A ball hasn't even been kicked yet, but there has already been a fair amount of controversy hanging over the beginning of Aston Villa's 2022/23 season. All of it centered around the price that fans are being charged for season tickets, and now the new training gear from Castore as well.
The average season ticket at Villa Park has seen an increase of about 44% with some fans being asked to pay over £150 extra on top of last year's price.
In addition to season ticket increases, Villa's new kit supplier - Castore, recently released a range of training wear, and to say fans aren't best pleased is an understatement. Despite some of the gear looking very similar to Kappa's designs from last season, fans are being asked to fork out for much higher prices.
What's even more concerning is that Castore also supply Wolves with very similar training gear, of which is nearly half the price of the Villa equivalent. The best example being a pair of training pants, both black with the Castore logo and respective club badge, £60 on the Villa store and £32 on the Wolves store.
Needless to say, it has left the majority of the fanbase with some genuine concern over the pricing of the upcoming replica kits for this season.
So why is it that Villa fans are being asked to pay a premium price across the board?
You only have to look towards the official Villa website and social media channels to get an idea of why prices are on the rise.
Plans for the much talked about Villa Park expansion were revealed today. In those plans we are shown an exciting vision of the future with the North Stand being expanded, as well as what appears to be a boxpark-like event centre to accommodate fans on matchday and beyond.
Of course, we as fans are not naive enough to believe that paying an extra £20 for a training shirt is what will pay for such a grand project. Nor will the hike in season ticket prices be the sole reason the club is able to afford high wages for players like Philippe Coutinho and Boubacar Kamara. What it does represent, however, is the direction the owners wish to take Aston Villa in.
Unfortunately, part of acting like an elite club is often charging elite prices. What's even more unfortunate is that league position doesn't necessarily change those ideals in the minds of most football club owners. We only have to look towards North London with the likes of Arsenal and Spurs as good examples of this. Despite both sides fighting it out for a Champions League spot last season, neither club has seen too much glory in recent years, yet are two of the most expensive clubs to support in the country.
Branding on an international stage is clearly something that is important to the current hierarchy, as shown by the recent announcement that the club's crest is being changed come next season. Updated crest, updated stadium.. new everything seems to be the order of business. Which can be both good and bad.
This can only be seen as a positive from the viewpoint of moving the club forward. When signing players who could theoretically get Villa into Europe, you want to be able to convince them that this is a different Aston Villa from the one that was relegated to the Championship. A different Villa from the one that heavily relied on a local hero to keep them in the league. They clearly want to portray us as a new Villa, one that's heading in the right direction, and rebranding undoubtedly helps towards this.
On the other hand, it moves Villa further and further away from the 'legacy fan', a term we have all come to know and learn after the mess that was the failed European Super League.
For those who may not know, a legacy fan is seen as a fan who comes to support their team on a weekly basis, but is highly unlikely to spend money on merchandise or concessions. They simply turn up at 2:50pm, support the team, then go home at 4:50pm. From a purely business standpoint, these aren't the ideal fans to grow a club financially.
Ideally, these owners would prefer fans who come to the stadium to make a day of it. Visit the club shop, buy a meal, drink some beers, and maybe even hang around to enjoy the stadium's facilities after the game has finished.
Now, I'm not pointing the finger at Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris and saying this is exactly what's going on at Aston Villa. The communication between the club and the fanbase has arguably never been better, and it's fair to say that we feel valued as supporters for the most part. I certainly do. However, the reason behind these recent price increases and stadium plans definitely points towards them partially having this mindset, and that cannot be ignored.
So what now?
The simple solution to all of this, from a supporters point of view at least, is to vote with your wallet and not pay these higher prices if you don't want to. I for one am happy to wait until much later in the season to purchase my gear once the sales kick in, and I know many people will feel the same.
Understandably, this same method could not be applied when renewing season tickets. The prices for those are set in stone, and we either had to take it or leave it. If you were to leave it, the current waiting list shows that your ticket will not go unsold, which leads us nicely to the business side of things..
Purely from a business outlook, which is exactly what Aston Villa is to the owners at the end of the day, that season ticket will be sold. Those brand new Castore shirts will be sold. People will still come to the stadium and spend money on the new facilities. So no matter how unhappy we might be, this is the direction the club is moving in and we're here for the ride whether we like it or not.
This is a brave new world for us Villans. We should be filled with genuine excitement as the powers that be do whatever they can to make us a huge footballing name across Europe once again. It's something we could have only dreamed about a few years back.
However, when we dream, we often leave out the harsh realities. Realities that include £100 replica shirts and expensive matchday experiences. Realities that may well include new faces at a 50,000 seat Villa Park. Realities that sadly move Villa away from being a reasonably priced, family-friendly club that we all want it to be.
So yes, this is the price we pay for success. But you don't have to buy-in right away, and nor should you be expected to. Given the current cost of living coinciding with these price hikes, it's more than reasonable that some long-term supporters may have to go to less games and buy less gear, which is unfair and not a good look for the club no matter how you spin it.
On that note, please do not ridicule the people who are priced out or accuse them of being lesser supporters. Each person's situation is very different and times are tough. We all love the Villa and the amount of money each person can afford to put into the club should never result in their support being questioned.
The same can be said for those who are lucky enough to afford the current costs, please don't give these people grief for how they choose to support the club they love. If you're happy to pay the new prices for the Castore training wear, then all power to you.
Whether you count yourself as a so called legacy fan, a modern fan, or maybe even a bit of both, we all want the same thing. Success for Aston Villa Football Club. Unfortunately, this may be the only way to get it.. Up The Villa.