After a walkout at Anfield by Liverpool Football Club supporters, Daniel Austin assesses the situation involving ticket prices and the future of watching football live
Following a mass protest by supporters of Liverpool Football Club during a Premier League match, the club’s owner, Fenway Sports Group (FSG), have issued a sensational apology and have withdrawn plans to greatly increase the cost of general admission tickets to Anfield in a move that represents a victory for supporter power everywhere.
The American investment group had planned to usher in tickets up to £77 from the beginning of the 2016-17 season, which caused anger amongst the supporter base. Fan groups subsequently organised a walkout in the 77th minute of the game against Sunderland, which saw roughly 15,000 fans leave the ground early. Banners were held aloft depicting the Merseyside club’s iconic Liverbird lifting a fan upside down and emptying his pockets, while repeated cries of “enough is enough” were loud and clear as hordes of people exited the stadium.
The price raise was due to take place in spite of a heavily increased television rights deal that saw Sky Sports and BT Sports spend a combined £5.1 billion to broadcast the Premier League in the UK, from which all 20 clubs will benefit greatly starting this summer. Fans took exception to the fact that the club was seeking even more money from loyal supporters in spite of such a windfall.
In contrast to previous attempts to justify the hefty increase, FSG released a statement reading “message received”, explaining that the incensed reaction of supporters had led them to reverse their pricing proposals and instead announce a freeze on costs for the next two seasons. The most expensive general admission ticket to Anfield will now remain at £59 for the foreseeable future.
FSG’s exceptionally quick turnaround on the price issue demonstrates two things: that fan power remains an extraordinarily powerful tool, and that the increases were so inconsequential to the club’s overall earnings that they could be easily removed in one-fell-swoop.
In fact, the amount of money all Premier League clubs will earn on the back of the bumper TV deal means that they could allow every single fan free entry and still make more money than in the past few years.
It is certainly not just supporters of Liverpool that face frankly ludicrous admission charges. This season, fans of Arsenal must pay a minimum of £1,014 for a regular season ticket, and even West Ham United charge up to an obscene £95 to see a single game at Upton Park. Whilst clubs seek to squeeze every last penny from increasingly disenfranchised supporters, the BBC found the average price of the cheapest tickets in the Premier League had doubled in comparison to the cost of cost of living since 2011. Ticket prices have risen at a rate of roughly 1000 per cent since 1989, just prior to the Premier League’s inception in 1992.
The fight to lower ticket prices has now reached a pivotal point; with the debate having dominated the back pages for the past week, a recent segment of analysis on Match of the Day was devoted to an uncharacteristically passionate declaration from Alan Shearer, who said: “I don’t think any fan in the country, at all, should be asked to pay more for tickets next season. If anything fans should be rewarded for their loyalty. Give them [tickets] for £10, £20.”
Fans currently have the ascendency—clubs are either already backing down slightly, or are being questioned about their pricing regimes by supporters and assorted media. With the standard now having been set at Anfield, demonstrations from fans nationwide could see clubs everywhere put under real, meaningful pressure to lower prices, as it remains clear that they will receive little help from the Premier League itself or elsewhere.
In a recent meeting of all 20 Premier League clubs, only Everton FC were willing to “loudly” discuss measures to reduce the cost of tickets for away supporters, according to The Daily Mail.
This issue has also been raised in the House of Commons by Labour MP Clive Efford. Prime Minister David Cameron (a self-declared supporter of both West Ham and Aston Villa, and any other team that plays in claret and blue if his speech writers happen to drop the ball again) declared football ticket prices “a problem” in Parliament last week and stated he would consider “looking into” a meeting with the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) and proposals by the Labour Party to place an elected supporter representative on the board of all football clubs.
Supporters up and down the land probably shouldn’t hold their collective breath, though. The Conservatives are not exactly known for championing the underdog in the fight against corporations, and may not wish to risk upsetting an industry that contributes £684 million to the UK economy annually from tourism alone. Mr. Cameron and his Chancellor George Osbourne’s affiliation and regular meetings with media mogul Rupert Murdoch may well play a factor, too. The Australian’s BSkyB holds the rights to broadcast the majority of Premier League games, for which it shelled out £4.2 billion to cover the years 2016-2019. Cheaper ticket prices would enable more supporters to regularly attend games, in lieu of rarer visits from foreign tourists, potentially reducing the viewership for Sky Sports’ football offering in the UK.
The demonstration of a united front from all supporters (possibly under the FSF banner), therefore, remains the best way for football fans to seek genuine positive change on the ticket price issue. But supporters often use issues of money and class as a means of division and an extension of rivalry, as opposed to a basis for unification.
Take, for example, regular terrace chants such as “we pay your benefits,” and “you’ll never get a job.” The reality is that those on benefits and without jobs have long been unable to afford to attend a Premier League game. Job Seekers Allowance stands at roughly £50-£75 per week—barely enough to live on never mind enough to buy a match ticket with. Whether a fan is unemployed, a student, in a low paid job or has a family to provide for, attending football matches is either already an impossibility or fast becoming one. Mocking those struggling in such a difficult socio-economic environment as there is at present seriously undermines the clear fact that all football fans, regardless of perceived wealth, should be able to watch their team play football every once in a while.
Supporters are certainly not a financially homogenous group, as demonstrated by YouGov’s Profile LITE aggregator. According to the software, fans of Arsenal are, on average, likely to have up to £499 spare each month, and be able to afford far more expensive tickets, than supporters of Everton, for example, who have less than £125 to spare. Both can agree on one thing, though; according to YouGov’s “favourite celebrities” section, they bloody love Kay Burley.
Those differences between clubs, however, do not alter the fact that all fans are being routinely ripped off.
For clarity, the inference should not be that rival supporters join arms forever and no longer take pleasure in intense, tribal rivalry. Nobody wants to watch West Ham United and Milwall fans skipping round the East End hand-in-hand throwing flowers to passersby. Sheer, unbridled, and often baseless hatred is one of the integral bedrocks on which the game is built and one which much never be eschewed. But scandalous ticket prices are a major problem facing every single supporter in the country, and only unity can help to combat it.
Supporters of Liverpool Football Club came together to fight for fairer prices and managed a significant victory on the basis of one mass walk-out. If the whole nation of football supporters can work together, and take the necessary measures to protest, they can ensure the fight is taken further in order to win the war as well as the battle.