UK: The Cost Of Watching Football In England

Last Updated: 13 May 2016
Article by David Winnie

David Winnie, Head of the Sports Law department at Ronald Fletcher Baker LLP appears in the March 2016 edition of World Sports Law Report where he explores the reasons behind the increasing cost of attending English football matches following the 'walk-out' staged by an organised group of Liverpool fans during the recent Premier League match against Sunderland in February 2016. This walk-out is the latest public demonstration in response to the excessive cost of watching a live football match in England.

Saturday 6 February, it's the 77th minute of a football match between Liverpool and Sunderland, and local fans at Anfield, home of Liverpool FC, abandon the stands in protest against the skyrocketing ticket prices. The 'walk-out' staged by an organised group of Liverpool fans is the latest public demonstration in response to the excessive cost of watching a live football match. David Winnie, Head of the Sports Law team at Ronald Fletcher Baker LLP, dissects the reasons behind the increasing cost of attending English football matches, reviews the policies in force in the German league and hints at possible solutions to this dispute.

Introduction

A survey conducted by the BBC1 in October 2015 revealed that the average cost of the cheapest match-day ticket in the Premier League has passed £30 for the first time. The average price of the cheapest tickets across English football in recent seasons has risen at almost twice the rate of the cost of living since 2011. This led to Helen Grant (the then Sports Minister) to warn clubs in 2014 not to take fans for granted2. Despite this warning, the Premier League maintain that the cost of watching football has, in fact, dropped or remained the same for the majority of fans and point to the fact that crowds are as healthy as ever3.

However, in contrast to the picture painted by the Premier League, the decision by around 10,000 fans to stage a 77th-minute walk out at the recent Liverpool-Sunderland game on 6 February 20164 was the clearest indication yet that vast numbers of supporters are being driven to breaking point over the failure of teams to pass on some of the benefits enjoyed from their massive new TV contracts, a windfall set to widen the gulf between those within the game and those who pay to follow it.

This article looks at Premier League pricing of tickets and the resultant change this appears to be bringing about in the fanbase of the Premier League Clubs and the atmosphere within stadiums. This article will also look at the position in the German Bundesliga, which is seen as a model of good ticket pricing and compare and contrast this with the Premier League, and its efforts to address fan concerns.

Premier League prices

Contrary to popular belief, only three Premier League Clubs have increased their season ticket prices for 2015/165. Of the others, the cost of season tickets has remained the same or has actually been reduced. The most expensive season ticket prices are those of Arsenal FC, which range from £1,014 - £2,013, whereas the cheapest season tickets are offered by Swansea FC, which range from £419 - £4896.

However, Premier League season tickets have gone up by three and a half times the rate of inflation over the last 35 years. The average season ticket price for a current top flight club in England cost £53 back in 1981. That's equivalent to £183 in today's money when adjusted for inflation, which is an increase of £131. However, the actual average cost for each club's cheapest season tickets is £513 according to figures taken from the BBC7 price of football survey, which is an increase of £459.

A recent example of this is the recent introduction of a new pricing structure at Liverpool FC. Under the new ticket pricing structure announced by Liverpool, 75% of seats in the three existing stands will increase in price8. Ian Ayre, the CEO of Liverpool FC, attempted to defend this new pricing policy by stating that, "[...] of course everybody would like the tickets to be cheaper, including us, but that's not an option for us right now."9 However, Liverpool's owner, Fenway Sports Group, was forced into performing a major U-turn over its planned ticket price rises and issued a public apology to supporters who felt compelled to walk out of the game against Sunderland.

The enormous increase in television income, to the tune of at least £8.3 billion once international deals are factored in, provides each Premier League club with at least £100 million per season for the next three years, provided they avoid relegation10.

Lack of atmosphere

However, it would appear that Premier League clubs have become accustomed to fans paying ever higher prices and still filling their stadiums, or gradually replacing those who can't with those who can, devoting energy instead to growing their overseas fan base and chasing ever more lucrative commercial deals. Faced with the prospect of middle-aged crowds growing old together, most Premier League clubs have taken action to ensure that there are a greater proportion of children represented. However, the profile of the sport is now changing and with it the atmosphere within stadiums.

