25 per cent which is modest when compared to rival clubs, while historic discounting has meant some concessionary tickets are available at around £3-per-match.

On the other hand, those figures make the now 43 per cent increase in price of the cheapest season ticket, to £531 from next season, seem all the steeper. A reduction in the number of pricing zones adds further weight to the accusation it is less affluent supporters being hit hardest at a time when the country is being hit by a cost of living crisis.

Inevitably, there will be some fans who now find themselves priced out of attending, just as many others have before. Watching Premier League football has long been an expensive experience but the optics, to use a popular phrase from the world of public relations, aren’t great.

With so long a waiting list, Villa can be reasonably confident of quickly filling any seats vacated. The club would also argue that, proportionally, it is a small number of fans who have been hit by the biggest increases.

Still, there is a delicate balance to strike. The argument such an increase is necessary to remain competitive on the pitch, for example, is tough to make in an era when income from gate receipts has long been dwarfed by that from broadcasting.

Rudimentary equation it might be, but if 30,000 season ticket holders were each to pay an additional £100 next season, the £3million generated would not cover the cost of Leon Bailey’s salary.

Another factor to consider from Villa’s perspective is how tricky the reasons for the extraordinary demand are to precisely determine.

Wolves are enjoying their best period since the 1970s and their case is easier to understand. Yet Villa have had much better teams than the one they have now in recent memory, without coming close to selling so many tickets.

There is no doubt the euphoria generated by the surge to promotion, together with the club being both managed and captained by fellow Villa supporters, were key ingredients in establishing a connection between fanbase and team of the kind rarely seen.

Yet like all bonds, it can be broken. Dean Smith and Jack Grealish are both now departed and under Steven Gerrard there is every sense Villa are entering a different era. Excitement will remain so long as supporters believe they are on a journey to somewhere special but neither will it take long for enthusiasm to wane should progress stall.

Like every club with ambitions of breaking into Premier League’s elite, Villa and Wolves are essentially selling a dream.

The difficulty of that is, at some point, you must deliver.

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