The Seventy Seven Dollar Question

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It seems everyone else is having their threepennyworth so here’s mine. In essence, the suits attempting to justify this extortion have got it spot on: it’s demand versus supply. Unfortunately, as they are the ones who control the supply, then they can set the price. And these and by and large business people who run football clubs now so when deciding to set that price, they are never going to sit there and say “what do we think is a reasonable price to charge?” They are going to say “What do you think is the most we can get away with charging?”

Attempts to hoodwink the public further by having a multitude of different categories of game and seating areas doesn’t wash either. Watching a football match used to be like getting on a train. Wherever it was you were going, you knew what the price was in advance because it was always that price, it never changed. Wigan to London is Wigan to London whether you are going tomorrow or in 4 months; at 4pm on a Friday afternoon or 4am on a Tuesday morning. Or if we’re being particular, one price for standard and maybe a bit extra for first class. Just like football, one price to get in and maybe a bit extra if you wanted to sit down. That’s it, no other variations.

It wasn’t football fans who decided that if Chelsea are in town it’s a Category A and Watford it’s a Category C. It wasn’t football fans who decided that they might like to pay a bit more if they could sit 6 rows further back and get a bit of padding in their seat. It was the suits, the suits who earn their big salaries by making things more complicated in order to extract greater matchday income from their higher net worth consumers.

It was the Taylor Report that demanded all seater stadia. It wasn’t the Taylor Report that said “well, we could just have one type of seat which is the same price wherever you sit and whoever we play but wouldn’t it be better if we had a load of different price brackets depending on who we play and what the view’s like and whether there’s a free programme thrown in? We can knock a few quid off if the opposition aren’t a big draw and bump up the price when the big guns are in town? That’s what they do at the theatre, the opera, the superbowl and all those other forms of customer entertainment isn’t it?”

I mentioned big guns then and it’s fair to say that the top six or seven clubs in the Premier League are by far the biggest culprits. But let’s not pretend it’s a Premier League problem, it’s not. It’s supply and demand again. Leeds are as big if not bigger than many Premier League clubs (watch how I butter them up first) but saw fit to charge Wigan Athletic fans £41 for 90 minutes entertainment the previous Boxing Day, and I’m pleased to say that I, along with many others, decided that a homeless charity would be more deserving of my money. Norwich may well be back in the Premier League this year but implemented another similarly extortionate pricing policy on the good travelling people of Brentford, Rotherham and Blackpool and of course Leeds last year with tickets of £39 upwards for a stunning corner view seen as a fair exchange.

Essentially, Leeds and Norwich are big clubs with a large captive following. Leeds, a huge, one club city bolstered by a large captive following across the country still tagging along from the glory days of Billy Bremner and Don Revie. Whereas Norwich are not quite in that league, they are another big city club, the only club in Norfolk and regularly pack 26,000 into their ground, even when they were in League One, which is the other key “supply/demand” factor. If you’re turning people away, then it doesn’t take the pinstriped smart ones long to work out that maybe they could bump up the price a few quid more and still they would come in numbers. Charge as much as you can get away with. And if home fans are willing to pay £40+ a ticket, then we’ve got to charge away fans the same. Essentially supply and demand is the reason it costs a lot more to get in at Leeds or Norwich than it does at Doncaster or Peterborough, even when those clubs are all competing in the same division as they were until recently.

Now I’m fortunate enough that my team, Wigan Athletic, is very reasonably priced in terms of season tickets and home ticket prices. And as for away games, well whether Premier League or not, I’ve long adopted an “if it’s over £30, they can shove it” mentality. If I was ever told I would have to pay double, I would simply never be able to justify or afford it.

We were not always exempt from the supply/demand mentality however. In our second season in the Premier League, our then chairman, the little known recluse Dave Whelan got in on the act and increased our match day tickets from £20-25 to £25 to £35. The net impact of this was that crowds and matchday ticket sales plummeted and we were left with a lot of empty seats [insert usual joke about Wigan here]. Essentially, the first £35 game was Man City at home and the crowd was around 16,000 consisting of 14,000 Wigan fans and 2,000 City fans out of an allocation of 5,000 [and insert another joke about city fans and empty seats as well if that is your penchant]. Essentially season ticket holders from Wigan and a much lower contingent of visiting fans than would usually be expected. The same game the previous season attracted a 25,000 full house so it is fair to say that this little ruse backfired badly and no more £35 match day tickets at Wigan.

The bottom line is that everyone has a price beyond which they aren’t willing to pay, and I’m sure if this article gets any kind of exposure then there will be an inevitable sneery comment about my team, Wigan Athletic and our “no fans” but the fans that we do have are predominantly from Wigan. A northern working class town with high unemployment and low wages. People can’t afford to pay £35 to watch 90 minutes of football let alone £77. The fact that we have a 25,000 all seater stadium in a town of 81,000 people* means that although supply is comparatively high, demand for seats is low and the affordability issue just compounds that to reduce demand even further. Whereas Wigan Athletic deserve a lot of credit for our pricing, we’re cheap because we HAVE to be (*At this point, someone usually goes on Wikipedia to point out that Wigan BOROUGH has a population of 300,000. At which point I will point out that the towns of Leigh, Atherton, Tyldesley etc have no affiliation to Wigan whatsoever and indeed the aforementioned borough is also part of Greater MANCHESTER)

Anyway, this isn’t about Wigan so I’ll pipe down in that respect, but I have mates in Wigan who don’t watch Wigan but watch Liverpool or Man United or even City – and maybe I’m a bit of a dinosaur but when I say “watch” I actually mean they spectate and attend the games in the flesh. Credit where it’s due. Yet I also hear them moan about ticket prices, ticket allocations (i.e. not getting one for away games) and their respective clubs collecting money for cup games whether they want to attend or not. This is where my sympathy wanes somewhat and I usually come out with the usual condescending line of “Well you could always watch your home town team instead, it’s cheap and there’s plenty of room for you”

I don’t have the space or time to crack open the can of worms that is the footballing preferences of the Wigan public for the 864th time here but basically the essence of the problem in the supply/demand equation is within that previous paragraph: Wigan Athletic can’t even get the people of Wigan to come and watch them, whereas Liverpool, Manchester United or Arsenal can fill their grounds many times over from people who may originate from any town, city or country in the world from all social classes and many of them are happy to pay a premium because they are rich and/or stupid. If someone can’t afford to watch Wigan, then they leave an empty seat, if someone can’t afford to watch Liverpool, then someone else will pay the going rate.

