On Friday 23rd January the Football Supporters’ Federation led a delegation of fans to a meeting with the Premier League to discuss ticket pricing. We were joined by representatives from our affiliates at Blue Union (Everton), Manchester United Supporters' Trust, Newcastle United Supporters' Trust, Tottenham Hotspur Supporters' Trust, and Spirit of Shankly (Liverpool). The PL was represented by director of policy Bill Bush, head of supporter services Cathy Long and her departmental colleague Tommy Guthrie.
The timing of the meeting is significant, coming as it did on the back of extensive campaigning by supporters’ groups both nationally and crucially at club level on the issue of ticket prices, and also at time when the Premier League is in the process of selling the broadcast rights for live football from the three year period starting with the 2016-17 season.
The fans’ delegation pressed the case that fans, and what they bring to games in terms of atmosphere and colour, are a crucial positive component of the “product” that the PL are marketing to broadcasters, and it is in the broader interests of the league and its member clubs to ensure that attendances remain high and that fans are not priced out of games.
In particular we focused on away fans, whose impact on atmosphere is vital and disproportionate to their numbers, and yet whose attendance figures have been until very recently in decline.
The PL recognised the importance of away attendances and acknowledged that ticket prices are a vital factor; they also said that while clubs guarded their right to set their own ticket prices for home fans, they recognised that fans want the league to play a role in addressing pricing for away supporters.
The current PL Away Fans Initiative – which saw clubs agreeing to set aside £200,000 each per year for the three years of the current TV deal to support away fans – has established the principle that collective action can be undertaken. The number of PL clubs – thirteen in total at the last count - who have entered into reciprocal pricing arrangements to cut away fans’ admission prices (to an average of £24) also suggests that there is the beginnings of a recognition that something needs to be done.
The current levels of investment in the away support are however not enough, and the FSF’s contention is that with the likelihood of another bumper TV deal bringing unprecedented amounts of money into the game, then some of that needs to be deployed into reducing ticket prices.
The FSF estimates that it would cost just over £20 million per season to cap away ticket prices at £20 throughout the Premier League - and that’s assuming sold-out away ends based on the full allocation, and compared to this year’s prices. That is an average of £1million per club, which may sound a lot, but in the context of an improvement on the last £5.5billion TV deal, is a drop in the ocean.
Two other specific issues were raised in the meeting. Firstly, the issue of match categorisation, and the impact that has on away fans: if you’re in the position of finding that the club you’ve always supported is currently deemed to be successful and a bigger attraction, then you’ll be expected to pay Category A prices everywhere you go, week in week out, as away prices are linked to home prices. The fans’ side contention is that categorisation shouldn’t apply to away fans’ tickets: all away fans should pay Category C prices.
Secondly, we raised concerns about prices for younger fans, who no longer qualify as juniors but who, as part of the socio-economic group with the least disposable income, suddenly find themselves being charged top adult rates. That group are vital to the atmosphere at games, and if we’re to avoid a gradually aging crowd, then we need to ensure that they are not priced out of the game at a stage when a lifetime’s football-supporting habits are formed.
There was, as the saying goes, a “full and frank discussion” around these and related issues, and a recognition from all sides that there were genuine concerns here that need to be addressed. Clearly, prices are set by clubs and not by the Premier League, but the away fans’ initiative shows that it is possible to get a principle acted upon across all twenty clubs, while existing rules on aspects of away fans’ prices (ie that away fans cannot be charged more than home fans for comparable accommodation) prove that in theory at least, across-the-board solutions can be imposed.
For such a rule, or any league-wide policy, to be put in place however requires the Premier League’s member clubs (or at least a clear majority, 14 of them in fact) to vote for it, and so work remains to be done by supporters’ groups at club level to press their clubs to support progress in this area.
The PL officials present did recognise that the away fans’ initiative marked a shift in attitude among member clubs; they committed themselves to raising the concerns and views of the supporters’ groups with clubs, and to examining mechanisms for securing price reductions to see what costs, benefits and other consequences there might be.
The next PL “shareholders” meeting is in early February, likely to be followed shortly after by the first outcomes of the broadcast sales process. There may not at that stage be any definitive decisions taken, but supporters’ groups will continue to press at both league and club level for positive concrete action to reduce ticket prices.