Are high ticket prices a sign that spectators need to grin and bear?
The saying goes like this; don’t look at the audience and just perform. But how would it be like to play the beautiful game in an empty stadium? Not very appealing I must say – players from Napoli and Galatasaray will definitely second me on that, having had to play in a vacant stadium while serving UEFA sanctions. So, what are the English football authorities doing to ensure maximum turnout at domestic matches? Or are they simply obsessed with filling their kitty? Let us probe a little bit deeper.
Rising ticket prices is an area of concern for a normal spectator. Is it making a Hole in the Pocket or the entire Pant is getting ripped off? How much is it telling upon an average fan? How the clubs in England are doing with the difficult balancing job – filling up both the stadium and the cash vault? Debojyoti Chakraborty analyses the way a hole is being made in the pocket of an English fan, here at GOALden Times.
BBC Sport’s Price of Football study gives us a clue about how rapidly the price of watch a football match has risen between 2011 and 2014. The study was based on 207 clubs across the globe –176 clubs across 11 division in British football and 31 clubs from 10 different leagues in Europe – and it was found that the average price of the cheapest match-day ticket across the Premier League to League Two was £21.49 in 2014. That is an increase of 13% since 2011, compared to a mere 6.8% rise in the cost of living in the same time frame. It means that the rise in ticket prices is double than that of a piece of bread!!! Year-on-year, this ratio was even steeper, more than treble – ticket price was up 6.44% when rate of inflation was only 1.2%.
There are a section of people who have criticized the clubs for losing touch with fans and hiking the prices, calling them irrational, especially in the wake of the astronomical earning from the television revenue. Cathy Long, the Premier League’s head of supporter services has been really vocal: “For the Premier League and our clubs, keeping the grounds as full as possible is our top priority”. The Football Supporters’ Federation had asked clubs to slash ticket prices by about £30 in the backdrop of the mega TV deal that would still enable them to retain the same revenue. And not only the top teams, even the bottom placed teams earn a truckload from TV revenue. Just to give everyone a perspective, Chelsea the league champion of the 2014-15 season,received £99 million and Queens Park Rangers, even after finishing with the wooden spoon, took home a handsome £65 million. On top of that, the English Premier League recently announced a new television deal worth about $7.9 billion (more than £5 billion) over three years starting in the 2016-17 season, a 70% increase over what they are currently getting, with the possibility of going up to as high as $13 billion when international rights are factored in. For comparison’s sake, the NFL earns about $3 billion per year from its television deal, while the NBA will take in about $2.66 billion per year when its new television deal kicks in in the 2016-17 season.
The top Premier League clubs, in their defense, point to the sold-out stadia week in week out even at the current price level. They argue that their marketing research team is on top of it and the pricing is absolutely fine. And they do have a point! Despite the lofty ticket price, Premier League attendances are always northwards – the average for the 2013-14 season was a whopping 36,695. The attendances till the middle of last season (till the time data is available) was even more encouraging, with more than 95% of seats sold – the highest in English top-flight football since 1949-50.
Boosted by the newly signed (though not functional in 2014-15) television deal, Premier League transfer spending rose to a record £835 million during the last summer window, up from £630 million the year before. Not only the transfer prices, the expense structure also got heavily tilted towards players’ remuneration. As much as 71p were spent on wages for every £1 generated – this was the first time that the supposedly untouchable 70p mark had been broken, after threatening to cross it for some years. But nobody paid heed to it!!! To balance the books, rise in ticket prices were inevitable and it was indeed increased. As a consequence, Premier League clubs recorded a 6% rise in match-day revenue to £585m.
As much as 71p were spent on wages for every £1 generated – this was the first time that the supposedly untouchable 70p mark had been broken, after threatening to cross it for some years.
The matter is not merely confined in the annals of sporting arena. Shadow sports minister CliveEfford had criticized these inflation-busting price rises calling them unacceptable. He has an ally in business leader Justin King, former chief executive of Sainsbury’s, who has asked clubs to ensure that they are providing value for money to make it a sustainable model.
It might be unfair to criticize the rise in ticket prices in English football and attribute this fully on the money mindedness of the clubs – some might like to call it recalibration. The Football League in England – consisting of the next three tiers below Premier League (Championship. League One and League Two) – saw a similar sort of trend. Average cheapest match-day ticket prices were actually reduced in Championship by 3.2% whereas they were increased by 31.7% in League One and 19% in League Two in 2014-15.
