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Leeds United: An Open Letter to GFH Capital

To whom it may concern,

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Amitai Winehouse, and I’m a Leeds United fan of 20 years, 6 months, and 6 days. If that sounds like an admission of guilt, it is to an extent. I am to Leeds United like poison to a rat, given the slow and steady decline that has occurred in my lifetime. However, people have informed me that everyone is like that to Leeds United, that very few get to experience genuine joy, so the guilt is with that caveat. Aside from this, to symbolise how fully I am tied to Leeds United, my middle name is Eric. As you are recently involved in the club, you may not know the tale, but months after winning the title (which occurred about 2 months before I was born), we sold Eric Cantona, who went on to do some things elsewhere. I was named in those heady days between title victory and sale, when Chalutz Bakery in Leeds named a bagel after the mercurial Frenchman. Anyway, I like to think I’ve seen many things in my twenty years, from the top to the bottom (well, bottom of League One – I’ve seen that fall at the very least). The reality is that I’ve been thinking about several things since you took over the club, and was intending to send them in an email to that address. Given the Becchio incident yesterday and our recent form, however, I’d like to put them in a public place, where fellow Leeds fans can comment.

First, some compliments. You’ve done the right thing already in several regards, such as the ticket offer for the Peterborough and Blackpool games. This will be the first time that I, as a student, will be able to pay a discounted rate for a game, for the entire time I’ve been at university. I travel down from Newcastle for every game I attend, and I know others who would be more willing to visit Elland Road on a regular basis if they were charged more in line with their spending ability (as a general rule: zero). As Eamonn Dalton said on our podcast recently, a fan who thinks that the only thing Ken Bates did wrong was selling players is a poor observer of Leeds United. Your zeal to communicate with the fans is commendable. It no longer works to place yourself, as owners of a football club, in an ivory tower. It does not matter if your communication arrives warts and all, it is best to have yourself seen as human beings.

Furthermore, I don’t think your work in the transfer market this window should actually be criticised. Looking at the books, we’ve overcommitted hugely to building projects under the previous ownership, and the finances aren’t in an ideal place. Becchio leaving isn’t entirely your fault either. He’s had very good money offered to him, apparently, by you, and he’s turned it down. He probably thinks he’s achieved all he can at Leeds, so why not chase a pay packet? He’s had no evidence for every year that he’s been here that we can actually hit the Premier League. It is difficult to convince a player that everything will be different, even if behind the scenes you are whirring away to do so.

Aside from this praise, however, there are some points I would like to share. They are based on a thought I read yesterday, which is that Leeds no longer feels like Leeds. This is the thing you must take first and foremost, understand and cherish, because it is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. It can be said, quite simply, that Leeds United is a very unique football club. We are one of very few remaining football clubs that have a heart and soul. This is what is slowly drifting away as time goes by.

My first idea, therefore, is decide what Leeds United means and craft your entire output around it. Too often businesses will look at themselves, copy others, and therefore pitch themselves as “like the market leader, but smaller and very slightly cheaper”. We have had this issue in recent years. We do a tribute act to other clubs who focus on corporatisation and advertising projects, but the simple reality is that whilst we remain a Championship club, this will not bring in the same money that it does for the likes of Man Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal etc. Furthermore, each of these clubs has a way to sell themselves in that regard:

  • at Man Utd you will (sadly) see them win many things and they can sell themselves on “success”. Leeds cannot sell themselves on success, there has been none in recent years. Monarch Airlines taking an advert on the side of the pitch will not make them “champions of the sky”.
  • at Liverpool they can sell themselves on history until they (probably) win something again. Leeds cannot sell ourselves on history, because despite what Leeds fans know, our history is tainted, both by our reputation in the past as “dirty Leeds” and the fact that our historic periods of success have never actually featured much success. We have not won 18 titles in the past, or 5 European Cups.
  • at Arsenal they sell themselves on “doing things the right way”. They are also a cosmopolitan club in a cosmopolitan city, something that would not appeal to the same extent outside London.

What is Leeds United to our fans? Everyone will answer differently, but to me supporting Leeds United is a form of innocent rebellion. In a world where it is easy to latch yourself to a team that appears every week on the television, one that generally wins and suffers minimal lows and generally massive highs, supporting Leeds requires an effort. You have to listen to the radio, you have to picture it in your head, you have to go to the game if you want to see us play. You can’t just sit on your couch. Why do you do it? Because you know it is worth it ultimately. Or, at the very least, you feel like it is at a the time. You are subverting the norm and you get the reward, because it feels more real.

This is why Leeds fans have secret symbols to identify each other by, such as the Leeds salute. It is why we have such a huge away following, because it is a band of rebels who travel together to games, supporting their club when logic and reason suggests that it is entirely wrong. It is a case of doublethink, where you have to kid yourself that doing it makes sense. But similarly, you don’t, it just does.

So, therefore, there are two routes you can take in the image of the club you want to portray, and I genuinely think that sorting out the image of the club will make a big difference. You can be Man Utd-lite and fail to ever reach them, or you can craft your own ideal of what Leeds United can be. Look at St. Pauli in Germany. In a country where the likes of Bayern Munich make untold millions through ruthless marketing of the brand of being the best, St. Pauli have crafted a niche for themselves by being the outsiders. The reality is that they don’t even have the capacity of Leeds, being a club run in the St. Pauli quarter of Hamburg, population 27,612, a city filled with successful football clubs. Yet they have managed to not only maintain a position of relative on-the-pitch success, they have also managed to draw in fans from around the world with their message of being “The Buccaneers of the League”. Something so drastic does not need to occur at Leeds, but we do need to have our own identity. Right now we are just the club that loans players and sells our best. Why would people travel or bother to see that?

