There comes a point in every football fan’s life when the “sod it, I’m not going moment” occurs. For some Manchester City fans, contributing £62 to Arsenal’s coffers was a step too far. For me, spending £25 to sit in a rickety away end at Brisbane Road on a cold December afternoon watching Exeter toil against an equally uninspiring Leyton Orient side proved beyond even my levels of tolerance and fanaticism. Despite the game being only a short ride away on the Central Line and no other plans, it was too much. I stayed at home.
But this isn’t about Arsenal, or Manchester City, or even Leyton Orient (although if Barry Hearn really wants to attract locals away from West Ham, he might want to consider lowering his prices a little), no matter how much the debate has descended into partisanship. While it’s quite easy to pick examples of equally high prices at Arsenal or, say, Spurs, this obscures the real issue – that ticket prices in general are too high and, especially in an age of austerity, risk pricing out the next generation of fans.
Since weighing up the ticket pricing issue for lower leagues on The Two Unfortunates three months ago, the debate has come into the public consciousness due to the Premier League – a place where prices are undoubtedly too high but one that faces very different challenges from other teams. In the meantime, lower league clubs have been sounding a warning klaxon over falling crowds even further. At Exeter, Paul Tisdale has called for fans to return to the terraces, while Bury’s directors blamed their current transfer embargo on a lack of cash flow due to falling attendances. The Shakers currently have the lowest average in League One.
Meanwhile, other lower league clubs have resorted to increasingly novel methods of attracting fans back into the stadium. For Morecambe’s recent match against Dagenham and Redbridge, the Shrimps opened their gates for free in the hope that locals who got to experience the matchday atmosphere at The Globe Arena would return and boost crowds later on in the season. In the short-term, it worked with a season-record crowd of 4,029 in attendance to see Jim Bentley’s men triumph 2-1. The test, though, will be if Morecambe can raise their average crowd above 1,961, the third lowest in the division.
Down south, Brentford also attempted to boost their crowds with a “Pay What You Can” scheme for their pre-Christmas fixture versus Stevenage, a date that is traditionally a low gate for football clubs. The minimum price for a ticket was £1, and fans paid what they wanted on top of this, with 50% of the difference going towards Sport Relief. Sadly for Brentford, despite nearly selling out all home areas, the weather intervened and the game was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch. The Pay What You Can scheme has now been carried on to the re-arranged fixture and around 1,000 tickets are still available, but it remains to be seen if a cold midweek fixture will encourage those who’ve already purchased a cheap ticket to head to Griffin Park.
The Bees are holding up pretty well, compared to other League One teams though, with an average attendance of 5,826, up by nearly 200 on 2011-12, helped by their current promotion push. With tickets varying between £19 – £23 prices are not exactly cheap, but fans of the West London club – which has a large Supporter Trust controlling interest – can at least make a case for value for money.
But the very fact that the likes of Brentford feel compelled to launch PR and marketing stunts to attract locals to Griffin Park tells its own story. Their prices may be comparable for the division they inhabit but that doesn’t make them cheap, compared to other alternative activities. And with three Premier League clubs nearby (and at least one in Fulham that offers regular discounts), the Bees have to fight for every fan they can get. At League One and below, the cloth is cut much finer. Many smaller clubs simply don’t have the option to cut prices, given their margins are tight enough already.
And here’s one of the key differences between expensive tickets in the lower leagues and hyperinflated tickets in the top flight. The Football Supporters Federation (FSF) estimate that Premier League clubs could slash their prices next season by up to £32 and still have the same amount of income, due to the increased BT and Sky television deal. Arsenal, Manchester City et al, have a choice. These Premier League clubs will generally fill the Emirates and Etihad regardless, while the likes of Morecambe and Bury do not have this luxury - the Globe Arena and Gigg Lane will see empty seats outnumber paying customers regardless.
Many will point to one of the Premier League’s favourite mantras – market forces – as a justifiable reason for the price of tickets. To some extent there is truth in this. If enough people are prepared to pay £62 to watch Arsenal host Manchester City, then this is what the tickets are worth. Of course, this is a little simplistic and disingenuous. Many of the seats will already be filled with season ticket holders, whose average cost of a game is much lower, while those seats that are available will naturally be sold at a premium because there are less off them. It would be interesting to replicate Brentford’s experiment at the Emirates to see what Arsenal fans think Wenger’s men are worth paying for in the current climate.
But the argument about market forces comes unstuck, even at the lower reaches of the Premier League, where Wigan regularly struggle to fill their stadium. Once you drop into the Championship, from Middlesbrough to Ipswich, there are swathes of empty seats, a sight replicated all the way through the divisions. Again, we come back to clubs not having an option – unless you count the Hobson’s choice of degrowth as such. Whatever the true value of lower league football, the current price doesn’t reflect that.
For all the difference between the two worlds, the growing fan movement against high ticket prices in the Premier League may, hopefully, only help lower league clubs in the long run. Ian King at Two Hundred Per Cent has written that away boycotts may be the only way to make an impact, and although he touches upon the difficulty of organising this, Manchester United and Liverpool fans appear prepared to make a stand together, while City’s gesture to return their allocation to Arsenal – whether done as a cynical dig or for altruistic reasons – has pushed the issue to the forefront.
Yet if the likes of United, City, Liverpool and others unite together and are, by some miracle, able to push the prices of the Premier League down, then you suspect Championship clubs downwards would have no option but to respond. No lower league club would want the PR of offering tickets at the same price as a top four side and you suspect the casual punter may also decide that the Premier League offers better value for money. And value for money is something every fan wants. Especially the one who finds themselves, at some point, uttering the words “sod it, I’m not going”, on a Saturday afternoon.