Thursday, 18 October 2012

Tickets Please

The BBC Sport report on ticket prices in the Premier and Football League is most welcome. The price of admission to a football match is one of the most important and relevant aspects of football because of the direct financial consequences it has on supporters.

At its core, football is about going to matches. In fact the very definition of a supporter hinges on them turning up at games, paying through the turnstiles and supporting the team. If for whatever reason, you don’t or can’t then you’re not a supporter, you’re a fan. This is why the cost of admission is so important: it is part of what sets the parameters of the relationship that an individual and a community has with their club.

But I don’t believe the Premier League looks at things in the same way. They look at the relationship between a club and a supporter as similar to that of a business and a consumer. Have a look at Cathy Long’s (Head of Supporter Services for the Premier League) piece for the BBC as an illustration of this perspective. Long talks of adding value to the supporter’s experience (through the creation of “family zones” it seems). To me, this seems like another way of saying “Get ‘em in early and get ‘em spending” although I may be a tad cynical there.

The advantage the Premier League has over other leisure industries is a higher than usual sense of customer loyalty. English football club supporters are prepared to make additional sacrifices to follow the team due to the strong connection to their club. This allows the clubs to set their pricing structure with considerably less caution than a cinema or theme park, for example. After all, who ever heard of an Odeon Supporter? On what channel is the weekly radio phone in show for disgruntled Alton Towers fans?

There is an argument that the Premier League offers world class entertainment because the high calibre players the clubs employ and that costs money, lots of money. This is true to a point. But the fact is that football, usually, does not guaranteed entertainment. Sometimes, even the best teams lose or draw or just play badly. If you follow Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Man United then it is unlikely that you’ll leave your home stadium unhappy but the same can’t be said for the rest of the clubs in the league, much less for the clubs in the Championship and below.

With TV revenues significantly lower in the Football League, Championship clubs need to keep the cash coming in to try and maintain a manageable gap in the quality of players between the League. Is it any wonder then that it costs more considerably more money to watch a team like Crystal Palace than two times Bundesliga Champions, Borussia Dortmund? This may not be the actual reason why it costs around £30 to enter Selhurst Park on a match-day but it must surely be a factor.

Ultimately, the reason why it costs as much as it does to watch football in England is because enough people are willing to pay. In fact, football has an in built mechanism to keep the prices high and that is set by supporters themselves who regard non-attendance as disloyalty. If the relationship was one of club and supporter then that would be fair enough but it’s not: it’s business and consumer. To be blunt, clubs are exploiting a relationship between themselves and the fans that either does not exist or is not reciprocated.

So what is to be done?

In Germany, there are frequent boycotts by supporter groups in protest against rising ticket prices. However, most clubs in Germany are owned in the most part by the supporters. This has contributed to a culture whereby supporters have a greater influence and whose voice is taken more seriously. Clubs are clubs and not businesses  They are run for the benefit of themselves and their own ends. This culture and the relationships it creates do not exist in England, as far as I can make out. The notion of organising any form of boycott would be regarded disloyalty not just by the clubs but almost certainly by significant sections of the supporter base. Reflect for a moment on the situation at Cardiff City where supporters are divided over the club’s recent change of colours and crest. It is easy to imagine similar unpleasantness occurring about direct action over ticket prices.

Another option is to form a breakaway club. Ultimately, AFC Wimbledon and FC United Of Manchester were formed as a reaction to corporate excess ruining their match day experience. Why not form a new club at a lower level? The trouble with this idea is that it too is divisive and denies the supporters top quality football.

Then of course there is regulation (thank you, I’m here all week). But seriously, a practical suggestion may be compel the Premier and Football League clubs to take a slice of their TV revenue to offset against ticket prices. A “TV Subsidy” if you will.  This idea has the virtue of being straightforward and something that every supporter can get behind, irrespective of club.

While top slicing the Sky money and giving back to the supporters in the form of subsidised ticket prices will negatively affect club’s bottom line, it will make it harder for them to criticise the idea. They’ll probably start by saying that they would have to reduce solidarity payments to the lower leagues but this too can be protected with better regulation.

The final (and most likely) option of course is to do nothing. Perhaps, sooner or later, the middle class forty-somethings who can currently afford a ticket will get bored, suffer one moral outrage too many, lose their jobs or just figure that they're getting too old for this sort of thing and go an find something else to do with their time instead like go to the pictures, maybe. That might do the trick.