The exploitation of English fans has to stop

According to its website, the Premier League’s primary objective is, “to stage the most competitive and compelling league with world class players”. The Premier League also adds “The world’s best players come to England to play in a compelling league competition, in front of passionate full-houses and matches that are seen all over the world”

That’s the image the Premier League likes to present to the world. An exciting league played by the world’s best players watched by millions around the world and played in front of stadiums full of happy, enraptured fans.

That image isn’t quite true. The football may be exciting, some of the world’s best players play in the Premier League, the games are broadcast all over the world, the stadiums may be full (in many cases anyway), but the fans inside the stadium are far from happy.

I was recently reading an interview with Christian Seifert, the Chief Executive of the Bundesliga. Siefert said “In the Bundesliga we never take anything for granted. No matter how much we talk about media revenues and global markets, at the end of the day it’s all about the game. We never assume people will keep coming to the stadia. People can do many other things at the weekend”

The Premier League takes the complete opposite attitude. It only cares about fans in terms of how much money can be extracted from them; and they are happy to exploit those fans in the knowledge that if one fan can no longer go to games, it doesn’t matter as there’s always another who will take their place.

In fact, the Premier League cares so little about fans, they don’t really care if you even come to the match, so long as you paid for a ticket, so they can include you in the official attendance. The sad truth is that for most English clubs, corporate sponsors are now far more important than fans, as they bring in more money.

This complacency and arrogance, on the part of the Premier League and its constituent clubs, is a slap in the face for many fans, especially local fans, who, despite having attended games regularly for decades, have now been driven out by high ticket prices and are feeling increasingly marginalised as clubs actively seek fans from further afield as they spend more money.

Most people reading this will be doing so in America, and I appreciate that you might not understand why ticket prices are such a big issue with fans here in England, as you have even higher ticket prices for sporting events over there.

What you have to understand is that for years football was mostly watched by the working man. It’s only really since the advent of the Premier League, which coincided with stadiums becoming safer and hooligan-free, that more affluent fans have started attending games and clubs have realised that, because of the rules of supply and demand, they could charge more for tickets.

Since the formation of the Premier League, the cumulative inflation rate in the UK is 77%. However, the price of football tickets in that time has, on average, increased by over 700%. In the case of a season ticket for Liverpool it’s more like an 1100% increase. In real terms this means that football is no longer affordable for many fans.

In England, there used to be a time-honoured cycle of attending football matches. When you were a kid you’d go with a parent or the whole family; when you got a bit older, you’d go to matches with friends; then you’d take your kids to matches and the cycle would start again.

Well, not any more. That cycle has been broken. Parents can no longer take kids to matches as it is no longer affordable to do so. Teenage kids can’t go to games with friends as they can’t afford the price of an adult ticket, and for most clubs child tickets exist in name only (though Arsenal have set up a teenage section of the Emirates for several Premier League games next season, where tickets will only cost £10) as clubs don’t want to sell a seat to a child at a reduced rate, when they can sell it to an adult full-price.

The average age of a Premier League season ticket holder is 43, and is rising year on year. A recent Premier League survey said that less than 10% of fans attending games are under the age of 24. This something the Premier League has recognised as being a problem, but they have been reluctant to do anything about it.

Exorbitant ticket prices aren’t the sole preserve of the Premier League. While the lower leagues don’t charge as much as the Premier League clubs, they’re still not cheap, and can still be prohibitively expensive for families and young fans to attend games.

In my opinion, the most galling thing about high ticket prices is that ticket sales and other matchday costs (concessions etc.) account for only a relatively small proportion of a club’s total revenue. In the recent Deloitte’s football money list, of the 7 Premier League clubs included in the list 20 richest clubs in the world, all of them with the exception of Arsenal, made less than a third of their money from ticket sales. For Manchester City and Liverpool that figure was less than 25%. Clubs make the bulk of their money through broadcasting rights and commercial deals.

From next season, that proportion will be even smaller as a new domestic TV deal comes into effect from next season, which will be worth over £3billion to Premier League clubs. The bottom placed Premier League club will receive over £60m in broadcasting money next season. Taking into account this cash injection, it is estimated that clubs could reduce ticket prices by £32 per game and still make the same money they presently do.

So what can be done?

One of the problems fans face when trying to protest is that they often don’t know who to protest to. There’s an organisation called the Football Supporters Federation, who do a good job helping fans when they have an issue, but they don’t have any official capacity to make any changes, they just point people in the right direction.

Clubs won’t reduce prices out of the goodness of their hearts. All football clubs are businesses, albeit dysfunctional ones that aren’t expected to turn a profit, and as such primarily look out for their bottom line. If you owned a business and you know people are willing to buy your main product (in football clubs case that’s tickets to matches) for $100 and above, then why would you voluntarily choose to sell that product for $30?

The Premier League won’t force clubs to lower ticket prices. The Premier League exists to protect the interests of clubs, and as it’s in the best interests of clubs to keep charging fans a high price, they won’t do anything about it. The Premier League will also argue that on average stadiums were 95% full last season, so there's no need to reduce prices.

The FA, in theory, could put pressure clubs to lower prices, but in reality the FA is an impotent organisation with little input into the running of English football.

Also, the FA aren’t going to pressurise clubs to reduce their prices or act in the best interests of fans, as they do exactly the same thing the clubs do. They recently organised an FA Cup final where the ticket prices were exorbitant and the kick off time suited all of their sponsors and TV rights holders, but was completely unsuitable for the fans attending.

As part of the requirement for a club to be eligible for a licence to compete in a UEFA competition, they are supposed to appoint a Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO), who is supposed to be the link between fans and the club and can address any issues fans may have. In many European nations, this role is taken seriously with SLO’s being an active part of a club, and fans know that they have a voice inside the club, so even when decisions go against them, they know they at least got to have a say.

In England, for most clubs, the SLO is little more than a box to be ticked, nothing more. In most cases where people have tried to get in touch with their club’s SLO, the club couldn’t even tell them who it was. This means that supporters often can’t go through the proper channels to complain, because those channels aren’t made available to them.

So again, what can be done?

This might be where fans come in. Usually, the tribalism that exists between fans stops fans from coming together to take action. However, there are increasing signs that fans will work together on this issue.

Yesterday, there was a protest outside the Premier League headquarters about ticket prices. Fans from an estimated 40 clubs got together to show that fans can present a united front and that they aren’t happy about ticket prices.

Clubs are worried about their bottom line, which means keeping their sponsors happy. So anything that might make a sponsor nervous will get a club’s attention. If enough fans get in touch with a club’s sponsor and make their feelings known, that will start to make those sponsors question whether or not they want to be associated with a club. That won’t be ignored.

The other thing that has been talked about is a mass boycott of games. What that would entail is ticket holders willingly not going to the game in order to highlight their displeasure at how clubs treat fans. As I said before, the club would attempt to brush that off; but if it’s a large section of empty seats in a part of the ground the camera shows, that wouldn’t be so easy to brush off, and would capture the attention of sponsors and TV companies. Also, journalists have promised that if that happens, they’ll report it.

For too long now English clubs have been able to treat fans like dirt in the knowledge that they’ll come regardless. Well, now is the time for fans of all clubs to get together and show the authorities that they’re not prepared to take it anymore. While fans will always be divided by which team they support; what unites fans is far greater than what divides them, and if fans present a united front, then real change could happen and fans can be more than an afterthought for clubs once again.