The results were positive – gathering in the Football League increased by 136,000 last season. The Championship had an average on-field viewership of over 16,500 per match (24 teams battle it out there in home and away basis). That made it more than 9.1 million spectators, eclipsed by only the Premier League (13.9 million), Germany’s Bundesliga (13.1 million) and Spain’s La Liga (10 million). Impressive indeed, to say the least.
But the downside is that the pricing is skewed towards the season ticket holders who make up for almost two thirds of the on field spectators. Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey rightly laments: “… a consequence of providing greater value to the majority of fans at one end of the spectrum is that those fans at the other end of the spectrum, those adults paying on the day for a single match, may now find themselves paying a bit more at some clubs.”
Such opposition to inflation-busting increases in the cost of watching English matches, especially Premier League, finally seems to be making an impact. Barring Crystal Palace, Hull City, Manchester City, Southampton and West Ham United, all top-flight clubs have refrained from increasing the ticket prices for the 2015-16 season. Arsenal still have the most expensive season ticket £2,013 but their most expensive match-day ticket of £97 is actually £29 cheaper than last season. However, that is still more than double of the most expensive match-day ticket at seven other top-flight clubs.
Football, or for that matter any sport, is entirely based upon the loyalty of its supporters. So the sport – put more blatantly, its governing body – itself should be generating value on a continual basis for its fans. They should self-evaluate regularly and ascertain that there is always something new for their fan base. But even then, it is hard to find any reason for this continual rise. Three times the rate of inflation is totally unviable for a business that is already earning truckloads.
Clubs have denied the allegations of inflated ticket prices with their own excuses.
>> “We are offering tickets at layered prices to meet everyone’s needs.”
>> “The highest ticket prices are only for a handful of (high profile) matches and they are
responsible for increasing our average ticket prices.”
>> “We have a program where we offer thousands of reduced fare tickets to the supporters throughout the course of the campaign.”
>> “We have not heard any complaint from the fans and guess we are doing alright.”
>> “We have concession tickets, to encourage youngsters and also for the away fans.”
Some of these statements cannot be argued. After receiving the boost from the latest TV deal, coupled with the big capacity of their new home venue, the Hammers have more than halved the cheapest ticket prices for their debut season at the Olympic Stadium at just a little over £15 per game. This, needless to say, drew a lot of positive response from fans across England. Arsenal is another example of smart pricing. They charge the highest for season tickets but that does include seven additional (cup) games for their most loyal fans. But by and large, fans are furious with these abnormal ticket prices,and rightly so. There is a sense of fall out between the lead couples – the supporters and the club – in the evergreen romance depicted on the green pitch. Clubs have been charged with not passing on the benefits of humongous revenue earned from broadcasting deals to alleviate the pressure on fans’ pockets. Rather they seem to be playing a blackmailing game holding the supporters’ loyalty to ransom. But love cannot be one sided – we all know what happens when one of the couples take the other for granted.
To give it a more global perspective, let us look at some clubs across Europe. Some clubs do sell very cheap match-day tickets – like French side Lille for only £5.87 – but many a big clubs charge way in excess of £100 for their most expensive ones. AC Milan, once a giant now struggling for significance even in SerieA, still has a whopping £298 price tag for its most sought after match-day seats. The San Siro outfit charges an absurd amount of £3,600 for their most expensive season tickets also. Bundesliga, on the other hand, has earned a name for honouring its fans the most with a very reasonable gate pricing structure. Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke – all charge less than £13 for their cheapest match-day ticket. Dortmund’s commercial director Carsten Cramer was full of praise for Arsenal’s match-day revenue but reiterated, rather contemplated, “If we were to ask for prices like this, we would lose the people. The people are one of the most important assets for our club. We have to care for them.”
On a passing note here is a realistic comparison. It is safe to assume that with the inflated price of food and drinks at the venue and the cost of travel to the venue takes the overall total cost of following a Premier League team easily into three figures for many supporters. So, how much is actually that money worth? Well, football fans from U.K. can actually fly out (or better catch a Channel Tunnel train) and enjoy a weekend trip – with accommodation and food and all – to watch one of Europe’s powerhouses (say, Dortmund) for roughly the same price. So next time you come across an English fan rooting for a German team in its own backyard, don’t be perplexed.
1) BBC’s Price of Football, 2014
2) The Telegraph
* All the currency conversions have been made at the rate of 1 EUR = £0.78 and
1 USD = £0.62