It's the £62 question: The price of an away ticket at Arsenal for Manchester City fans has finally pushed a nerve. Long-term challengers of exploitative practices and the juggernaut of greed and short-termism in football have been joined by more mainstream football analysts and the average supporter in the debate, which has begun to gain the momentum it deserves. People were not listening; Now they are.
The emperor asking supporters to pay often £100+ for a day's 'entertainment' on a bi-weekly basis (when travel, programme, food and tickets are included) is being made aware of his naked state. What has been sold to supporters as rational necessity to uphold the global brand and continue the entertainment factor, attracting the best players is looking less and less plausible in the face of protests and other top leagues' comparatively low prices.
The focus, however, has been almost exclusively on Premier League clubs' treatment of fans (the league is at pains to remind us it is the clubs' policies, not theirs, which set ticket prices). As a long-suffering supporter of a Championship club (Bristol City), I am used to interest diverted to the glamour of the top league, but am conscious that we should not ignore non-Premier League football in this debate.
Although not the only reason, price is a major factor for me in not being able to attend many Bristol City games. Not quite reaching the heights of £62, I usually pay £25 for home and away games I attend, nearly £15 more than the cheapest ticket in Germany's top league - which Pep Guardiola has recently joined, snubbing the oligarchs and multi-million pound owners - at £10.33. As much as I am committed to Sean O'Driscoll's leadership of my club, I'm not sure it really merits the difference.
Indeed, it was reported in October that only two of the 92 Football League clubs offer a day out for less than £20, down from 12 the year before. With yearly attendances frequently topping 16 million in the Football League, this is a scandal, especially at a time of economic downturn - football is literally moving in the opposite direction to the disposable income of fans. Unlike the line the Premier League gives, however, this has everything to do with governance of the game, and comparatively little to do with individual club policy.
Forced to keep up with those at the top (due to lack of an effective redistributive mechanism from the Premier League), and competitors in their own leagues aiming for the top, Football League clubs have been obliged to spend beyond their means simply to stay at their current level. This is clearly understood by the Football League Chairman, Greg Clarke when he asserted, "If I had to list the 10 things about football that keep me awake at night, it would be debt one to 10." If all clubs were forced to live within their means, as is the case in Germany with an effective club licensing system, many of the issues would be addressed, including ticket prices.
Financial Fair Play will help, but for many clubs, including my own, it has come too late. Club losses of £14.4m last year are completely unsustainable, and have created the need to charge astronomical prices for a comparatively mediocre experience: Sitting (not being allowed to stand, although arguments for safe standing have developed significantly in previous years) often in mostly empty away ends, with atmosphere killed by loud music blaring out over the loud-speakers which, if I was being ultimately cynical, I would suggest is there to suppress passion and singing.
Lower league clubs should be trying to attract support of young people, but Owen Gibson's recent article in the Guardian suggesting 18-30s are being priced out of attending Premier League matches is just as relevant for the Football League: Why would someone pay £25 to watch an inconsistent standard of football in conditions described above? Much better go to the pub with mates and watch Man Utd.
As I have argued before, many have an allegiance due to family or school connections (like I do), where stopping going simply isn't a viable option. This makes the current situation even sadder though, as fans are being held to ransom by clubs (and ultimately a system) caught up in a downward spiral of debt and short-term goals.
With hundreds of thousands of people attending Football League matches each week, we are reminded that the practices of the Premier League and lack of accountability demanded by the FA do not just affect Premier League supporters, but those in the entire football pyramid. The answer, put simply, has been documented well by investigative journalists, activists and organisations such as Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation: Better regulation and supporter ownership and engagement. When these are introduced, all fans will benefit.
Sam Tomlin is co-author of the 2011 CentreForum publication 'Football and the Big Society'
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