Not only are there people from Manchester who want to go and watch Manchester United, there are people from Wigan, Preston, Cheshire, the Midlands, the Home Counties, Ireland, the world and football clubs know that in many of these cases, it is affluent people from these areas who don’t object to spending more money and will spend even more when they get there in the Megastores on merchandise and maybe go on an tour. Spend the kind of money that your working class Manc (or Scousers at Anfield) simply don’t have.

Here comes the utopian bit. Imagine a situation where the Premier League suddenly grew a socialist backbone and decided that they would take football right back to its community roots. No, please try and imagine it, no matter how farcical that might sound. Just imagine they passed a law saying that you could only allow people say into Old Trafford or the Etihad who actually lived in the community, within the city of Manchester. Go on we’ll throw in Salford and Trafford too. Similarly, only Scousers were allowed in Anfield or Goodison or Geordies in St James Park. I appreciate it gets a bit messy applying this to London but you get the principle.

Now there was a time, probably in the 60s and 70s before football started getting beamed into our living rooms 24 hours a day, 7 days a week then that wouldn’t have been such a preposterous notion. Fans were generally local to the community or the extreme cases, maybe some people would travel a moderate distance to watch their team or even to watch a particular player. Loads of Wiganers a generation before would go to Burnden Park to watch Nat Lofthouse or Bloomfield to see Stanley Matthews but precisely because it was cheap and accessible.

However, these days I’m not sure that is no longer the case. Would 40,000 Scousers or 76,000 Mancs pay £47 or £77 a ticket for a single game of football? I doubt it. Crowds are getting increasingly gentrified and whereas those sort of amounts might not be scoffed at in the Cheshire stockbroker belt or on the Wirral, there’s not too many from Norris Green or Ordsall who have that sort of spare cash knocking around to take themselves let alone their kids. That Chelsea end when they equalised against United on Sunday told its own tale: yes there was a sea of excited faces but hardly any of them were under 50. But as with the big Northern clubs, Chelsea and Arsenal have milked the cow and I’m sure working class Londoners are now in the minority whilst Home Counties types get courted at every turn to empty their wallets.

The reason tickets are so expensive at Anfield / Old Trafford / The Emirates is because Liverpool / United / Arsenal get millions of fans (customers) who aren’t Scousers / Mancs / Cockneys to satisfy (fleece) as well and I’m reading this and awaiting brickbats and thinking I should re-write it so that it comes across as less offensive to out of town supporters and I don’t sound like a “we support our local team / little Englander bell end” but it’s absolutely true. No, not that bit about me being a bell end, the previous bit.

Funnily enough City get a lot of stick for their crowds but the reason they struggle to fill their ground on some midweek cup nights is because despite their billions, they are still behind the curve and a larger proportion of their support is still localised to Manchester. Not to give them too much credit though as give it time and that will change – they would do exactly the same if they could and they undoubtedly will if the trophy haul continues.

It feels like I’ve been quite disparaging about “big clubs” in this piece, and indeed some of their fans too – because fundamentally that is the problem, the fans creating the supply are the ones driving the prices up at the bigger clubs. So I’ll expect a bit of stick back. However, the bottom line is that if fans refused to pay it, whether they be diehards or daytrippers then ultimately prices would reduce. For as long as demand exceeds supply, they won’t.

In order to redress the balance of my comments, I also feel that it is the fans’ groups within the bigger clubs, at least in the North West who also taking the most vociferous stand against it and leading the charge to try and force through a change. I have so much respect for the Spirit of Shankly, MUST and of course the even more militant FC United who took it a stage further a good decade or so earlier. It is these working class, unionised football fans who are fighting tooth and nail to keep hold of the game they grew up watching and fell in love with. I’d liken their battle as the “few fighting on behalf of the many” but that’s not really the case – as I have stated it is the “many” who the football clubs are pandering to and the actual match going fans are the suffering minority.

I was actually surprised that as many as 10-15,000 walked out of Anfield on Saturday, I simply thought too much apathy existed inside football grounds for all of the reasons above but mainly the dilution of core support. And what did it achieve? Well it’s getting people around the table. Fans and owners. Even if “owners” = businessmen. I really hope that there is a successful outcome and prices come down. Not just for Liverpool FC and it’s matchday fans but for matchday fans everywhere, because the more people and the more fans protest, the more the clubs will have to listen and if we all unite in this fight we will all be able to watch football for cheaper in the future.

We all know the stats by now: football clubs at the top level get so much income from TV money that they could let people in for free, so why take the option of ripping them off?

Only direct action will change things. Some have scoffed at Liverpool fans saying “well, they’d already paid to get in so how was that a protest” and there is plenty merit in boycotting, it is something we will see more and more as football gets more unaffordable. But as I’ve already said, at Liverpool, they will always find someone else to fill that seat so in this case the visual impact of thousands leaving has opened up a lot more debate on the price of watching football in 2016.

Here’s hoping that this is just the start.


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