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Why can't the FAI just cut their prices?

IS it the football, or is it the cost of heating? Last Saturday's post-Ireland-Macedonia debate between Bill O'Herlihy and Liam Brady got people talking about the recurring problem of empty seats for international matches at the new Aviva Stadium.

FAI CEO John Delaney once claimed that the biggest problem surrounding the move back to Dublin 4 would be the lack of available tickets. Alas, it has proven to be exactly the opposite.

We're still waiting for the first sell-out, with the discourse in the RTE studio revolving around the impact of the recession, with Brady adamant that economic hardship was responsible for the low turnout, as opposed to general disenchantment with the quality of fare produced by Giovanni Trapattoni's team.

In reality, the truth lies somewhere in between. Nobody mentioned the prices, but, by the time the debate had filtered into the colourful realms of Liveline, the cost became the nub of the matter. The consensus was clear enough. People were turned off from attending because of the asking price for the match or matches in question. The FAI knew they had to take action.

In truth, they were aware of that before this double-header with Macedonia and Uruguay, when it became apparent that the stadium would be nowhere near full for either encounter.

A day after 20,200 was announced as the official attendance for the friendly thriller with Uruguay, Abbotstown officials confirmed that the policy of bundling tickets together would be removed. This was the deal which meant that punters buying admission tickets for one game had to shell out for the other as well.

Naturally, this was unpopular with fans who only fancied attending competitive ties, or those from outside Dublin who could justify coming up on Saturday, but really couldn't do so again on a Tuesday night. Certainly, it should make life easier for those people and ensure that the crucial qualifier with Slovakia in September gets the turnout it deserves.


It doesn't change a basic fact, however. Ireland's next game at the Aviva is against Northern Ireland in May, a few days after the conclusion of the Premier League season. Trapattoni has already said that he intends to rest his top-flight stars for that Carling Nations Cup tie. The cheapest tickets will be available for €30. Punters seeking a better view will have to pay €45. Value? Not in this climate.

The question which screams out, is why the FAI don't try something different and reduce prices to somewhere in the region of €20 for games of this nature. After all, their most successful initiative of the past year was the decision to charge €10 for FAI Cup final tickets in November, ensuring that 36,000 watched Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers battle it out for the domestic Blue Riband.

The four Irish internationals at the venue since then have drawn smaller attendances. Hardcore and floating fans of the participating clubs contributed significantly to the Cup final crowd, but there were also great numbers of non-League of Ireland followers who reckoned that it was a good deal for an afternoon's entertainment.

Earlier this year, the FAI did announce some price reductions. Friendly games were dropped from €40-55 in 2010 to €30-45 in 2011, with competitive games dropped from €50-70 to €40-60. The response was lukewarm, as the turnout for the last two games demonstrated. Removing bundling is the next step, yet if that fails to bring punters back, then the only resort left is price cuts.

The FAI are, naturally, irked by the media's repeated delving into ticket matters, a complaint that could be justified were it not for the association's thinly concealed desperation to shift tickets over the past couple of years, a policy that was particularly blatant during the disastrous attempts to sell 10-year Vantage Club tickets -- a time when practically every Abbotstown staff member was encouraged to become a de-facto ticket seller. Such desperation attracts attention.

Since that plan flopped -- the premium section was a ghost town on Tuesday -- the FAI have been on a retrieval mission. Season ticket packages were rolled out for the first eight Irish games at the venue, ranging between €350 and €540, with bigger discounts for those who paid up front.

The take-up was decent, yet when the 2011 general admission price changes were announced, season ticket holders, who bought last summer for games up to this May, realised they were now losing out. Laudably, the FAI agreed to refund the difference, and restored some goodwill.

Nevertheless, it illustrates the pitfalls for the Irish football hierarchy if they wish to slash prices further. After overpricing Vantage Club tickets, there are people in those premium seats -- many drawn from the grassroots -- who are paying in the region of a couple of hundred quid for every Irish game. Some were railroaded into purchasing as they were given the impression that no other seats would be available in the ground.

If the FAI went down the route of charging €20 for low-profile matches, there would be uproar among those who paid up front at multiples of the price. Do they look for refunds then? Or do those with direct debits simply cancel them, as some customers already have done. The FAI conceded a long time ago that the optics of pursuing a client through legal channels for breaking a contract would simply not be worth it.

Regrettably, they have dug themselves into this hole and it is hard to see how they can resolve the matter without taking a decision that will aggrieve some part of the football family.

The latest ticket rumblings come in the wake of some good news, the announcement of a centralised UEFA TV rights deal that will favour the smaller associations from 2014 onwards. In some quarters, it was flagged as providing certainty about the FAI's future, a development which will have come as something of a surprise to the FAI staff who have no certainty about their job security after watching numerous colleagues leave in the past six months.


As much as persistent references to the Aviva Stadium debt may grate like a broken record at this juncture, the cost of borrowing and the associated interest payments are the biggest issue in Irish football right now.

Meeting those repayments is dependent on falling in line with projections, and the business plan will have factored in an estimation of what the never-ending stream of Irish internationals in Ballsbridge will bring to the coffers. The FAI have refused to disclose what the break-even figure for a night at the Aviva is, a query which should be central to discussions at this year's pivotal AGM.

If the UEFA deal really does provide long-term security, there should be nothing to lose from making it cheaper for recession-hit football fans to cheer on Trapattoni's charges.

But, as ever, it doesn't seem to be that straightforward. In theory, it's easy to say that the FAI should cut the prices. In practice, while they remain reluctant to do so, the question is if they can afford to take the risk?

Irish Independent