The last week has seen the footballing world go into meltdown about ticket prices as if it was something that had just started to be an issue. It hasn’t. It’s quite difficult to pinpoint one particular moment where it all got a bit silly as the initial tipping point seems to vary from club to club. Some may point at the formation of the Premier League nearly twenty five years ago as the catalyst, whilst for others it has been around takeovers and new stadiums.
But before we get back into the nuts and bolts, indulge me in the follow dilemma. Once a week I enjoy a Chicken Katsu Curry from Wasabi for lunch. I’m not alone. Queues snake round the block at peak time in Canary Wharf. That was until a few weeks ago. Turning up at 1pm two weeks ago there was just a handful of people queuing. The reason became apparent when you went to pay. Prices for the most popular dishes, including Chicken Katsu Curry had risen by 20%. With so many alternatives within a couple of minutes, fans of the spicy chicken had voted with their feet. How did the brand react on Social Media? It ignored what their “fans” were saying, refusing to engage on the subject. Sound a little bit familiar? However, Wasabi aren’t like a football club. Despite being a “fan” I am now less likely to go so frequently even though I may end up spending more at an alternative restaurant. Why? Because I cannot see any value in that extra 20% cost. I don’t get any bigger portions, the service is still the same fast speed, the sauce still as spicy. That to me is one of the keys in the whole Premier League ticketing debate – the question of value.
Value is the key here. Suppose Liverpool would have suggested that for the increase in ticket pricing to £77 fans got additional value. A free programme, access to a lounge, a free scarf, a free link to exclusive media content, a free pie or pint? Would there have been the same uproar about the price? There was more than just the top price ticket behind the protests at Anfield and I applaud them for their stance. But football clubs need to also look at the situation and learn from the mistakes Liverpool made.
The impact of investment in Premier Leagues from overseas is often quoted as the tipping point for escalating price rises. The takeover of Manchester United by The Glazers back in 2005 saw a mass exodus of some fans who could no longer take the commercial changes at the club to form FC United of Manchester. However, their absence was never noticed by the new owners, with United at their peak and valued as one of the richest sporting institutions in the world. The empty seats never stayed empty, with waiting lists of fans willing to pay what it took to see Ferguson’s side win the top honours in the game.
Down south there is a perception that Arsenal’s move to The Emirates as the tipping point for ticket price rises. However, the start of the rolling stone went back much further than that. An average ticket at Highbury back in 1991/92 was £10. Seems reasonable based on today’s wages but actually that represented the biggest hike in ticket prices that the fans have experienced in the last thirty five years, rising from £7.26 on average the year before (a 38% increase). This season a ticket for the centre lower tier at The Emirates is £45.69 on average this season, up from £40.47 five years ago and just over six pounds since they moved into the new stadium (Thanks to http://www.thearsenalhistory.com for the stats). Arsenal’s “utilisation”, the percentage of seats sold (not necessary used – another Premier League bad trait) when compared to the total (not necessarily usable) capacity is in the high 90th percentile. In fact, allowing for seats removed from sale due to segregation, there are probably only a few dozen seats remaining unsold throughout the whole season. What would happen if Arsenal slashed ticket prices in half? Would they be able to sell any more tickets? No. Does the club really care whether a particular seat is bought by an adult, a child or a concession? Absolutely. So as a commercial enterprise what is their motivation for cutting ticket prices?
The issue of ticket prices may be a hot topic today, and we may argue that we are pricing out a generation of future fans, but have we already passed that point? If I wanted to take my daughter to West Ham United v Manchester United next month her ticket (assuming there were any available), the cheapest ticket I could buy for her would be £45. West Ham will argue that for other games I could buy her a seat for £1, but that misses the point. People may argue it is no different to going to the theatre or the opera. It’s not. I want to go to see West Ham because it is my club. Even if Leyton Orient a few miles down the road are at home on the same day and offer under16’s for £1 it is not an alternative I would choose. If a ticket isn’t available for La Bòheme at the Royal Opera House isn’t available today, I can try again for tomorrow’s performance, or one next month. Same performers, same venue, same storyline, same music. Sport isn’t anything like that.
West Ham have gained many plaudits for their decision to reduce prices massively for the move to the Olympic Stadium next season. But what was stopping them slashing the prices for this season, the last at Upton Park? They know that every Premier League game would sell out and so in whose real interest would it have been to reduce prices? Next season is a massive risk in terms of reputation for the club. You can be sure that if the club would have funded the building/conversion of the stadium themselves then they wouldn’t have been so generous with the ticket prices. They need to build an additional 15,000-20,000 new loyal fans and the best way to do that is ticket concessions.
Matthew Syed at The Times was involved in a heated debate this week with fellow Times correspondent Henry Winter about the issue of ticket prices. Winter’s view was very much of the “we need to act now to stop the future degradation of the game”. Syed’s counter argument was that it was too late. Club are commercial entities. They want and need to make as much money as possible a) to give returns to shareholders and thus make them a more attractive vehicle for further investment and b) to fund more expensive player acquisitions that will give them more chance of being successful which in turn leads to points a) and b) being repeated. He was quite right in saying that if 10,000 Arsenal fans don’t renew their season tickets next season, there are 10,000 more waiting in line who would even pay a premium for the opportunity to get a ticket.
We may think that if nothing changes we will be playing in front of empty stadiums in years to come. We won’t. As soon as attendances start to fall, clubs will undoubtedly cut prices and demand will rise. They have no interest to do that today, unfortunately, in most instances. Football clubs will never come out and agree with the statements made by Football Supporters Federation Chairman Malcolm Clarke about tourists filling our grounds wearing half and half scarves taking selfies. Would a club want a fan who comes every week, turning up at 2.55pm (or whenever 5 minutes before kick-off is), leaving at 4.55pm or someone who will turn up at 1.30pm, spend money in the club shop, spend money on food and drink and then share their experiences on social media? We would all like to think it’s the former, the loyal fan, but in this ultra-commercial world I would suggest for many, the ideal fan is the latter.
The Premier League has stayed almost silent in the whole affair, yet they are the one organisation who has the remit to allow change. The question of ticket prices should have been addressed a decade ago. Why couldn’t they have put in a fixed price rise structure that is set for the Train franchises for instance? The wealth now flowing into the game should be a catalyst for change, but it is simply an accelerant for faster growth of the same problem.