“Working class game, business class prices” – these words, written on a banner unfurled by fans of Liverpool Football Club at a Premier League match in 2013, in protest against the exorbitant ticket prices, aptly sums up the state of football in England.
The country’s topmost league today has become the flagship “product” of the sport, plush with funds from avenues other than gate receipts, yet clubs have set an extremely poor example on how to treat the game’s biggest stakeholders: its fans. More specifically, its stadium-going fans.
Not much had changed for three years until recently, when the collective voices of discontent were finally heard and acted upon – at least to some extent. On Wednesday, Premier League clubs announced that they have “unanimously agreed” on capping prices of away tickets at £30 for three years starting from next season. According to the Telegraph, this decision resulted from fear of witnessing the biggest mass protest in its history.
It’s a move that has come after over three years of rallying and protesting by fan groups, who relentlessly pushed the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF), the national federation, into putting forward their demands to the league. Rivalries were set aside as core groups of supporters from various football clubs, such as Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton, presented a remarkably unified front to tackle an issue affecting lives throughout the football fraternity. They persisted until they could not be ignored. And were finally rewarded.
A price cap represents a significant victory for ordinary fans; those who used to be genuinely recognised as the heart and soul of a football club but are largely appreciated today as part of a PR exercise and treated like consumers.
Let’s be clear though: this is only the starting point in the battle to achieve a bigger and more fundamental change in the way clubs look at supporters.
Firstly, a £30 cap is a step in the right direction but it is still £10 short of the FSF’s demands, which was a figure that took into account the cost of travel. As far as fan groups are concerned, there is still work to be done. Secondly, the report also mentions that some of the bigger clubs opposed this judgment but played along due to fear of negative publicity – indication of how far removed club owners are from understanding the plight of today’s football fan.
And finally, away-ticket prices are only a part of the problem because these are dictated by the opposition. More disconcerting in modern-day football is the way clubs are pricing out their own supporters and milking every last penny from them. Gone are the days when football was by the people, of the people and for the people. It is as much a business now as a sport, run largely by cold-hearted CEOs with the sole purpose of maximising wealth.
The Premier League has managed to capture the imaginations of people the world over. So much so that there has been an unprecedented growth in revenues and profits, owed largely to a massive broadcasting deal (the value of which will rise to an astonishing £8.3bn over the next three years), along with a steep increase in clubs’ global fan base.
Along the way, though, most English clubs have alienated their local support – those core group of supporters who have grown up going to stadiums week in, week out most of their lives and staunchly stuck with the club through its darkest eras. For quite some time now, their loyalties have been taken for granted and they’re only responding in kind.
Around 10,000 Liverpool supporters, nearly one-fourth of the capacity, walked out at the 77th-minute mark of a home game against Sunderland in February, to protest against the £77 ticket price announced for next season. Red-faced owners promptly made a U-turn. Manchester United too faced a backlash from supporters for making it compulsory for season-ticket holders to buy tickets of home cup matches – a sales strategy which has no place in football.
Arsenal supporters, meanwhile, can be heard every week on ArsenalFanTV, tired of “overpaying to watch failure on the field” when the club’s manager Arsene Wenger refuses to “overpay to buy players”. The London club’s cheapest 2015-16 season ticket was priced at £1014 and the most expensive at £2013, both by far the highest in the league. Traveling Bayern Munich fans turned up late for a game at the Emirates Stadium, objecting to £64 away match ticket. (Bayern’s cheapest season ticket in Germany is priced at £140.)
“Football without fans is nothing,” mentioned another protesting banner, but the quintessential stadium-goer is becoming ever more expendable in the eyes of football clubs due to the skewed demand-supply equation. If you can’t pay, someone else will. Even from abroad. It is estimated that 800,000 overseas supporters visited England to watch top-flight football in 2014. The numbers and the appeal of the league will only increase over time.
There is a fundamental flaw, however, in running football as a business and treating its followers, especially the locals, as consumers. A typical consumer of any commodity has various options in the market to choose from. A dissatisfied one can simply opt to switch to a competitor. This luxury of choices isn’t afforded to a football fan, especially a local, who has nowhere to go after decades of identifying with an institution. Which is why special measures are necessary to control prices.
Not only prices but traditions have gone for a toss, in order to make the Premier League a multi-billion pound industry. Saturday lunchtime kick-offs have long been compromised to cater to TV audiences. Match timings have often been unsuitable for traveling fans. Cameras of broadcasters have disrupted fans’ view inside the stadium (imagine paying £1000 season ticket, only to have an unclear view of proceedings from your designated seat). Fans have been evicted for standing in matches. And the level of atmosphere in stadiums have subsequently taken a nosedive.
England serves as a warning for nations where sport and business are tangled together in an uneasy marriage. Dortmund fans in Germany, for instance, disrupted a match at Schalke by throwing tennis balls onto the pitch. Their grievance? Price of away tickets.
Wherever there is money in the game, it is going to be a common theme. Unless it is tackled early. For fans in England, who are proud of their heritage and have long been taken for a ride, the fight has only started.