Last week's march on the Premier League and Football League brought the issue of ticket prices back onto the media's agenda. Fans from dozens of clubs were involved and a delegation met with Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore and representatives from the Football League. One of those fans was Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) board member and True Faith editor Michael Martin. He explains how the day went below...
Thanks to a generous subsidy for travel from NUST, I was able to join a party of NUFC and SAFC fans leaving the FSF HQ early on Thursday 14th August 2014 to take part in the FSF-led march in that London as part of a campaign for affordable football for all.
The journey down was far from dull as a mix of Black & Whiters and Red & Whiters got along very well, exchanging stories on following football down the years and finding we had more in common than we had previously imagined. Obviously, recent derby results were a taboo subject. NUST was the only supporters group from the North East who had contacted the FSF to organise travel to the event.
We arrived at Marble Arch around 12ish and immediately bumped into a newly married couple from the North East, resplendent in United shirts on their honeymoon in London who had decided to pop along to see what all the fuss was about. They were made more than welcome.
The media were well represented and several of our party were interviewed for TV and radio. Trust member, Chris Brolly (who some might know also as a contributing writer to True Faith and newly returned from teaching in Senegal) was interviewed for what was previously known as the Heaven & Earth Show (don't ask) which is now some kind of ethics programme and they were interested in the rights and wrongs of sky-high ticket pricing. [You can watch the show here, fast-forward to 18mins.]
While the media were filming everything that moved, the numbers of fans from a really wide range of clubs began to mass in the shadow of the Marble Arch. The North East was really well represented with a good number of Newcastle United and Sunderland fans joined by Manchester United, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Cardiff City, AFC Wimbledon, Leyton Orient, Nottingham Forest, West Ham United, Chelsea, Leeds United, Brentford, Arsenal, Chelsea, Stoke City, Spurs, QPR, Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, Plymouth Argyle, Bristol City, Doncaster Rovers, Bradford City, Norwich City, Watford and a strong contingent from Merseyside, with a mixed coach of Liverpool and Everton arriving with the best set of flags and banners I have to admit. I'm sure there were many others I missed. [FSF note - if you were there and your team isn't in this list, pop us an email email@example.com]
Yours truly had clocked the sun cracking the pavements on arrival and had decided to ignore the advice of fellow traveller and NUST member, Pat Hughes, about heavy showers and thunder and left my waterproof jacket on the bus. Mistake.
Just as the speeches started and before we marched onto the Premier League HQ at Gloucester Road, the heavens opened and I stood there getting drenched. Enter your own drip joke here.
Not to worry though, the speeches were led by a strong North East twang with Michael Brunskill from the FSF getting things under-way via a megaphone (it was all brilliantly old-school) and staggered the assembled throng with a killer fact that had every Premier League club, let every single fan into every PL game, last season they would have been no worse off than the previous season due to the massive increase in the TV deals benefiting PL clubs. Michael also quoted some eye-watering figures about the inflation of ticket prices.
There were other speeches from Jay McKenna, a leading light in the influential Liverpool fans group, Spirit of Shankly, who spoke very well of the raw deal we are all getting from ticket pricing in the PL. Billy Grant, editor-in-chief of Brentford fanzine, Bee-sotted reminded us this was not just a PL issue and relayed the tale of some of his match-going friends having to chuck going to games because of his club's recent promotion to the Championship and what that means for pricing.
The speeches were rounded off by the Gallowgate End's very own Kevin Miles, who many of you will know is the Chief Executive of the FSF. Kevin thanked those in attendance for coming along, reminded us why we were there and in the rain, off we headed noisily to PL HQ through the London traffic. The march was perfectly ordered. The Police won't have had an easier day than this lot.
