Counting the real cost of football

Last year the BBC’s indepth look into the cost of watching football in Great Britain threw up more questions than answers.  Whilst the report highlighted some interesting information, the results on many levels was flawed because they asked the clubs to submit the information rather than doing the research themselves.  Commentators soon picked up on this, pouring cold water on some of the claims being made by the report and the clubs alike.  Headline figures of the “cheapest ticket” for instance often related to one game where the club discounts all tickets for a particular purpose rather than the cheapest average ticket cost across the whole season.

Despite having ample opportunity to correct the approach, the same methodology produced the same type of result this year. At West Ham United for instance, the cheapest ticket is apparently £25, which it is for the pre-Christmas game versus Stoke City. The game before, versus West Bromwich Albion the same seat would cost you £45 (for a ‘Category A’ game this would rise to £70). To therefore report the cheapest ticket is so low is simply misleading. It took less than 30 seconds to find that publicly available ticket information. The Hammers also take the prize of having the highest away fans ticket price at an eye-watering £85.

The question of value for money is a hard one to quantify. If you asked a Leicester City, Crystal Palace or Hammers fan whether they feel they are gaining value year over last, I’m sure they would say they are, due to the superb starts to the season the clubs have had. Likewise, fans of Chelsea may suddenly feel that paying a minimum of £52, the most expensive cheapest ticket in the Premier League, it’s a price too much after the poor start they’ve had.

imageIt’s also a shame that the BBC didn’t venture further down the pyramid. Whilst some fans will not begrudge paying Arsenal FC £106 for a ticket at The Emirates, a pie, cup of tea and a programme, perhaps they should take a look further down the pyramid where for £20 you’ll get all of the above plus a pint to sup on the terraces. Fans paying those huge sums talk about an entertainment value in the same way that someone going to the theatre will. At grassroots level entertainment comes from the whole match day rather than just 90 minutes. In fact it is normally the match action that tarnishes an otherwise great day out.

Down in the Ryman Premier League there’s no such thing as differential pricing. Every adults pays the same admission fee whether the opposition is at the top or bottom of the league and whether they are a home, away or neutral fan – that’s how football should be priced. Why should I pay more as a home fan to watch Chelsea or Manchester United than I do to watch Watford or West Brom? I’m paying to watch my team perform, not the opposition. It appears that professional clubs feel that it’s justifiable to charge extortionate prices even in times of record TV deals. Whilst they watch their bank accounts fill up, just down the road Non League clubs fight for every penny.

Paying £11 to watch the Rooks play is around a tenth of the average weekly wage for one of our players. At Arsenal, paying £95 is certainly not a tenth of a Gunner’s average weekly wage. In fact I’d bet it’s not a hundredth of the weekly watch. Fans count significantly more to grassroots than they do in the professional game. With no central TV money or sponsorship deals clubs have to,fight for every penny. The true cost of football at our level means the difference between survival and a potential out of control spiral downwards.

The BBC report paints a far too healthy position of the cost of football in most instances. I’m sure there are hundreds of fans up and down the country that would happily contribute to a much more subjective review next season that could also go down deeper than step 5 of the pyramid. Fans want to genuinely understand whether they get value for money – unfortunately the research simply doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to defining that.

Economic Theory explained by Football – Part 10 – The Theory of Just Pricing

Back in 1261 whilst waiting for the medieval equivalent of Super Sunday to start Thomas Aquinas picked up his quill and started to draft the first ever transfer policy for his as-yet unnamed football team. He had studied the way that his local market worked and mused that “no man should sell a thing to another man for more than it’s worth”. In that one statement he tried to explain the collective transfer value of Andy Carroll.

4766163428_f4f73b243f_bAccording to prevailing economic theory, there is no such thing as a rip-off or something being over-priced. The price of anything is simply the market – if someone is prepared to pay then it is a fair, market price AS LONG AS there are alternatives (monopolies such as train companies do not adhere to such a model of course). So if someone wants to pay £25million for a route-one target man with a dodgy knee and an even dodgier ponytail then it is a fair price. Nobody forces a football club to buy any player – they have three choices. Try to negotiate a lower price perhaps throwing in a few players who aren’t good enough for them, spend the cash on something else such as a new fleet of Bentleys for the existing player or go and buy an alternatively crocked player with a bad haircut elsewhere.

The transfer market should establish a fair price for every player as no one has an intrinsic value. So they may have played for their country a hundred times, scored the winner in a World Cup Final, kick with both feet and can head the ball fifty yards – all great characteristics but irrelevant if you are looking for a goalkeeper. Clubs who slap a price tag on a player are trying to create a false economy that will never prevail.

Aquinas suggested the concept of a “just price” – the price the buyer is willing to pay with the right amount of knowledge of the product. So if a club knows Carroll has a dodgy knee/ankle/ponytail, the price they are willing to pay should be different to that without the information. He also saw those people who sold with recognised avarice as evil people – something that could certainly be levelled at the ticket pricing strategy of football today, or dare I say it, football agents.

So there we have a brief explanation as to how a 13th century Italian monk came up with the first, truly fair rules of the transfer market. That ladies and gentlemen, is the theory of just pricing.

Economic Theory explained by Football – Part 9 – The Theory of Collective Insanity

In 1841 the Scottish journalist and future Alloa Athletic fan Charles Mackay published his most famous work – an essay that today is the piece of work that every Premier League club religiously reads each summer when talk turns of ticket pricing. The Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds focused on the herd-mentality of people and how it influenced prices.

8829793588_0aced7c6b7_kMackay’s hypothesis was that crowds acting in a collective frenzy of speculation can cause the prices of commodities to rise far beyond any intrinsic value they should have. He looked at the examples of the South Sea Bubble of 1720 as a classic example of how this theory worked. If Charlie was alive today, he could well just pick a Premier a League football club as a modern example.

His 8 step model to document the steps to how crowds breed collective insanity is as follows. Whilst in this example we use ticket price, the transfer market is an equally valid case study:-

1. Extraordinary conditions occur in the footballing world such as a team getting promoted to the land of milk and honey, or in the case of some also ran sides (Swansea City, Stoke City, Hull City, Spurs) they win a trophy or get into European competition.

2. Success means ticket prices rise in tactical ways – match day walk up tickets for instance.

3. News of price rises is published to great dismay among supporters

4. Mass discussion on forums/social media normally leads to comments like “well you don’t have to go”.

5. Other clubs notice. They put their prices up too, thinking that despite not having any success, that it’s the trend in football, blaming agents fees or lack of TV money.

6. Crowds breed collective insanity – the tipping point is reached

7. Football eats itself, the club gets knocked out of Europe in 1st round because the manager fields a weakened team to concentrate on the Premier League. Results are poor, manager is sacked and club goes into free-fall.

8. Attendances fall, club realises they need to drop ticket prices.

Earlier in the season, the BBC published its study of the cost of watching football in this country.  Essentially, the research was a pile of rubbish.  Instead of going to do the research themselves (type in club website into browser, find page that says “tickets”, note down prices) then sent a survey to each club.  So when West Ham responded and said their cheapest ticket for a Premier League game was £20, people thought “wow, that’s good value”.  However, that priced ticket was only available for 1 game this season, the pre-Christmas match versus Leicester.  It wasn’t the averaged priced one, which is over DOUBLE that.  Ticket prices continue to outstrip inflation simply because of the theory above.

So there you go – the Theory of collective insanity in a nutshell. Next time your club puts its prices up blaming players wages you’ll know it’s really that pesky Alloa Athletic fan, Charles Mackay, to blame.


For the past five weeks I have been carrying out some I depth research. Racking my brain to know what to fill the pages of TBIR until the start of the World Cup I came up with a brilliant idea.  The problem with brilliant ideas is that unless you are the cleverest man in the world then someone else will almost certainly also be having that very same thought and putting it into practice quicker than you.  Of course you can argue that it was your idea first and hope they back down but when the “person” in question is one of the world’s most respected magazines you are onto a loser.

So whilst The Economist may claim to have published their research first, mine was researched and written out of love and an understanding of a cult that is sweeping the nation – Paninitis.

I’m a huge fan of the work of Levitt with Freakanomics, Erik Qualman and his Socionomics and of course Stefan Szymanski with Soccernomics. But Stickernomics has got thousands of grown men reliving our youths.

Panini stickers are nothing new.  At any time there must be at least a couple of collections going on, whether it be a film tie-in, the latest boy band or of course the annual Premier League outing.  But every two years comes the main event.  Whether it be a European Championships year or a World Cup one, the footballing world goes crazy for small oblong stickers.

image (1)Never have Panini stickers been so popular.  The reason? It’s a generational thing.  I’m of an age where the tradition of spending my pocket money on packets of stickers, then taking my swaps into the playground is still one of my enduring memories of childhood.  As we have grown up, we’ve still hung onto that feeling, trying to actively encourage our kids to take up the habit, reliving our schooldays through them.  And if they have no interest? Then we simply pretend we are collecting for them.  “They will thank me one day when they are worth a fortune” we tell ourselves.

So my idea. I wanted to try and understand some of the myths behind collecting the stickers.  Is there actually a “golden sticker”, one that no one had? Was there a regional/international bias? Did it make any difference if you bought in bulk or individual? And what impact had social media had on collecting?

Ambitious? Possibly.  Will anyone care? Probably not. Would I end up filling up my sticker book any quicker? I very much doubt it. So what do those clever chaps at The Economist say?

According to Sylvain Sardy and Yvan Velenik, two boffins at the University of Geneva, you would have to buy 899 consecutive packets to beat the odds and fill your album – an outlay of just £449.50, based on a very complex algorithm looking at the simple probability that in every pack you get 5 different stickers, with 640 to collect and diminishing returns for every packet you open.

The Economist wasn’t the only section of the media who were frying to understand the real numbers behind the stickers.  In an interview with the Independent this week, Matthew Scroggs, who works at a secondary school in West London, worked out that the average football fan should expect to purchase 4,505 stickers, or spend £413.24, to complete the whole book. Doesn’t sound so much fun when you put it like that does it?

14325766631_613d05c4eb_bThe one question that has always been asked is “does it make a difference where I buy my stickers?” That was to be the based of my study.  Whilst Panini say there are equal numbers of each sticker printed and randomly distributed in a pack, the fact I currently have nine Kolo Toure’s would suggest otherwise.  Those big brained Swiss mathematicians carried out a sample test back during the 2010 World Cup and found that they got each sticker on average nine times out of a sample of 6,000 stickers.

So this is what I did. I started off by buying 10 packs from different locations. Never the same shop twice.  Even when I was travelling around Europe I managed to find shops that sold the stickers.  Zürich, Stockholm, Boston, Hong Kong. The latter took a bit of research, but that’s to a superb Concierge in my hotel he tracked down a secret stash.  For every set of 10 I recorded the numbers of wants v gots and the spread of different countries (counting the first section of stadiums and FIFA stickers as one “country”).

As any researcher will tell you, one data set can be made to prove anything. So to get a different view point I bought a box of 100 packets, sealed at the factory.  Well, that’s what it said on eBay although I was mindful of the 300,000 packets that were stolen from a warehouse in Rio in April. The box cost me £37.99, a 28% discount on buying them retail, again a sign that raised a flag or two in my mind.  The methodology was the same, opening 10 packs a day and recording the results. 10 randomly bought packs and 10 from the eBay box

So what did we find after opening 200 packets and looking at 1,000 stickers? How about these facts for starters?

Area of Purchase (in date order) No. of unique stickers (out of 50)
London – SE9 34
London – SE1 28
Arlanda Airport – Stockholm 19
Kloten Airport – Zurich 27
Brooklyn – New York 23
Boston – Massecuessettes 31
Hong Kong Island – Hong Kong 25
Fields Shopping Center – Copenhagen 22
Bluewater Shopping Centre – Kent 17
Munich city centre 18
Total of sample of 100 packets 244
Average uniques per pack 48%


Sets from Ebay box No. of unique stickers (out of 50)
Sticker packs 1 to 10 37
11 to 20 31
21 to 30 23
31 to 40 23
41 to 50 25
51 to 60 21
61 to 70 17
71 to 80 16
81 to 90 20
91 to 100 14
Total of sample of 100 packets 227
Average uniques per pack 45%
  Set 1 – 10 x 10 random Set 2 – 100 packets Total – 200 packets
Most popular set Italy – 7% Australia – 11% Switzerland – 10%
Least popular set South Korea – 1% Netherlands – 1% South Korea – 2%
Most popular sticker Kolo Toure – 5 Mamadou Sakho – 5 Kolo Toure – 7
Most unique sticker batch Batch 1 Batch 1 Batch 1
Least unique sticker batch Batch 9 Batch 10 Batch 10
Average “uniques” per pack 2.4 2.2 2.3
Total unique stickers 244 227 471


Switzerland was my first full set, completed when I had only got 243 stickers in total.  After a fast start, some sets simply stopped appearing in some of the packs in the Ebay bought box.  Netherlands, Uruguay and the mighty England had an appearance rate of less than 3 per hundred, whilst the most popular ones, Italy, Switzerland and Australia were appearing at a rate of more than 10 per hundred on average.

imageThe law of diminishing returns has never been truer that with Panini stickers.  As a treat, the Current Mrs Fuller bought me ten packets at the weekend after I had over indulged on the chores.  My previous ten packets (from the EBay 100) had resulted in a 30% “need” rate, but it appeared that I had reached some kind of reverse tipping point as this batch only yielded 5 stickers that I didn’t have (10%).  Bizarrely, of these five, three were from South Korea.

So what did my experiment tell me?  Well, I am still fifty or so stickers shy of completing the set with a swap list that is greater than my got list and so far the “hobby” has cost me (including CMF as I gave her housekeeping to buy the random packs for me) around £275 which is significantly less the average amount Scroggs, Sardy and Velenik suggest. Granted, I will complete my collection with the help of a Facebook group where the rules specifically state only trades for swaps, and no cash, can take place.

Was there any geographical bias in the uniqueness of my stickers? There didn’t appear to be.  The concept of buying a full box of 100 was marginally less successful than buying 10 packets in 10 different locations but at the end of the day I wasn’t doing it for any mathematical research.  The nearest I get to being an Economist is when I bought an online subscription to the magazine.

Of course, I am investing for my daughters’ future rather than some kind of personal football obsession.  After all, one day the completed book will be a collector’s item. And, of course, it’s all about pure statistical research.  That’s what I tell everyone who questions why someone of my age is collecting stickers.

I bet we are all excited now!

“Ladies and Gentlemen.  Let me introduce to you our special guests who will be making the draw today….Ex-Welsh international and the most annoying man on the TV/Radio – Robbie Savage.  Next, another Premier League “battler”,  I give you Kevin Gallagher.  And finally, a very special guest.  World Cup winner, twice FIFA Golden Boot Winner.  A man who has played for the best teams in Spain and Italy.  Fat Ronaldo.”

Not only is the whole idea of playing the Olympic football in cities with nothing to do with the games, let alone different countries quite bizarre, but was that the strangest line up you have ever seen at one of these events.  Quite what Ronaldo thought of it all I do not know.  Did he, for just one spilt second think Savage was a girl and was going to invite him to one of his “parties”?  And Gallagher?  Was he simply called up at the last-minute because someone glamorous dropped out?

But for all the *cough* razzmataz, the draw brought home the reality that we will be seeming lots of games during the competition in half empty (at best) stadiums.  I may ultimately be wrong, but with hundreds of thousands of tickets still unsold for the event I think the brain wave of taking the Olympics to other parts of the British Isle will end in embarrassment for the LOGOC. Continue reading