Football without fans is nothing

Christopher Lee

As anger grows at the price of Premier League away tickets, a new campaign seeks to persuade clubs it's in their interests to lower prices.

Watching live football in England is an expensive business, and it gets more expensive every year. Last October, the BBC's Price of Football survey found the average cost of the cheapest ticket across all four divisions had risen 11.7% in 12 months compared to inflation of 2.2%. Taking a more historical perspective, at the beginning of the 2011/12 season David Conn pointed out in the Guardian that general inflation since 1989/90 had been 77.1%. In that time, the cheapest season tickets for Manchester United and Liverpool rose 420% and 1,108% (that's £96 to £532 and £60 to £725) respectively.

One consequence of this has been the shattering of the traditional measurement of fandom: an unusual level of commitment isn't the only thing you need to get in these days. Another has been the increasing age of football crowds, as a generation grows up in a country where attending top-flight football is a luxury, not a habit. A third, naturally, has been anger.

The price of away tickets has been a particularly sore point, with fans reacting badly not only to general expense but to the tiering system that sees fans of ‘bigger' clubs charged up to twice as much as other fans, simply because they're deemed a more attractive proposition. As you may have heard, ahead of their recent game at Arsenal, Manchester City returned around a third of their allocation as fans balked at the £62 asking price. A couple of those fans that did attend displayed a banner ‘£62!! WHEN WILL IT END?' that was eventually removed by Arsenal's stewards. Last weekend, Liverpool fans visiting the Emirates brought their own banner, reading ‘FOOTBALL WITHOUT FANS IS NOTHING'.

(As an aside, there has been some dismissal of these in-stadium protests, the suggestion being that somebody who was both willing and able to pay has no business cavilling over the price. It's a peculiar presumption: that only those specifically affected by an iniquity are allowed to complain about it. Just because one person can afford something, should they ignore the fact that another can't? They used to call that solidarity, a word that went out of fashion some time in the eighties.)

Informed by this and other events, and by the more general discontent around pricing,
the Football Supporters' Federation (FSF) recently launched the Twenty's Plenty campaign with events in Manchester and London. As the name implies, their stated aim is a cap of £20 (£15 concessions) on away tickets across all four divisions of the league. The events, attended by individual fans from a wide range of clubs as well as representatives of supporters groups, were the first step in what the organisation hopes will become a national campaign that transcends divisions and club boundaries.

Their decision to focus on away tickets is in part idealistic, but it's also pragmatic. Not just relying on the claim that away fans are "the beating heart of football" -- though as anybody that's been to a game will agree, a set of jumping away fans enhances the entire experience for everybody -- the FSF point out that the atmosphere to which these fans contribute is a fundamental part of the product, if you'll excuse the term. From a Premier League perspective, it's one of the selling points that lies underneath the self-aggrandising Greatest League In The World nonsense; as Chief Executive Richard Scudamore stated after Manchester City visited Arsenal, "Absolutely top of our aims and objectives is to put on a show and keep attendances full". So if the fervour of the supporters is used to sell the product, should those in charge of (and attempting to profit from) the product not, in turn, take action both to preserve that fervour and to benefit those responsible?

The FSF also make the point that the Premier League's impending swell of broadcast money -- a rise from £1.9bn to £3.2bn as of next season -- means that top-flight clubs will have the opportunity to reconfigure their revenue streams. Indeed, the FSF calculate that with the incoming windfall, clubs could afford to cut all tickets by £32 without any drop in income. While that certainly won't happen, this is an opportune moment for fans to exert some pressure on this issue, and to make the point that there are more important things than wages and agents' fees. (Sadly, this is less applicable for the Football League, whose broadcast income fell this season from £264m over three years to £195m.)

It's optimistic stuff, of course. Asking a business to make less money is like asking coconuts not to fall from trees: the universe just isn't built that way. The same, perhaps, could be said about the likelihood of football fans from different clubs managing to place their mutual enmity aside for the greater good. But then peculiar things are happening around football finance at the moment. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport recently published a report calling on the sport to reform itself, or be subject to legislation, while the Premier League clubs have recently agreed a set of FFP-style restrictions on spending designed to nudge the whole shebang a little way back towards sanity.

To quote the excellent Two Hundred Percent, the very idea that clubs would vote to restrict their own spending was "for nearly a decade ... said to be undesirable, impossible, unrealistic and impractical", and it just happened. So too the idea that football clubs would willingly charge fans less? Whether it be the tightening economy or just a simple draining away of patience, there is a sense that now is the time to see if it's possible to rein in the runaway pricing. And if this campaign is successful, well, who knows? As Lao-Tzu said, a journey of a thousand miles ... probably shouldn't cost more than twenty quid.

More information here. Many thanks to Michael Brunskill at the FSF.

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