Lee Wellings: When fans are asked: ‘Pay What You Want’

Exactly how much should you pay to watch your football team play? What can you afford to pay? How much should those players be paid? How much should you pay for your football-dominated television package? How much is your club actually worth?

These are questions that we usually answer figuratively, probably in the act of complaining about something football-related. The classic terrace chant: ‘what a waste of money.’

But supporters of Scottish Premier League team Inverness Caledonian Thistle had to answer the key question literally. Finally some fans could put their money where their mouth is.

The club became the first top flight team to invite fans to pay ‘what they can’. A bold move to address the problem of attracting fans and maintaining their support. Not easy when you aren’t one of the big boys with a long history, and when you don’t have Rangers, Hearts or Hibernian in your division due to their relegation woes.

And a big ask to attract fans on a freezing January night for a game against St Johnstone. It doesn’t matter that Caley were near top of the Premier League going into the match. Performances and goals are only one factor in getting people through the turnstiles.

Many people don’t just choose to spend their money away from football – they need to spend their money elsewhere. And so Inverness have decided to innovate.

Inverness are not the first Scottish club to do this. Albion Rovers of League Two had a successful try, boosting their average crowd by 125 per cent on the day, then rolling the idea out to season tickets.

But who would dare to do it in a bigger league? The Bundesliga aside, Europe’s major leagues appear to have given up on even trying to please their fans on value for money. They pay lip service – but they know they have a captive audience.

Not all individual clubs have lost their soul – far from it – but where the modern football experience is concerned by mind always wanders back to editorial meetings at a previous news channel I worked for.

I was a boss, and many of the news bosses fitted that description of the nouveau Premier League fan, which isn’t nearly as much of a cliche as you might suspect. And there’s nothing wrong with being a middle aged, well-paid man who can afford to go to football. What IS a problem is what one boss was prepared to say to squash any stories about fans.

“The Premier League is an entertainment”, he used to opine from his soapbox, “no different to the theatre or opera. No-one has the right to go.”

Funny thing is – they once did have that right. Young people, working classes, people who support their hometown club, people whose fathers and grandfathers went to the games after their shifts in factories. Clubs like Schalke and Dortmund understand that. Many others across the world don’t.

Not for the first time in this column I point you to the important work of writer David Conn, primarily for The Guardian. David has explained why some Manchester United fans left to form FC United of Manchester, why AFC Wimbledon was born and highlights the telling crowd shots from decades past. Boys able to watch football. The big clubs in Europe are mainly the preserve of the older generations.

When television companies mess with kick-off times their last concern is the fans. The actual people providing the noise, the passion, the soul of football. If Stephanie Roche had scored HER goal in front of a proper crowd it would have won the Puskas award.

Credit to Inverness for understanding this important truth of football – that it remains the people’s game, whichever businessMEN and television companies try to own it.

Trusting fans to respect such a radical idea and genuinely pay what they can is unusual in football, near unprecedented. Just as it was in music when Radiohead did it in 2007 with their ‘In Rainbows’ album. It was seen as a success, and unsurprisingly outsold their previous record. But different business forces were at play, no matter how much integrity Thom Yorke’s band clearly has. These days selling music isn’t lucrative, but getting fans on side and through the door to concerts is the way money is made.

It’s an investment in people, whether in music or football. Why not ask THEM what they think it’s worth. And if Inverness decide putting a few hundred on the crowd is not something they’ll try again, expect them to find another way of empowering their supporters. Those who come through the turnstiles clearly matter in this part of the Scottish Highlands.

Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him ten.a1524400947reeza1524400947jla@s1524400947gnill1524400947ew.ee1524400947lta1524400947. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport