You’ll never walk out alone

Liverpool fans walk out

Liverpool fans leave Anfield. Photo by: Ben Sutherland http://www.flickr.com

Liverpool fans walking out of Anfield in the 77th minute on Saturday probably thought they were walking out on a comfortable victory. After all, they were 2-0 up at home against a team in the relegation zone.

They of course reckoned without Simon Mignolet’s goalkeeping skills walking out on him yet again. Mignolet needs to be encouraged to take a walk through the exit door at Anfield because while he’s not a bad shot-stopper, he’s entirely unable to inspire confidence in those in front of them. His mistakes are becoming as costly as a ticket for a Premier League game.

Those prices are the reason for the walk out. Liverpool have announced a ticket pricing structure for next season which will see the introduction of a £77 ticket for some games. This, in the eyes of many fans, is too far. “Enough is enough” the fans chanted as they departed.

To be fair to the club, some ticket prices are falling next season and there does appear to be some recognition of the need to make tickets more accessible at lower prices.

Supporters groups from other clubs are apparently contemplating getting in (or should that be out?) on the action. There’s clearly a groundswell of discontent about the prices being charged for Premier League games. I have a lot of sympathy for those priced out of going to games and I think fans are justified in taking action to show that they refuse to be taken for granted.

As I’ve said before though, fans keep turning up. All those walking out on Saturday did so after buying a ticket (admittedly probably a season ticket in many cases) and I would bet that most games at Anfield next season will be sold out. Supporters complain but they still want to go to games and, so far, they largely remain prepared to pay the price to do so.

An oft-used argument is that football clubs cannot and should not be considered as businesses. To some extent this is true. We don’t often hear of protests at Aston Martin dealerships about the prices they charge. There is (sadly) no expectation that everyone should be able to afford an Aston Martin. Football is a bit different however.

A motion has been lodged in Parliament on the matter, the price of football tickets that is not Aston Martins. It reads: ‘That this House supports the protests made by Liverpool Football Club supporters in response to ticket prices showing little regard to or respect for the club’s loyal fanbase; recognises that football clubs are not simply large businesses intent on maximising shareholder value but are part of the life and soul of their community; and urges hon. Members to seek further engagement with all stakeholders including supporters’ groups across the land to see what can be done to prevent professional football outcomes being entirely determined by money and economic interest.’

Such motions are only put down in order to allow some MPs to express their views (usually outrage, couched in very parliamentary language) on an issue. It’s not an indication that Parliament is set to intervene to regulate ticket prices and nor should it in my view. MPs will content themselves with a bit of stakeholder engagement before presumably returning to more important matters such as debating whether to ban someone they don’t happen to like.

Football clubs are more than ‘simply large businesses’ but there is little point in denying that whatever else they may be, they are also large businesses rather concerned with money and economic interest.

They are seldom very adept at managing money – paying for Mignolet for example – but clubs have developed the commercial operations considerably in recent years. Liverpool now has an official ice cream provider for instance. I’m not sure how the club ever survived without one before.

So fans ultimately have a choice, they can keep turning up, paying higher prices, and gorging on the official club ice cream; or they can vote with their feet, by not going to games or possibly going to watch a lower league club. There’s a lot more to football than the Premier League.

I’ve often thought that the Scottish Premier League (or SPFL as it is known these days) should market itself as ‘football as it used to be’ (apart from the skill levels unfortunately). But if standing terraces were reintroduced, alcohol was sold at grounds, tickets were cheaper, and clubs were more obviously involved in their communities, then it could stand as an excellent counterpoint to the misgivings that many of us have about modern football.

Jurgen Klopp has previously expressed his dismay at supporters leaving before the end. He wasn’t there on Saturday to witness the walkout as he was recovering from an operation to remove his appendix.

I imagine he feels for the fans having come to England from the Bundesliga, a league that does a wonderful job of looking after fans, involving them in the running of their clubs, and keeping ticket prices affordable.