Just before we set off for PL HQ, David Rose, from the FSF asked if I would like to be part of the delegation that would go into meet a combined panel of Premier League and Football League top brass, that would include PL Chief Executive, Richard Scudamore. Of course, I accepted on behalf of NUST and so drenched and a little bedraggled I went through the shiny black-door of the Premier League's offices amid the cool tiled floors, subdued lighting, chrome, mirrors and Hugo Boss suit wearing executives of the "greatest league in the world" (sic) .
Our delegation was made up of Kevin Miles (FSF) and representatives from the Manchester United Supporters Trust, Leeds United Supporters Trust, Spirit of Shankly (Liverpool), Blue Union (Everton), Brentford, Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust, and of course yours truly representing the Newcastle United Supporters Trust.
I think its fair to say the delegation didn't hold back from laying it on just how ridiculously priced football had become, there were strong statements comparing the Premier League to the Bundesliga in a very negative light, the problems for young people, particularly those aged 18-30 being able to afford to watch top level football, the exorbitant costs for away supporters, especially travelling to the capital, and an impatience that not much had happened since a similar meeting this time last year.
To my utter amazement, Scudamore describes himself as the representative of a trade association and even played down his role in negotiating the bumper TV deals and selling rights. I'll have to check out how much this Secretary takes home for such a humble set of tasks. In not so many words, he described the Premier League as a bit of a business club, with constituent clubs existing individually as separate businesses only interested in their own bottom line or profitability. In the case of Man City and Chelsea it's something else but that's for another day.
Scudamore and others on the PL/FL panel fell behind the line that it was critical for the PL/FL to have full stadia, how they wanted a younger, diverse match-going public but in the next breath talked about the choices people have to make with their own finances, apparently blind to what was going on in the wider economy, society at large and how that analysis impacts upon some socio-economic groups far more than others. Namely, the working class of the country who have sustained football for 150 years, its bedrock, traditional support.
To be fair to Scudamore, he did hit on something we know to be absolutely true. The game is enslaved by a free market doctrine of supply and demand. It is trapped within this corporate straitjacket. We know from our support of United that when we had a stadium of 37,000 capacity and a team everyone wanted to see, Sir John Hall and Freddie Shepherd pulled our eyes out with season ticket prices, bonds and all the rest of it. We know that has forced Ashley to look more creatively at ticket pricing at Newcastle United and there has been a decline in demand against the size of the supply (i.e. we now have a 52,000 seater stadium and an inferior "product" to the one in the mid-90s).
That is reflected across football with those clubs who are the most successful having the highest ticket prices and the least commitment to getting supporters through the turnstile. They don't have to bother, so why even think about it.
So, was it all a waste of time? It would be easy to be cynical but at the same time it would also be wrong to be overly pessimistic.
The FSF has had some success in gaining concessions. Ticket pricing is on football's agenda. Various initiatives to ameliorate the impact upon fans have been underway. The ticket-matching deals are gaining traction. To be fair, Newcastle United is a leading exponent of this and on the morning we set off to London, we heard of new "matching" deals involving United where we will pay £20 and £25 at several clubs. Fair play to United for pushing this. The £200K distributed to PL clubs last season for various initiatives involving away fans was pushed by the FSF and although has led to some peculiar practice in some cases, is generally a move in the right direction. Rome was definitely not built in a day.
The delegation to the PL made their points very eloquently. Action will follow looking at match categorisation, which has long been an irritation for fans (Leeds for example are stung by their relative status and the pricing it brings within the Championship). In some ways, this is talks about talks.
But what we need now, right across football - is more supporter-led activism, more pressure placed upon clubs, more publicity for those clubs who refuse to ticket-match for away fans as an example. Fans need to get off their arses and protest.
No-one is going to do hand this to us on a plate. "Liking" stuff on Face-book or "re-tweeting" support for various views, articles etc. is all very well but that kind of slacktavism isn't going to be enough.
You need to be joining the likes of NUST, the FSF and you need to be part of a coherent supporters led movement to save football for ourselves but also for our children and future generations.
Images from Affordable Football For All demo:
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