In fact, it has been suggested that Premier League grounds have become nothing more than tourist attractions and that the atmosphere is dead11. Borussia Dortmund supporter, Marc Quambusch, spokesman for the campaign group Kein Zwanni ('No to 20 euros'), said leading English grounds have become little more than tourist destinations and branded Liverpool's decision to introduce a £77 match ticket next season as ridiculous. He added: "When you watch English football and the quietness in the stadium, you should say, OK, that's not what we want in Germany."12

The Bundesliga

In recent years, the Bundesliga has become the standard bearer for good governance and ticket pricing. The German league is renowned among fans in England as an inexpensive place to watch football. In fact, when Bayern Munich arrived in London to play Arsenal in the Champions League in October 2015, their fans boycotted the first five minutes of their Champions League match against Arsenal in protest at what they called 'excessive' ticket prices. FC Bayern Worldwide organised the protest in collaboration with several other supporters' groups after Bayern fans were charged a minimum of £64 to attend the match in London13.

So, why are Bundesliga prices so low in comparison to the Premier League? This resistance to the 'normal' practices of other leagues has extended to the ownership of individual clubs as well. In England, for example, private ownership slowly evolved into the rule rather than the exception. In Germany, where member-owned-and-operated remained the norm, the opposite was true. Ownership of Bundesliga clubs remains local, and members play a key role in operational policy (such as electing the club president). This in turn means that there is greater emphasis on the individual fans than in other leagues, where ownership models vary significantly.

In an interview14 the current Bundesliga Chief Executive Christian Seifert explained this concept further: "It is not in the clubs' culture so much [to raise prices]. They are very fan orientated [...] with Borussia Dortmund [...] the average ticket price is €15 because they know how valuable such a fan culture and supporter base is. We have a very interesting situation. First, tickets are cheap. Second, many clubs limit the percentage of season tickets." Put simply, it is in the best interests of each Bundesliga club to make tickets cheap and widely available.

This model, of course, has its disadvantages (though, in some cases, these limitations have actually proven to be positive). For starters, lower ticket prices mean significantly lower match day revenue. Indeed, Seifert confirmed that in 2010, match day revenue for the Bundesliga was approximately €350 million15, which pales in comparison to the match day revenue for the Premier League.

To counteract that disparity, Bundesliga clubs have been faster to embrace measures that would ensure financial stability. For example, big money transfers remain less frequent in the Bundesliga, and player wages have remained more reasonable as a result. According to a BBC report16, in the Bundesliga 'wages were 38% of the clubs' revenue while the in Premier League it was 67% (and as high as 93% in one English case).' This is highlighted by the recent figures showing that Newcastle United FC spent more on players during the January 2016 transfer window than all Bundesliga clubs combined17.

In addition, a nationwide emphasis on youth development was instituted following Germany's poor showing at the 2002 World Cup. This initiative has helped usher in a wave of talented youngsters, all of whom were developed locally rather than imported from foreign leagues. As a result, there has been less of a need for summer war chests, and the corresponding savings have been passed on to the fans.

Intransigence

The Premier League has revealed that it is trying to find a way to make football more affordable for away fans. Clubs have been under pressure to reduce ticket prices - particularly for travelling fans - in light of the £8.3 billion TV deal which starts next season. Nevertheless, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham and West Ham among others - opposed a £30 cap on away tickets that was proposed when the 20 Premier League sides last met18, and in order to make changes, a consensus of 14 clubs must be reached.

Given the huge financial injection that the Premier League has recently received, there is a glorious opportunity for a one-off corrective by passing some of this on to the fans and grass roots of the game. Whether Premier League Clubs will be minded or willing to do so is extremely doubtful.

There was irony in the fact that the Premier League chose to relaunch its 'brand identity'19 at the beginning of February 2016, at a time when bonds between clubs and fans are at their most strained. With Barclays, and its adverts paying tribute to fans, moving on as title sponsor, the Premier League has taken the opportunity to rebrand and the colour, skill, energy, passion, community spirit and international appeal are rightly celebrated.

However, for those who consider the response of the 20 Premier League clubs to their outrageous financial fortune in taking advantage of structural shifts in the media market to make upwards of £8 billion, the soundtrack should not be the stirring orchestral swell chosen to underpin the montage, but another more urgent mantra20.

Comment

During the 1980's and early 1990's it was possible to watch top flight football in England by simply queueing up and buying a ticket on the day of the game. If one wanted to get a good vantage point on the terraces, you had to get there a little earlier, but otherwise, it was as simple as that. Fans travelling to watch their team play could queue up at the away end and pay a reasonable £8 to get in to watch the likes of Manchester United play Chelsea or Arsenal.

