Unless you’ve been asleep for a few days you will probably be aware by now that on Saturday, a section of the Liverpool fans walked out of their game versus Sunderland in the 77th minute as a form of protest at new ticket prices being brought in for their new stand next season, a significant rise on before. It is thought that up to 10,000 made for the exits, prompting a rather catastrophic team collapse. The two incidents may or may not be linked.
Like many football directors, Ian Ayre has since proceeded to handle the whole affair terribly. Poor excuses that fool no one, a seismic failure to understand the issues at hand, a cancelled Q & A session (worse than never having one in the first place), and the price increases have also had the side-effect of hitting many disabled supporters, many of whom cannot just relocate, for obvious reasons.
But what the Liverpool fans did is not the first of its kind, though any publicity it creates can only be a good thing. The only way that owners can be held to account is a collective effort from fans. Manchester City fans (and others) have been boycotting ticket prices for years – this is not a new phenomenon. City fans do it by simply not turning up anymore – by “jacking in” everything they used to love. No fanfare, no banners, they just drift away and find better ways to spend their hard-earned money. Enough is enough, and booing a Champions League anthem is not sufficient to guarantee attendance. Success is costly, and many just can’t take the strain. I stopped attending away games a good few years ago, as have friends who rarely missed a game home or away in the old days. Maybe we got older and have other responsibilities in life now, the excitement of going to matches as a child and teenager no longer there, the thrill of a packed terrace gone forever.
Maybe. Maybe modern ticket prices mean it’s an old man’s (or woman’s) game now anyway. Either way, some have had enough, some don’t feel it necessary to attend anymore. Modern football has killed their enthusiasm. Drifting away though provides no headlines, provides no articles, and everyone turns a blind eye. Or not.
Because what has been the response from swathes of rival fans?
To count empty seats and deride those who had been priced out of the beautiful game. Even City’s “official betting partner” Paddy Power revel in City not selling out on their social media platforms. When City offered 2-for-1 Champions League tickets, the club was widely ridiculed for having to give tickets away to fill the stadium. We’d reached a point where Manchester United fans were mocking a rival club for not forcing fans to purchase tickets and for selling them for a third or a quarter of what they had to pay themselves (if they’d actually been in the Champions League at the time). We had, and continue to have Arsenal fans baying on Twitter at their rival’s attendances whilst being royally ripped off week in, week out and doing nothing about it. So wouldn’t it be nice if fans grouped together not to mock, but to deal with the issue at hand?
I’ve come to accept that modern football at the top level entails corporate areas at grounds, and will not lose sleep over a small section of the ground being exorbitantly priced, if there’s a demand for that, as long as there are affordable seats for those that want them elsewhere. It’s when there isn’t that the problems begin. The creeping corporate areas at the Etihad have pushed some out of their seats into new areas, which is hardly ideal, but at least there are affordable seats elsewhere. This season I relocated to the new 3rd tier of the south stand, where season tickets are available from as little as £299. Mine is £380, less than what it was four years ago. It’s a bargain. The club have made excellent progress on many ticketing issues, but still put their foot in it occasionally, seemingly out of touch with modern life and the modern working man/woman. Thus this week, ticket prices for the Dynamo Kiev tie were announced, around the £30-£40 price range. Ignoring the fact that tickets for the 1st leg are an astonishing £4.50 (things work differently there), the price is all wrong, even if it looks competitive compared to rivals’ prices. City are at Wembley in a few weeks – 30,000+ will be forking out up to £100 for tickets, plus travel, accommodation, the odd pint of mild and more. Then there’s the FA Cup match at Chelsea for some. Then there’s the possibility of further cup matches should we progress further in the two remaining competitions. By the time that’s all over it will soon be time to renew for next season. If your team is quite successful, it never seems to end, and the club don’t waste any time taking the money out either. For all of us, there’s food, there’s merchandise, there’s travel, all the extras. It’s incessant.
Dynamo Kiev will provide tough opposition, but they are not a glamour team, by any stretch of the imagination. The tie at the Etihad will not sell out. That is obvious to all City fans, so presumably is obvious to those who decide the prices at the club. So why was it priced this way?
And I’d even have some tiny little inkling of why owners do this if I really thought it gave them an advantage in the “market” or on the pitch, but it really doesn’t. Liverpool’s price increases would cover little more than one more failed footballer bought from Utrecht and loaned out to Rotherham after failing to impress. It would cover the cost of Eliaquim Mangala’s big toe (right or left foot, take your pick). It’s irrelevant, a tiny, worthless pebble placed in the revenue stream, as ticket revenue becomes less and less important to clubs as TV deals break through the stratosphere. The earnings from Hong Kong’s Premier League TV rights alone is enough to cover huge prices reductions across the board at City. From Hong Kong alone. Why do owners continue to create PR disaster after PR disaster for such little gain? After all, I can’t fall out of love with football, I can’t go and support another club – I am committed to this until the day I die. Following a sports team is not like any other financial transaction, so the argument that if you don’t like it then stop going just doesn’t wash. It’s not acceptable for fans to be priced out of a sport awash with money.
