By Wayne Veysey | Chief correspondent
There could be a common sight this season at Manchester United not seen for a generation – empty seats at Old Trafford.
Galvanised by the Green and Gold protests and further evidence from the latest set of accounts that the Glazer family are increasing the club’s financial burden, United fans have been roused into action. Or inaction, because tens of thousands of supporters have opted to stay away.
So wide is the three-times Champions League winners’ fan base that they were able to announce last week that around 50,000 season tickets have been sold, which for most leading European clubs would mean ‘house full’ signs for every home fixture. In total, the club have 54,000 season-ticket holders in the 76,000-capacity stadium.
But Goal.com UK can reveal the unprecedented lengths United and the Glazers have gone to in order to fill Old Trafford and give the impression that the club have been unaffected by the backlash from supporters.
The marketing campaign began in May when season-ticket holders were emailed with the promise of entry into a prize draw if they extended “by the renewal deadline” of Sunday, June 13. This was to be the first of many concessions by the club during the off-season.
Anecdotal evidence was emerging that the season tickets were a hard sell. Around five days before the deadline, it is believed only a third of United’s 54,000 season-ticket holders had taken up the option of extending for another year.
The lucrative executive facilities, which provide around 35 per cent of the club’s matchday income, were proving equally difficult to off-load.
A club email was sent to executive members shortly before the renewal deadline of May 31 warning them that their ticket would be released to the seasonal hospitality waiting list if they did not extend their facility for the 2010-11 season.
Goal.com UK understands there were three crisis meetings at Old Trafford to discuss take-up of the 8,000 executive season tickets, which include 1,500 corporate hospitality places that range from £3,500 to £11,000 apiece.
While refusing to give exact figures, the club claimed there was a long waiting list of fans willing to take up any slack after the Glazers froze prices for the first time in five years.
“Everything is where we would expect it to be on executive renewals and for general season ticket renewals,” a United spokesperson told Goal.com UK last month. “We are very happy with the way things are going. Anybody who is trying to say there has been a poor uptake is lying.”
For rank-and-file fans who had not renewed, three days passed without any contact from the club before they were informed on June 16 that seats were available if they wanted to move positions and that they could still renew if their seat had not yet been taken. Sceptics were beginning to suggest that demand did not so noticeably exceed supply, as it had in the past.
Anybody with a United connection or who had had any commercial communication with the club in recent years was contacted.
Email shots were sent to all One United members, of which there are believed to be around 102,000. Anyone registered on the official website received emails from the club. Former season ticket holders were phoned by the ticket office, who recruited temporary staff to deal with the huge effort to shift tickets. The club produced a glossy ‘Season Ticket Invitation’ PDF booklet to entice supporters. “The club were saying there are 24,000 fans on the waiting list,” said one insider. “If there was, you wouldn’t really go to all that effort, would you?”
On July 22, 39 days after the original deadline, season tickets were placed on general sale. The club claimed 50,000 had been sold, which would leave 4,000 on the open market. No numbers were given for executive ticket sales.
Anti-Glazer | United supporters launched Green and Gold campaign last season
Sources predict that some of the 10,000 tickets that go on general sale every home game to United members could be left untouched because a significant number of them have converted to season-ticket holders. In another break from convention, tickets went on sale for the first Premier League home game of the season, against Newcastle on August 16, three weeks beforehand.
Some fans were pacified by three consecutive Premier League titles from 2007 to 2009 and the 2008 Champions League triumph, but unrest has intensified following January’s £500 million bond issue to alleviate the club’s financial burden and the failure to reinvest the £80m generated by the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid in new players.
Supporters’ groups say demand is drying up. “Manchester United season tickets were so treasured before the Glazers took over people would pass them down through the generations,” a spokesman for Independent Manchester United Supporters’ Association told Goal.com UK. “Now, the waiting list has evaporated, the club are a long way short of selling even the reduced number of tickets on offer this year, and there could be regular gaps in the Old Trafford crowd for the first time in a generation.
“The Green and Gold protests against the Glazers' ownership last season were unprecedented. This season many fans have taken this protest to the next level, handing back their season tickets and buying tickets on a match by match basis or boycotting home games completely.”
With the protests unlikely to end, manager Sir Alex Ferguson risked fuelling the anti-Glazer campaign by claiming that the hostility towards the Florida-based owners is unfair and misplaced.
While it is chief executive David Gill rather than Ferguson who has received the brunt of public criticism from fans, the focus is on a change of regime.
Andy Green, the investment analyst whose research formed the basis of the Panorama documentary about the Glazers last month, told Goal.com UK: “The huge shift in emphasis and unprecedented marketing campaign has given the fans a lot more power going forward. No-one can give the impression anymore that demand outstrips supply.”
The question is: Are they watching on the other side of the pond? “Under the terms of the recent bond issue the Glazers' ability to take the large dividend they want out of the club is dependent on how much profit it makes,” added the IMUSA spokesman. “Therefore, any shortfall in the number of season tickets sold could well make it no longer worth the Glazers' while to own Manchester United, especially given the widespread hostility to their ownership, that they cannot have failed to notice even in Florida.”
|'I won't go back while the Glazers are in charge of Manchester United.'
Stephen Beck’s story is typical of the thousands of supporters who have grown disenchanted by the Glazer regime.
A lifelong Manchester United fan who went to his first Old Trafford match in 1972, he has decided to make a stand this summer by not renewing his season ticket for the first time since the 1980s.
“It’s 100 per cent because of the Glazers,” businessman Beck, 46, told Goal.com UK. “The prices have gone up and the Old Trafford experience has got worse. Last year was awful. As soon as the Green and Gold campaign kicked in we were treated by the club like low life scum who did not deserve the right to enter the stadium.
“We were searched on the way in to Old Trafford by aggressive security staff and told to sit down and shut up on so many occasions I lost count. As soon as you start singing anti-Glazer songs, it’s like Tiananmen Square.
“It was so over the top. I felt like a prisoner. It goes without saying that the debt and the bond issue are factors and that 75p of every pound I spend at the club goes to paying off the debt and lifestyle of a failed American business family, but it is just not enjoyable anymore.
“I am proud that I am making a stance, however insignificant that stance is. I will not renew my tickets while the Glazers are in control of my club. One day I hope to be invited back in, as a loyal, wanted and respected fan who has sacrificed so much for my club. One day I will.”