It would be a good idea to look at what has brought success to the club in the past and draw on it. Therefore, idea number two is to develop the Academy further and make this the focus of our club. Obviously we are not going to be Barcelona in terms of developing youth, but our major successes have come with building a team from the beginning and then bringing that through all levels. Look at recent developments like Sam Byram and Tom Lees. There is something about Thorp Arch that, even when neglected, allows us to bring through players coveted by other sides. We need to stop ignoring it, stop papering over the cracks, and instead invest the majority of our money in it. I’ll forgive a lack of ambition in the transfer market if it means a reopening and rebuilding of the residential wing of Thorp Arch. It also draws people into the football club, inherently tying them to a set of players who have the same love of the club that they do. We need to develop a philosophy under a Director of Football that will survive despite coaching changes. In 1988, when Howard Wilkinson first came into Leeds, the club took a risk, spending money it did not have on Thorp Arch, his dream project. Ten years on, when the first fruits were being revealed to the world at large, we began our most successful recent period, culminating in reaching the Champions League semi-final. Take the same risk.

Idea number three comes from a world of idealism, but is, I feel, the best way to bring fans back to Elland Road, which is what we are currently struggling horribly with. It is like a mausoleum when empty, and having a stadium of that size becomes a negative when the life is being drawn out of it. The idea is, therefore, to make each ticket worth what it costs. Look to Germany again, and the fact that Dortmund fans rebelled against €20 (£17) tickets recently. That being Dortmund, current Bundesliga Champions and Champions League contenders. Our fans have sat and taken the ticket prices for a long time, but there is a sense that forgiveness is almost over. The end of the tether is being reached.

I said to take a risk with the academy, and it is here again that I say to take a risk. I genuinely think that a full Elland Road is more important than spending huge on players. Look at our first season after promotion – we averaged 27,000 fans as success was built upon, even at high ticket prices, and those 27,000 would get behind the team, even when it was weak defensively and prone to errors. As John Lennon basically espouses in Imagine, and as might be seen as blind idealism, every philosophy and idea that we hold to be true is only held to be true due to collective belief in it. It’s on a lower level than he spoke, but who is to say football tickets in this country should be £30 a go. If you look at the relative entertainment value, a family can choose between the cinema, where tickets will cost no more than £10 and a satisfying ending is almost certainly guaranteed, or Elland Road, where sadness is the norm. You can buy tickets in Germany, for Bayern Munich, the aforementioned ridiculously successful team, for €9. Not only do they see the football for that, but they also have public transport to the ground paid for. Why not, when thinking about next season, jump off the cliff into that pool of water, know that you can do it, know that you can build a club that can sell out Elland Road at a much lower ticket price, therefore making up the difference. Aside from the increased attendance, it will do wonders for the club.

Leeds is a one club city, with 750,700 people the potential fanbase for your club (this aside from the boundaries up to the nearest club of a relative size either side of Elland Road, which increases that capacity hugely). If you can get a child to attend Elland Road every season, at least once, tying themselves to the club, it will change entirely how much money is spent on the club. Yes, he may only have to pay £5 entry, and his dad £10, but that kid will then want a Leeds kit, he’ll want a Leeds calendar, he’ll want a Leeds gnome and a pair of Leeds slippers. You go from having £40 spent on one disappointing day out every Boxing Day to £15 spent on a day out at a full stadium, plus another £70 spent on things that he needs to have, because he is Leeds.

How do you achieve this shift, whilst cutting prices massively? Firstly you actually advertise, something the previous ownership has been reticent to do, believing the existence of Leeds alone will draw people in (which it does, to an extent, but nowhere near enough). Secondly, you send representatives of the club out into the community. There are always injured players, and if they can walk, they can talk to kids in schools and sell Leeds United. You increase the number of free tickets given out to schools on a game-by-game basis. Forget those who complain about paying when those next to them attend for free – they should know that their experience is greatly improved by that attendance.

What does this all achieve? You look at the likes of Dortmund, where every man in the city is a fan of the club, and you see the success it can bring. For their league game against Bayern last season, where they essentially won the title, they sold out the Westfalenstadion entirely, a capacity of 80,720. Furthermore, however, they had a waiting list of 250,000 fans who all wished to buy a ticket, but could not. You can basically guarantee that those fans who couldn’t be in attendance spent money with the club over the course of the season, probably significant sums. How many individual fans would you estimate actually spend money with Leeds over the course of a season these days? About 40-50,000 at best (given season tickets are in the 10,000s)? Maybe a bit more? Why is it so minimal? Because the others are priced out of ever forming a bond with the team. You can almost certainly draw in each new generation of children as fans of the club, as long as they can ascend those steps whilst clutching their dad’s hand, look out at a sea of white and hear a roar unlike any other they’ve ever heard before. That’s when they know what they are.

Sell the experience that being a Leeds fan is meant to evoke. That’s what this would allow you to do. Having a full stadium, with everyone in the city behind the club, would help massively. We Leeds fans are insane, it is simple. If you get lots of us in one place, i.e. Elland Road, it is an experience like no other, and that solves the marketing issue. If you want to be really impressive, get behind the Safe Standing bid from the Football Supporters’ Federation, because there is no reason why you shouldn’t. You can bring Leeds into a new era or allow it to stagnate. If you bring us forward, the financial reward for you will be unbelievable. The reward for us will be having Leeds back.

All the best,

Amitai Winehouse

Follow Amitai Winehouse on Twitter (@awinehouse1). Do you agree? Comment below or get in touch via Twitter.