And this new TV deal on the horizon is huge, beyond rational explanation, making a £10 ticket rise the equivalent of charging a man who has just bought 8 diamond rings 5p for a carrier bag. And with each TV deal, the working man forlornly hopes that the extra revenue will be passed onto the fan, and every time, with a few exceptions, it goes instead to those who already have more money than they can spend. Ticket prices have risen by about 1000% since the start of the Premier League in 1992, a tad ahead of normal inflation rates. This new deal may approach £6bn, but the truth is with foreign TV deals, highlights packages and all the other add-ons, it’s really nearer to £9bn. You often hear talk of modern footballers being disconnected from the fans, but you can hardly blame them for living in a bubble. We’re targeting the wrong people really – it’s the ones that run the game, right up to Scudamore, Taylor and their peers that are disconnected, and have created the situation we find ourselves in today.
City and others have made steps on ticket prices. United and Arsenal will freeze their prices next season – United have for a good few years now, though Arsenal still managed to infuriate fans by lumping a surcharge on their Barcelona tickets. Staggering. The fact is that whilst freezes are a start, there is little excuse anymore for clubs not only to freeze prices, but to drastically reduce prices across the board. Will any club have the cojones to break from the pack and do this?
And the thing is, City’s decision makers know all this, they know the economics of tickets sales as much as any of us. They reduced prices for FA Cup games and it sold out even when we were playing lower league teams. The atmosphere was better, the team responded, we got to Wembley twice (four times in truth). The place was rocking against Everton in the Capital One Cup, and we won again. A full house means increased takings at the bars and food stalls, so the income is probably just as much even when prices are reduced. It’s simple logic, it’s common sense, and we can all see it.
And there are two separate issues with ticket prices – home fans and away fans. For too long, away fans have been treated as the unwanted neighbours at matches, placed in the worst parts of the ground, with the worst facilities and some of the most exorbitant ticket prices. The truth is that away fans are the lifeblood of the modern game, as without them it barely seems worth bothering anymore. Atmospheres at modern stadia are bad enough in this country (in many, but not all grounds) without hitting the travelling fan and thus removing even more atmosphere. The call for price caps on away tickets is needed and a small step in the right direction, and it was soul-sapping to see my team and many of the other “big teams” are against the proposals for a £30 price cap. How utterly depressing. They just don’t get it do they? Income from away fans is such a tiny percentage of a club’s revenue (well under 1% for most teams), then it’s hard to fathom why a team would oppose such a move apart from spite. At least the teams in favour are looking to set up their own reciprocal scheme anyway.
I went to the odd early “Twenty’s Plenty” meeting, which wanted an even lower cap on away ticket prices, as the name suggests. There were lots of good ideas, but it felt futile to me, due to the powerful machines we as fans are up against, including market forces and supply and demand. Their cause and passion was admirable though, MPs have been involved, and the campaign will not stop until goals have been reached.
So how do we protest against modern ticket prices? Not attending does work. It’s why Manchester City have had very competitive prices in cup games, but it has not spilled over sufficiently into league games, where most seats are pre-bought in the summer. That’s the long game though, and it depends on owners caring whether seats are filled or realising that a full house brings in different revenue streams and fans for life. Visible protests like the one at Anfield are powerful. Already there is talk of Liverpool’s owners revisiting their plans, there are talks of further protests and journalists are writing about the issue en masse. Even Alan Shearer is discussing it on Match of the Day. There appears to be momentum, so it needs to be maintained, and we all need to join in if we feel strongly on the topic.
The game has changed – we all need accept that. No more terracing, no paying on the gate, no wooden stands, crumbling stadia, everything sanitised and safe, at the top level at least. No Football Pink, social clubs, goal updates on Piccadilly 1152, no relying on newspapers to know what happened. Now it is a sport of big business, of branding, of money, money, money. More and more money, piled upon more and more money, and the bubble is always seemingly about to burst, but it never does. But the irony is that the money that has swamped the game could just be the thing that saves it. If club owners could utilise their full brain power for just one moment, they would realise that they don’t need ticket sales anymore. They don’t need to squeeze every penny out of the match-going fan. The game is global, the appeal too, the revenue comes from all corners of the earth, from Albanian TV to Indian merch buyers to noodle partners in Peru. A rise in ticket prices makes little difference to a club’s chance of success, it is an extra corner in a match or one re-taken penalty in a season. It is less than that, because if the game was given back to the working classes, if the game became affordable to all, whoever you supported, the owners would benefit as much as the fans would. So if we can all see this, then why can’t they?
We need to keep telling them until it sinks in. Fans are the lifeblood of any sport, and one day we will have had enough – and all the TV deals in all of the world can’t make up for that. Only when fans are no longer taken for granted, their unconditional support no longer guaranteed, will progress be made. Thankfully it seems a groundswell has begun, and changes could be afoot. English football needs this to happen.