In recent weeks focus has again turned to the inexorable rise of ticket prices and the action taken by a small section of fans to try and curb the ceaseless march upwards. Yet so far, despite frequent and widespread complaints over ticket prices, hopes that this might take effect still appear unlikely to be fulfilled.
At the heart of the issue is the differing way in which the game is perceived by fans and club owners. Supporting a football club is not a rational act. Following a team across the country every week, dedicating your life to eleven men kicking a ball cannot be adequately explained to those without a passion for football. When the incredible cost that accompanies such whole-hearted support is taken into account it looks stranger still.
The act of buying a football club is rarely rational either. As an investment they seldom offer the sort of return that level-headed businessmen might demand, yet that has not prevented generations of would-be Abramovichs hoovering up the nation’s most adored institutions. Once they have taken over, owners typically display a bi-polar approach to the club’s finances, at the same time spending with reckless abandon and somehow trying to fund their profligacy by raising revenues.
The most dependable source for increased income had always been, in one way or another, the fans. Whether through gate receipts, merchandise or TV subscriptions, demand for football has never been higher and therein lies the problem.
Last season the Premier League saw average attendances of over 36,000, the highest figure since 1950. Indeed only twice in English football history (the post-war boom seasons of 1948-9 and 1949-50) has the average gate at top-flight grounds been higher. Now that figure is naturally dependent on the clubs who make up the league (the absence of QPR and Wigan helped boost the Premier League at the expense of the Championship in 2013-14) and the number of top division teams, but it is clear that the popularity of the game is at an all-time high.
Given the parlous state of the finances of most clubs (only Manchester United and Arsenal have consistently generated a profit in recent years) is it any surprise that they have chosen to exploit one of the few revenue streams which seems to have almost no limit?
It’s all very well for the FSF to look at the recent TV deals and claim: "The increase in Premier League media rights alone could have led to all 20 clubs letting in each and every supporter for all 38 games for free last season without being any worse off than they had been the season before." The fact is that almost all those clubs were losing money last season and due to the unending spiral of wage inflation will be again soon.
If fans want to see a fall in prices genuine action needs to be taken. Marches, like that organised by the FSF last month, help to raise awareness of fans’ opinions but they are undermined by the fact that attendances are so high. For owners to take real notice, fans need to start boycotting matches, refusing to purchase food and drink inside the ground and to stop buying merchandise from the on-site “superstore”. These are acts which will start to hit home with owners who ultimately are dependent on these revenue streams for some semblance of sustainability.
The great difficulty that accompanies this is the fact thatnobody acts in isolation. Arsenal and Spurs have often been held up as the clubs with the most outrageously expensive ticket prices and yet each club is reputed to have a waiting list for season tickets of over 40,000 people. If one fan votes with his feet and fails to renew there will be a host of others ready and willing to take his place. Given this, it would take a bold supporter to walk away and expect droves to follow suit.
The other key step has to be a level of realism in fan expectations. Partly this is a vicious circle with supporters understandably expecting more success, more silverware, more superstars given the increase in prices, but this has to be paid for. Fans rarely complain of a club being too ambitious in the transfer market or of giving their star striker an improved contract as they aim to prevent an exodus of talent. I’m sure there were Leeds and Portsmouth fans urging caution as they chased lofty ambitions but they were certainly drowned out by a more jubilant majority.
Asking fans to be more measured in their expectations is perhaps a step too far. By its very nature football is a game of dreams; fans don’t turn up to see the ordinary but to hope for the extraordinary. The problem is that such thinking has led directly to the arms race which has ensued over the last 20 years as revenues has risen vertiginously and wages have shot up still faster.
Of course, it would be remiss to write about ticket prices without making the obligatory reference to Germany. As David Conn, a one-man cottage-industry of such articles, never fails to observe, it’s possible to buy a season ticket at Bayern Munich for roughly £100 while standing sections at the likes of Borussia Dortmund are priced to be inclusive to all.
While such low pricing is, of course, admirable, it rather masks the innate problem. Tickets are a scare resource. Prices are the simplest method of allocating that resource to those who want it the most. If prices in England were dropped it wouldn’t enable fans who are currently “priced out” to attend games at Old Trafford or the Emirates in any numbers purely because there aren’t any spare tickets to be had at the moment.
Meanwhile the ever-increasing pressure of Financial Fair Playsuggests that ticket prices will continue to be a source of lucrative income in the coming years. With clubs such as Manchester City no longer able to rely on the largesse of their Emirati patrons, they will inevitably be forced to raise their prices to the level paid by similarly successful sides if they hope to stay on the right side of the law. An unintended consequence of Michel Platini’s crusade to end financial doping will surely be further ticket inflation rather than the prudence that was envisaged.
As things stand hopes of cheaper tickets remain just a pipe dream. Marches, chants and 80th minute walk outs won’t change anything. The only way for fans to drive a change in the pricing structure at top clubs is to vote with their feet and stay away. Until then clubs will continue to raise prices as they aim to maximise the revenue they receive to receive from “loyal consumers”. Football supporters will always be irrational, it’s the very nature of following this great game, but expecting owners to act in the same way is just deluded.