Liverpool have made very stuttering progress under their new manager but hope remains that big things lie ahead if he can reshape the squad to suit his preferred style of play. If that happens, and Liverpool become title contenders under the German, you can expect a surge in demand for tickets at Anfield. Irrespective of the price.

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Football for sale (one careful owner)

Sky cameraman. Photo by: Pete www.flickr.com

Sky cameraman. Photo by: Pete
http://www.flickr.com

The football I refer to is of course the top flight in England and the owner is the Premier League. The price? £5.136 billion paid by Sky and BT Sport for Premier League TV rights packages. For Sky it works out at £10.2 million per game. That might be decent value for Chelsea v Manchester United; with the greatest respect it seems a tad expensive for Hull v Sunderland.

Those latter sides and other smaller teams in the Premier League are arguably the big winners from this deal. Currently all 20 Premier League teams number among the 40 richest clubs in the world, Burnley are reportedly richer than Ajax. Finishing bottom of the league in the 2016/2017 season will come with compensation of almost £100 million.

There’s no question that TV money has utterly transformed football in England with considerable debate about whether that transformation has been for the better. New stadiums, an influx of foreign players and skyrocketing wages for footballers are just some of the changes that have come with the broadcasting bonanza prompted by the formation of the Premier League.

Former Arsenal striker John Hartson has suggested that it won’t be too long until we see the first £1m a week footballer (http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/31427562). Some of the top players in the Premier League are currently earning around £300,000 a week. According to the Professional Footballers’ Association, the average weekly wage in the Premier League was £3,393 in 1995; by 2005 it had risen to £18,367. Today it is estimated to be £43,717. That average wage is being earned by some very average players.

Mention of such figures quickly prompts complaints that they are obscene. In some senses they are, I’m sure there are even a few players who are a little embarrassed by what they earn. The fact remains though that the spectacle they provide is watched by millions of people all over the world. Broadcasters judge that £10m is a reasonable price to pay to show a single game. Corporate sponsors are also willing to pay huge sums for a piece of the action. With so much money attracted into the game, why shouldn’t players be the chief beneficiaries?

After the TV rights deal was concluded, Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore observed that “in 1986 there was no one that wanted to broadcast football. There was not even a highlights programme.” Now, however, we “put on a show that people want to watch and attend – and in ever increasing numbers. There’s more interest than ever before.” That is true and living in South East Asia I have seen that it’s as true here as in the UK, as it is in just about every other part of the world.

What about the fans back in the UK who attend Premier League games? Just after the TV deal was announced Crystal Palace fans held up a banner at their home game against Arsenal protesting that supporters are ‘still exploited.’ I have some sympathy with them (apparently a ticket for the Arsenal game cost around £45) but they are protesting inside the stadium after paying for the privilege of being there. It’s not a very effective method of protest. ‘Treat us with respect or else … we’ll just keep paying and keep coming’ seems to be the message.

I’ve written before that overall I think ticket prices are too high and that clubs could and should do more to at least offer a wider tier of prices. But nobody forces fans to go to games – it is their choice. There’s not much incentive for clubs to lower ticket prices when attendances are on the increase.

I have considerable sympathy for fans when it comes to the scheduling of games. This is now almost entirely driven by the demands of TV audiences. Thus we now have super Sundays (many of which only justify the latter half of their billing), Monday night football and, with the new TV deal, the advent of Friday night football in the Premier League. It’s good news for the ‘remote’ supporters on the sofa, less so for those making their way out the door and to the grounds.

It can all get a little too much even for those watching at home. In this week’s NewStatesman magazine, Hunter Davies finds himself surprised to ask, ‘can you have too much football?’ (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/02/i-never-thought-it-was-possible-have-too-much-football). This question occurred to him after spending 11 hours in a single day watching football on TV. We’ve all been there, at least I have. It’s probably not the healthiest place to be.

