The price of change: new FA Cup rule stings home and away fans

Reading player Battles for ball Action Images

Reading fans were being asked to pay up to £45 for their trip to Old Trafford in the FA Cup this weekend until the Berkshire club stepped into to subsidise it down to £30. Reading fan and former-FSF secretary Jon Keen tell us how FA rule changes allowed Manchester United to charge so much...

One of the greatest things frequently said about the FA Cup is that it’s a great leveller. Regardless of their league status, teams go into every match as equals as far as the competition is concerned. And before matches both teams were equal partners in matters such as scheduling and ticket pricing.

Or that’s how it used to be – something enshrined in the rules of the competition right from its inception in 1871.  But this season a minor change to these rules regarding ticket pricing has changed all this, and what was intended as a way to keep ticket prices reasonable has resulted in exactly the opposite, giving home clubs a licence to increase prices without question. 

The old principle that always used to apply was that clubs drawn together would mutually agree ticket prices for the match, and if they couldn’t reach agreement the FA would act as arbiter and set the prices. Apart from that, the only constraint was a minimum admission price, ensure the total gate was worth splitting – each club receives 45% of net gate receipts, with the remaining 10% going into the FA Cup prize pool. 

This rule that admission prices must be mutually agreed still applies for the qualifying rounds of the competition, but it no longer applies to all rounds up to the semi-finals as it did before.

Instead, FA Cup Rule 20 now states that:

(ii) Competition Proper

Immediately after the draw is known, the Club playing at home shall decide on the prices of admission, subject to a minimum price of £10.00 for all spectators other than concessions. The away Club’s spectators can only be charged more than the home Club’s spectators if mutually agreed by both Clubs.

This, of course, substantially changes the dynamics of ticket pricing for Cup matches. The need to reach agreement has been cast aside, and it’s entirely down to the home club to set ticket prices. An away club no longer has any say over what their supporters will be charged, or any influence to stop a home club being as greedy as they may want.

The intention of this change, I understand, was to stop smaller clubs trying to ‘cash in’ excessively when drawn away at Premier League clubs, by insisting that the high ticket prices be charged even though they may not be the most attractive of opponents. Despite these intentions, though, this rule change actually enables the exact opposite, giving the home team absolute power in setting ticket prices. 

Let’s take a case in point:  This week, Manchester United host Reading at Old Trafford in the FA Cup Third Round, and the home team has applied its standard ticket price for a match at Old Trafford of £37 to £45. That’s not a typo… £45!  Yes, there are reductions for some areas of the ground and concession pricing for the young and elderly, but the headline price for a standard adult ticket is £45 to see Manchester United play Reading.

For the Glazers and Manchester United, of course, it’s a nice little earner, since they’ve found an outrageous way to break the link between the attractiveness of the match and the ticket price charged for it. This is their infamous ‘Automatic Cup Scheme’ (ACS), under which all season ticket holders are obliged to buy a ticket for all home cup ties in domestic and European competitions, whether they want to attend the game or not.  This ensures that Old Trafford will be full or just about full – or, more accurately, ‘sold out’ or just about sold out – whatever the price, with every adult season ticket holder being charged for a ticket whether they turn up or not.  If they don’t purchase a ticket, their season ticket will be suspended for a subsequent league match.

This pricing is patently unfair on Manchester United supporters – but that shouldn’t surprise anyone, as this ACS has been much-talked about and much-criticised since 2007 when it was introduced. But away supporters are affected by this pricing too, so Reading supporters paying full price are also liable to pay the full non-member price of £45.

Under the previous rules, Reading – or any other club in the same situation that cared for its supporters - had the option to simply refuse to agree to such a ludicrous figure being set, and so the question would have gone to the FA. In practice, though, they were very rarely called in arbitrate, and agreement was usually reached between the two clubs.

This season, though, Reading have no such option. With ticket pricing set by the home club, they have no power to intervene or influence – they must just grin and bear whatever pricing has been set. To their great credit, though, they’ve done what they can for their supporters, and will be subsidising away tickets, so none of their supporters will have to pay more than £30 for a ticket.  This is something we may see more and more due to this rule change, but to my mind is something they shouldn’t have to be doing. Where they could and should have said “No-one should be charged more than £30 for this match” all they can now do is say “Well, our fans won’t be charged more than £30 for this match” – they’ve lost any power they once had to exert any influence on behalf of all fans, which is a shame.

Additionally this rule change, and the sharing of net ticket income between clubs in the Cup, makes it less likely that away clubs will have any incentive to push for lower prices for all supporters, when they can just subsidise tickets for their own supporters. This will result more and more in home and away supporters paying substantially different real prices for watching the same match. 

I’m not for a second criticising Reading for ensuring that their supporters get to see this match at a more reasonable price, but it just leaves a slightly nasty taste in the mouth when you realise that they’re doing this with money that comes out of the pockets of Manchester United supporters – after all, it’s easy to reduce the prices for your own 5,445 supporters by up to £15 a head when you’re getting 45% of the extra money ticket being paid by the best part of 70,000+ home supporters. Admittedly, the £45 doesn’t apply to all age groups and to every ticket in the ground, but there’s also TV income to factor into the whole equation – as this is a Manchester United FA Cup match, it has inevitably been rescheduled for live broadcast!

Wouldn’t it just be so much better if the FA Rule hadn’t been changed, so that Reading could demonstrate their commitment to lower ticket prices by just refusing to agree to unrealistic prices for everyone in the ground?  Wouldn’t it be better to give them the power to influence prices for all supporters, rather than being forced to do what they can with a subsidy that brings the precedent of vastly different pricing for home and away supporters?  And isn’t it laughable that a rule change supposedly designed to help keep FA Cup ticket prices down is demonstrably doing exactly the opposite?

As an aside, this rule is obviously particularly relevant to match-going supporters, the ones who have to physically put their hands in their pockets to purchase match tickets. But when someone at the FA decided to change this rule, I wonder just how many of those match-going supporters were consulted or included in the decision-making process.  I think we all know the answer to that question…

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to Action Images for the picture used in this blog.