As the economy stagnates, with barely any growth at all since 2010, one section of it shows above inflation growth; the ticket prices at many Premier League clubs. Structural debt in many clubs needs servicing. The Glazers’ leveraged buyout of Manchester United left the club itself owing the purchase price and fans facing ever-increasing ticket prices to ensure finance payments don’t overwhelm the club entirely. Arsenal’s stadium move was made to enable them to keep pace financially with their rivals both at home and abroad. This financial plan was not purely dependent on the increased capacity however. It also relied on steadily increasing ticket prices for all those new season ticket holders. A rise in prices of 6.5% for this season has resulted in some of the country’s most expensive seats, £51 being the cheapest for the visit of any of the other top-rated teams. Just like energy bills however, players’ wages go up but never down, and it’s this relentless increase which is the major factor in rising ticket prices at most clubs.
The excellent David Conn of the Guardian pointed out at the start of the season that since the recommendation of all-seater stadia in the Taylor report, a period which has seen 77% inflation in the wider economy, the cheapest ticket at Manchester United to watch them play the other top clubs has been subject to 700% inflation, compared to 920% at Arsenal, and 1025% at Anfield. Even these figures downplay the reality of the size of the increase. In the late 1980s, the cheapest tickets were far more available than they are now, being the standard price in a large area of the ground, whereas the current cheapest prices referred to here are restricted to quite small areas of the stadia and are therefore more difficult to buy for the fan attempting to stick to a budget. So complete has been the escalation in prices that it’s difficult to recall that football was once so affordable. As Conn explains, if the inflation of the wider economy had been tracked by football, Liverpool and Manchester United’s cheapest season tickets from 1989/90 of £60 and £96 would now cost £106 and £170 respectively, instead of their actual current costs of £725 and £532. Imagine, a season ticket for around £100.
Many clubs have a price banding policy which means that the prices increase for supposedly more attractive fixtures. The unfairness of this is that it applies to away fans, not just the home support of these clubs. The unfairness of this is that supporting a well-supported or successful team means you pay through the nose to follow your team every week, not just the one game for home fans when your team comes to town. A travelling supporter of a top club would pay a sizeable amount more than a fan of a struggling club to follow their team away through a season, playing the same sides and sitting in the same seats, and that can’t be fair.
Smaller clubs situated in poorer catchment areas have made more of an effort to maintain the affordability of their tickets. Blackburn have a £10 adult ticket, Bolton have frozen prices for 3 seasons in succession, Stoke have frozen season ticket prices in an early bird offer available to all fans, and West Brom have deals where prices are frozen for already existing season ticket holders. Newcastle offer a similar deal, and such offers are very welcome in such trying financial times. However, at Newcastle, the cheapest full-price season ticket this year was £365, way above the Bank of England’s inflation figures for the period in question. Even tickets whose prices have been frozen since relegation for those who kept going makes little difference to that.
The game and its customers have been sanitised over the course of the intervening years. It’s not yet become an exclusively middle-class game but increasingly the costs stretch fans so that the lowest earners have long since been priced out, and that’s not just a class issue but one of age. The young and the old both struggle to fund their football. A recent Premier League survey found the average age of fans in the grounds to be 41. As that demographic gets older and isn’t replaced by younger fans the current popularity of the game must surely wane, and the problem for clubs will be that no price rises will close the funding gap if no-one wants to buy the tickets.
Ticket price inflation doesn’t just need to halt, it needs to be reversed. That requires player wages to fall. It seems crackers that as an economic downturn begins to bite, wage inflation continues apace as in few other industries, but the problem is the number of clubs competing for the talents of such a small pool of elite players. Perhaps the closest comparison with football is the remuneration in the financial services industry. Fear of other organisations stealing a march by outbidding them for possible recruits convinces executives in both industries to continue to pay over the odds, even as their business feels the pinch. It appears that if none of those executives in either industry is willing to blink and regulate their own spending, then external regulation is necessary.