The latest Premier League TV deal will likely provoke comment and controversy for some time yet. The sums involved are gigantic and it’s understandable to wonder if the Premier League represents a bubble on the verge of bursting. It’s possible but I don’t think it’s likely any time soon. Football is phenomenally popular and the big English sides are among the most popular on the planet.

Compared to today’s Premier League, the old English First Division looks a bit like an old banger: loveable for sure, full of character certainly, and by no means lacking in quality. The 2015 version is more premium though, it’s faster, and it has become a huge export. You can have it in almost any colour and pick it up almost any day of the week. And it doesn’t come cheap.

The great ticket robbery?

 

arsenal-supporters

Arsenal supporters. Photo by jpellgen, http://www.flickr.com

The BBC recently announced the results of their annual ‘Price of Football’ study and there was plenty to chew on in the findings. Not least in the revelation that Manchester United would have to sell 75,715 pies to cover just a week of Falcao’s wages. Coincidentally, a colossal number of pies appear to be what Harry Redknapp thinks Adel Taarabt is spending his wages on.

Overall, and unsurprisingly, the price of watching football in the UK was found to be steep and rising. The study notes that ‘the average price of the cheapest tickets across English football has risen at almost twice the rate of the cost of living since 2011.’ The Football Supporters’ Federation called the increases “completely unacceptable” but it seems that many fans do accept them – Premier League attendances are on the increase.

Remarkably, ‘Charlton’s £150 season ticket is the cheapest in England’s top four divisions. However, Barcelona charge around £103 for their lowest-priced season ticket.’ I’ve seen Barcelona at the Nou Camp twice and it’s a thrilling experience (although it must be said that the catering facilities for example are quite awful). I think I paid about €20 in 2010 for a La Liga game against Malaga and about €27 a year later for a league match against Real Zaragoza. I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Charlton at the Valley but I imagine it’s a slightly different experience to the Nou Camp.

The report generated some interesting responses. Most interesting of all was the solution that Sunderland came up with. Just a few days after the report was published they played so badly at Southampton that they lost 8-0 and the goalkeeper offered to refund the costs incurred by their fans.

I’ve definitely been to games where I’ve felt as though I’ve deserved some sort of compensation for my attendance – the Berti Vogts era as Scotland boss springs to mind here. It’s surprising that lawyers haven’t cottoned on to this potentially lucrative revenue stream and launched adverts along the lines of: “were you traumatised at the game today? Did the manager make ill-advised substitutions that had a direct and negative effect on your health? Call today for a no win/no fee consultation.”

In midweek, Danny Baker (well worth a follow on Twitter by the way if you’re into that sort of thing @prodnose) questioned why Chelsea fans had bothered to pay expensive prices to see their team demolish Maribor 6-0 in the Champions League. His point wasn’t so much about the prices as about what he sees as the devaluation of the tournament caused by over-expansion. In Baker’s view, a near full-house at Stamford Bridge for such a game represents a triumph of branding by UEFA.

The Champions League is indeed a branding masterclass but it can also be considered a genuinely premium product. While there were some very large victories in the tournament this week due to a huge gulf in resources and quality between opponents, it was not true in all cases. Bayern Munich beat Roma 7-1 and I think most people would consider that a clash between two big European clubs and very much worthy of the Champions League setting.

Roma happen to be my favourite Italian team and I’ve seen them live twice. The first time was in 2009. Roma happened to be playing Juventus the weekend that my wife and I were visiting the eternal city (this, I must confess, was not entirely a coincidence). We arrived in the city late on a Saturday evening, the night before the game and all the ticket offices were shut as was the club shop.

The next day, my wife’s priority, quite rightly and naturally, was sightseeing but mine was to obtain a ticket. By midday, and with several hours of sightseeing already completed, we arrived at the Roma store where match day tickets could be purchased. I waited patiently in a ticket queue that was comprised mostly of tourists. When I got to the front I said: “uno ticket for today’s calcio, grazie.” I like to use a bit of the local lingo where possible.

