Back in 2010, the concept of Non-League Day was announced by James Doe, a Harrow Borough fan. The not-for-profit and volunteer-run initiative was created to coincide with a break in fixtures within the football calendar when the Premier League and Championship sides did not have games. In the last decade it has been held every year, bar 2020 due to COVID-19. The date has got significant backing from the Premier League and from Football League clubs as well as MPs, media organisations, charities and from non-league clubs themselves. Clubs have looked at different ways over the years to get more people through the door ranging from offering discounted entry to Premier League and EFL season ticket holders to raffles and prize draws.
In September 2014 Non-League Day broke all records, with over 50,000 fans attending games in the top three levels of the grassroots game. The biggest crowd on that day was at Champion Hill, home of Dulwich Hamlet, where 2,856 people saw their Isthmian Premier League game against Hampton & Richmond Borough, partly due to a “pay what you want” entry model. More people attended the game than at five Football League matches including at Accrington Stanley, Exeter City and Morecambe. Pretty impressive, but why did they get so many people to that game?
The answer can be found in a theory first proposed by US Economists Ayelet Gneezy and his brother, Uri. Their research took them around the United States of America, visiting Theme Parks (that is a real job apparently) and testing people’s propensity to part with cash. Their concept was to sell photos of visitors on roller coasters under the principal of “Pay What You Want”. Whilst their results showed that more people bought the pictures than when they were at a fixed rather than a variable price, the average price paid was so low that they actually made a loss. BUT when it was announced that “Pay What You Want” was coupled with a charitable cause, the price paid on average increased by nearly seven fold. They summed up this behaviour as individuals feeling bad when they paid less than the perceived value for something if they knew the money was going to good causes.
So what has that got to do with Dulwich Hamlet? Whilst many clubs announced free or pay what you want for Non-League Day, fans didn’t necessarily see the value in the game they were paying to watch. Some, for instance had already paid to attend as Dulwich season ticket holders, others were simply skin-flints and didn’t think they would get any meaningful value. However, couple it with a charitable element, such as Dulwich Hamlet did with two local homeless charities benefiting, and people are willing to pay more for the same event, because if they simply paid what they felt the true value to be, they would inherently feel bad – us humans do have consciences after all.
Our own experiences at Lewes of Pay What You Want back this theory up. Back in March 2013, 405 attended our midweek Isthmian Premier League game against Carshalton Athletic. The first encounter had been abandoned due to floodlight failure, yet the re-arranged game saw a bigger than average midweek attendance. In fact, the attendance was identical to that a few days later on a Saturday when Kingstonian, a club that always brings a big and lively travelling support, visited. The average amount paid to enter was approximately £2.40 per head, about 60% less than we would normally expect on a match day.
Compare that to a Pre-Season game, on a Friday, in peak holiday season in July against a team just promoted from the County League with little or no marketing. An attendance of 250 for the game against East Grinstead Town was more than we expected, but what was very interesting was that they paid £2.50 on average. Why? Because all of the takings on that night went to a local charity.
There’s a well-known saying that I adopted some years ago that still rings true today – Price is only an issue in the absence of a value proposition – and that is what the Gneezy brothers first defined in their study and has since been backed up by simple stats from the Non-League game.