Granted, fans were herded together on terraces with very little facilities or amenities, nevertheless, access to the game for a fan was straightforward and affordable. Whilst it would be unthinkable to revert back to the days of treating people like cattle in unsafe stadiums, a balance needs to be struck somewhere. These days it has become a laborious process spanning several months to get a hold of a ticket, involving the obstacles of ballots and expensive memberships. The steep rise of prices has already largely killed off access to games for teenage fans.

The words of former Bayern president Uli Hoeness from 2012 are more relevant than ever and Premier League Clubs would do well to heed his comments: "We do not think the fans are like cows, who you milk. Football has got to be for everybody. That's the biggest difference between us and England."21 The Premier League must pay more than lip service to fans' concerns over ticket pricing, otherwise the chants that cascaded down the Kop during the recent walk out by fans will echo throughout stadiums around the country before long - 'enough is enough.'

Footnotes

1. BBC, Price of Football: Premier League shirts & cheapest tickets rise, 14 October 2015, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/34517474

2. Press Association, Grant 'cross' about ticket prices, 16 October 2014, available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/pa/article-2793725/Cost-football-rise.html

3. Ibid.

4. The Telegraph, Football fans plot mass stadium walkout in protest over rising ticket prices, 16 February 2016, available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/competitions/premier-league/12147445/Football-fans-plot-mass-stadium-walkout-in-protest-over-rising-ticket-prices.html

5. Ben Rumsby, Telegraph Sport, Premier League season-ticket prices cut or frozen for 2015-16, 22 April 2015, available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/competitions/premier-league/11556668/Premier-League-season-ticket-prices-cut-or-frozen-for-2015-16.html

6. Ibid.

7. The BBC, Op Cit.

8. Dan Kennett, This is Anfield, LFC Ticket Prices 2016/17: 47% of existing seats increase, compared to 39% decreasing, 8 February 2016, available at: http://www.thisisanfield.com/2016/02/lfc-ticket-prices-201617-existing-seats-increase-47-compared-to-39-decrease/

9. Owen Gibson, The Guardian, Premier League tickets: fans have been taken for granted for too long, 9 February 2016, available at: www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2016/feb/09/premier-league-tickets-fans-tv-deal

10. Ibid.

11. Guy Aspin for MailOnline, Premier League grounds have become tourist destinations and the atmosphere is dead, says Borussia Dortmund supporter, 10 February 2016, available at: www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3440656/Premier-League-grounds-tourist-destinations-atmosphere-dead-says-Borussia-Dortmund-supporter.html#ixzz415M3G898

12. Ibid.

13. The Guardian, Bayern Munich fans stage protest against £64 Arsenal tickets, 21 October 2015, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2015/oct/20/bayern-munich-fans-arsenal-protest

14. Jamie Jackson, The Guardian, How the Bundesliga puts the Premier League to shame, 11 April 2010, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2010/apr/11/bundesliga-premier-league

15. Ibid.

16. Stephen Evans, BBC, German football model is a league apart, 24 May 2013, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22625160

17. Nick Wright, Sky Sports, Newcastle have outspent all Bundesliga clubs combined in January transfer window, 29 January 2016, available at: http://www.skysports.com/football/news/11096/10147399/the-10-most-expensive-premier-league-deals-of-the-january-transfer-window

18. MailOnLine, Premier League reveal new plans to cap away ticket prices in bid to make football more accessible for fans, 9 February 2016, available at: www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3437914/Premier-League-reveal-new-plans-cap-away-ticket-prices-bid-make-football-accessible-fans.html#ixzz41lIYhZis

19. The Guardian, Premier League launches new 'visual identity' for 2016-17 season, 9 February 2016, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/feb/09/premier-league-visual-identity-2016-17-season

20. Owen Gibson, The Guardian, Premier League tickets: fans have been taken for granted for too long, 9 February 2016, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2016/feb/09/premier-league-tickets-fans-tv-deal

21. Sam Pilger, Bleacher Report, More Premier League Fans Need to Rise Up to Defeat Ticket-Price Greed, 15 February 2016, available at: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2616164-more-premier-league-fans-need-to-rise-up-to-defeat-ticket-price-greed

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