Saturday 14 December 2019

Clubs can no longer rely on blind loyalty to keep fans paying extortionate prices

A Dortmund banner which translates as 'football has to be affordable'. Photo: PA
A Dortmund banner which translates as 'football has to be affordable'. Photo: PA

Paul Wilson

Truly these are exciting times for football and its supporters, with wealthy American owners taken aback by a little Liverpudlian plain speaking and something rotten in the state of even the German game exposed through a hail of tennis balls.

Why tennis balls, as strewn all over Stuttgart's pitch last week by Borussia Dortmund fans incensed at the price of admission? Because Germany has an expression "good tennis", apparently, used in admiration of something well executed, and this was an ironic protest to suggest the reverse. But also because tennis balls are cheap, easily smuggled in and unthreatening.

It is interesting that the admission price issue has blown up in Germany at the same time as in England, because the German model is often held up as a fan-friendly and economically fair system for the rest of the world to follow.

The Dortmund fans were angry about VfB Stuttgart charging prices of up to €70 in the visitors' end. That is high, even by English standards, though it was a cup game rather than a league fixture, not all of the visitors' tickets were as expensive, and the prices related to seats, not standing areas. While it remains true that admission to Bundesliga games is significantly cheaper than to Premier League matches, one reason why prices stay relatively low and tickets can often be bought on the day is that many are still for standing terraces. Seats tend to be more expensive, though not usually massively so, hence the protests at Stuttgart trying to make a killing from the fans. 'Football must be affordable', a Dortmund banner read.

Here is the nub of the issue then. Why must football be affordable? And perhaps beyond that, what is affordable anyway? As Liverpool's Ian Ayre said rather blithely in defence of the Anfield price hike, before he realised quite how serious his customers were about taking action, what is affordable to one person is different for another.

All a football club needs to continue at a profit, in other words, is to keep finding 45,000 or so people willing to pay the prices charged. That most clubs have managed to keep filling their grounds when prices reached scandalous levels some years ago is a testament to either the intoxicating excitement of Premier League football or the blind loyalty of fans, depending upon how cynical one is. But from the clubs' perspective it is no mean feat of profit extraction either. It takes a certain nerve to keep pushing prices up when the television money rolling in means that gate receipts are becoming ever more insignificant as a revenue stream and the idea that Premier League football is so special and successful it is worth the expense has been taken further than anyone really thought possible.

The trouble with what Ayre said about relative affordability is that it goes against the grain at his own club, which prides itself (or always used to) on a sense of community and for years tried to keep prices as low as possible.

In addition to the notion of community is continuity. Looking beyond concepts such as local support or the traditional fanbase to find people who can afford to pay for seats is a short-term strategy fraught with danger. Should fashions change and the money start to go elsewhere, the disenfranchised will not immediately return to take up the slack because the chain will have been broken. A generation will have grown up without the football habit.

Anyone who imagines football is such a wonderful spectator event that crowds will always keep coming should look around Europe, Germany apart. Priced right, football can to an extent be an off-the-shelf commercial transaction like any other, though what has been unique about it over the last century or so is its family aspect. The father and son tradition, if you will, though there is no reason to exclude anyone on gender grounds.

The idea that you first go to football with your parents, and end up taking your own offspring, is one of the reasons club allegiances and weekend habits are so powerful. You just don't get the same sort of thing with supermarkets and cinemas.

Football as a birthright, and later as a rite of passage, is still just about possible, but especially at the bigger clubs it can be ruinously expensive. Which, quite simply, it was never supposed to be. When Lord Justice Taylor stipulated all-seater stadiums in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, he did so with the proviso that clubs should not align general admission prices with the cost of their existing seats.

He did not actually use the expression paying through the nose, but that is what has happened, and Taylor would be extremely disappointed to see the way clubs have ignored his specific warnings. Is it too late to turn back the clock? There will never be a better time, with the television deal on the table. Nor are prices around £25 or £30 ludicrously optimistic, for inflation and a modest increase for seating would not have pushed them any higher.

But progress will only be made in this area if clubs act together. No one is going to voluntarily put themselves at a financial disadvantage, not even Liverpool. While what has just happened in Liverpool and Boston is worth celebrating, it would be as well to remember that what has actually been preserved is the status quo, and Anfield attendees have been complaining about that for years. Prices remain far too high, an across the board reduction is necessary, justifiable and now possible.

But clubs will only act together if they get a firm nudge from government. There is a wrong here that needs righting.


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