Tomorrow, Liverpool travel to play Hull in the Premier League. On paper, this should be a low-key game. It’s a Hull side who are one point above the relegation places but have only managed 4 home wins all season against a Liverpool team with not much left to play for as, barring disaster from the clubs above them, Liverpool won’t make the top 4. In fact, considering it’s midweek and there’s no other Premier League game on, unusually the game isn’t even being shown on UK TV.
But there is something notable about this game. Something which fans of all clubs should (but won’t) take note of. That is that a large majority of the 2,500 Liverpool fans who otherwise would’ve attended the game will be boycotting it due to the cost of the tickets being £50. Instead, most of those fans have decided to pay £10 for an under-11 ticket, but won’t use it and will instead hold a demonstration outside Anfield.
There’s a good reason for this. Empty seats send a message of dissatisfaction that can’t be explained away. Sure, people could just choose to not buy any sort of ticket to the Hull game, but, if they didn’t go, someone else would pay full price and go, which would defeat the object.
It’s not so much that that the £50 price is too high; it is, but in the current climate, £50 is about the going rate. The reason for the boycott is that Hull don’t charge the away supporters of all teams £50. This season, they have charged Stoke fans £16 and Everton fans £35 for a ticket. In fact, last season Hull charged Liverpool fans £35. So why the £15 increase? especially as the Premier League is more affluent than ever?
Now sure, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal are all owned by the mega-rich and they are able to pay huge transfer fees and wages. But it’s asinine to suggest that this means Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour or FSG’s money gets distributed amongst the fans so it’s justifiable that they should be charged more.
I don’t mean to single out Hull here. The £50 Hull are charging Liverpool fans isn’t a great deal more than what Liverpool charged Hull’s fans earlier this season. All teams are as bad as each other.
This isn’t a partisan issue. You may think that Liverpool fans, or fans of any other team have no right to complain when their team does the same thing. But that’s the point. The club does it; and the fans suffer without having any say in the matter. You’ll struggle to find many Liverpool fans, especially those like myself from Liverpool, who have anything positive to say about the club’s ticketing policy. So if no one protests, then the message that gets sent out is that it’s ok for clubs to charge whatever they like and nothing ever will get done about it.
Unfortunately, for all of the attention that this protest, and all of the other protests that have taken place between fans of all clubs over the past few seasons will attract, it’s difficult to see anything changing because nobody can compel Premier League clubs to do anything.
Many people still have the wrong idea about the Premier League. It is not the governing body for English football. In fact, it’s now barely answerable to that governing body. The Premier League is a law unto itself.
The Premier League does not even pretend to care about the England national team, the women’s game, the lower leagues, the grassroots or any other aspect of football in England that doesn’t pertain to the Premier League.
So when people say that the FA should step in and force the Premier League to share the wealth with lower-league clubs and by lowering ticket prices, the truth is they can’t. The FA sat back and allowed the Premier League to take control of its own affairs and only realised when it was too late that maybe giving up that control was a bad idea.
The Premier League is essentially a private business owned by the 20 clubs that play in it every season. It exists solely for the good of those 20 clubs. They are only interested in their own brand, and defend that brand aggressively.
The Premier League 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 that they couldn’t care less if you even bother coming to the match, so long as you paid for a ticket, as they can include you in the official attendance either way, and present to the world another well attended match.
It’s possible that as a result of government intervention, there could be laws passed to force Premier League clubs to share the wealth. The Labour party, who stand a good chance of being majority partners in whichever coalition government gets into power after the elections in the UK in two weeks time; have said that they would force the Premier League to honour the agreement give up the full 5% of all its TV rights money to investing in the grassroots game (currently the Premier League argues that that 5% only applies to UK TV rights money), and they would make it so every club has to have at least two fan representatives on the board.
One thing that continually thwarts fans when protesting about the way football is run is that there isn’t really an organisation that looks after the interests of fans. Football is run by the clubs for the clubs and the fans aren’t taken into consideration. When faced with a protest like this, clubs generally pretend to listen than do absolutely nothing about it. So having two fan representatives at board level could make a huge difference.
The only other thing that could work is some kind of public shaming. The next TV rights deal, which applies from 2016-19 means that the Premier League will get around £8.5bn, with the bottom placed Premier League club each season being guaranteed a minimum of £99m.
Almost immediately after this deal was announced, the frankly indefensible fact was highlighted that of the Premier League clubs only Chelsea pay their non-football related staff, (i.e cleaners, waiters etc.) the living wage, which is the amount needed to have a basic standard of living, and is an amount greater than the current minimum wage in the UK.
As a result of the outcry over that fact, and the extremely ham-fisted ‘let them eat cake’ response by Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, it was announced that as of the season after next, all Premier League clubs must pay their full-time staff the living wage.
So, shaming can work, and it may be that shaming is the most powerful weapon fans have when it comes to ticket prices. There’s just no justification for them being so high other than corporate greed. For most teams, matchday revenue is so far behind TV money and sponsorship agreements as a revenue source that it’s almost insignificant. To use Liverpool as an example, as a result of the new TV deal they could reduce all tickets to £12 and still make as much money as they already do. But nobody’s foolish enough to believe they will.
You may think that the boycott by Liverpool fans is stupid, futile or even hypocritical. But what it will do is create an image of a load of empty seats which Hull or the Premier League won’t be able to explain away. It will counter the image that the Premier League sells to the world of packed stadiums full of ebullient, contented fans. It will attract the kind of press the Premier League is desperate to avoid.
Hopefully what it will do is make people think. It will hopefully make Hull and Liverpool think about their ticketing policies. It may make fans of other clubs think that boycotts are the way to get their voices heard, and it may finally force the Premier League to think of fans as something other than a noisy piggybank that’s there to have as much money extracted from as possible.