The Italian woman selling the tickets looked at me and smiled. In that moment I presumed that she was a) impressed by my use of Italian, b) charmed by my Scottish accent, or c) a combination thereof. Looking back I think the smile probably arose from option d) “I know you really want to see this game and thus you’re going to accept the ticket price I’m about to quote you.”

€110.

For a moment I was speechless, in both Italian and English. I turned, crestfallen, to my wife. “I know,” I said, “I can’t pay that much for a ticket.” Her reply astonished me. “Yes, you can. I know you really want to see this game.” She and the Italian woman smiled at each other. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes.”

With a slightly trembling hand I offered up my credit card. Still smiling, the Italian woman explained that the only tickets left were in the most expensive part of the stadium. Later, inside the stadium I judged by the empty seats in other areas that this may have been a lie. I left the official Roma store with a slightly dazed sensation and clutching what felt like one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets.

Roma lost 3-1 and never offered a refund.

photo 1 (1)

That is the most I’ve ever paid for a ticket. Many European clubs have a steeply tiered pricing system with very expensive tickets at one end and very affordable ones at the other. Of course only the biggest clubs with the best players can operate those sorts of pricing policies, other clubs have to be more creative and make more of an effort.

Living abroad, I very rarely get to see my home town team Dundee United these days. The last time I was at Tannadice was on New Year’s Day this year when my brother and I went to see United versus Aberdeen. I paid £25 for the ticket. Scotland in January is generally very wet and very cold.

So it was for the Aberdeen game. We shivered through a 2-1 defeat with the pie and tea providing only a brief respite from the cold and ran back to the car through torrential rain. Happy New Year! In my view £25 is too much to pay for the quality that’s currently being offered in Scotland’s top flight and I wouldn’t be inclined to pay it regularly. I say that despite the fact that my club are currently doing an excellent job of bringing through exciting young players and adopting an entertaining style of play.

photo 2 (1)

To be fair though to United and many other Scottish clubs, they are making some effort to contain prices and improve the experience for fans. United offer some good discounts for kids and seem to do a good job of engaging with season ticket holders. They’ve also started doing some reciprocal deals with other clubs for specific matches to lower prices for away fans.

When I lived in Scotland I was a regular at Hampden for Scotland games. Sadly following Scotland has mostly involved heartache for my entire adult life – I was 17 the last time we qualified for a major championship. The team’s recent resurgence under Gordon Strachan has offered the greatest hope in the entire period since.

It was therefore hugely disappointing that the recent European Championship qualifier against Georgia at Ibrox was played against a backdrop of so many empty seats. The cheapest ticket for the game was £35 and 17,000 empty seats was a stark illustration of how badly the SFA have misjudged the pricing policy for these games. The cheapest tickets for next month’s friendly against England are priced at £50. I think the motivation for staging that game is pretty obvious.

The tartan army have reacted quite furiously to all of this. Online petitions have been launched and t-shirts with the slogan Shafting Fans Always are apparently selling well (people are obviously prepared to pay money to protest at how much money they’re being asked to spend). Recent years have seen quite a lot of progress in supporters taking a stand and getting together to represent themselves.

A lot of clubs have responded, at least to an extent, and given fans more of a role in how they are run. Germany is rightly held up as a model in this regard but there is hope in the UK with the work being done by organisations such as Supporters Direct (http://www.supporters-direct.org/)

Just as the influence of workers has weakened with the erosion of trade union power so the influence of fans has been diluted at many clubs for whom ticket revenue makes up a much smaller proportion of overall revenue than it once did. Football supporters are among the most loyal groups of people anywhere, far more loyal than the average employee or customer is to any particular company.

That loyalty is not without limits though. Any club or football association that continually takes fans for granted will eventually pay a heavy price, when those supporters stop doing so.