On Tuesday Stamford Bridge saw its lowest gate since 2007 for a Champions League fixture as fans voted with their feet following a 33 per cent ticket rise. The Blues’ 2-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen was watched by 33,820 fans, with the away club subsidising their own supporters’ tickets after finding out how much the home side planned to charge.
After a supporters’ revolt over prices four years ago Chelsea slashed European prices but this season they have been upped to £40. This is on top of a season ticket price increase for the second year in a row. By way of comparison Bayer Leverkusen offered a €20 subsidy to thousands of travelling fans.
David Johnstone of Chelsea fanzine cfcuk said: “Ron Gourley [Chelsea’s chief executive] seems to think that supporters earn as much as the players. There have been two consecutive season ticket price rises and we’ve just had a trip to Sunderland and one to Valencia coming up. People can’t do it. The people running the game are killing it. Killing it.
“The rumours are that we lost 6,000 season tickets. We have a loyalty point scheme and up until last year there was a queue to get a season ticket – you needed enough loyalty points. But you could get a season ticket with no loyalty points now. They’ve probably sold out by now but it’s all new people. They have to realise there’s a recession.
“We meet the club four times a season at the fans’ forum but they don’t listen. Peter Kenyon was good and when he was chief executive there was a price freeze for four seasons, but the current chief executive would rather have people come for one game and spend £300 in the megastore. The atmosphere was woeful on Tuesday. Where they think a 17-year-old will get £750 from for a season ticket I do not know.”
Chelsea Supporters’ Group co-vice chair Michelle Shaw went further and called for a boycott of the next home Champions League game against Belgian side Genk. In 2007 thousands of Chelsea fans chose not to attend a game against Norway’s Rosenborg – an action which prompted the club to lower European prices.
“I’d just like to make this absolutely clear - not only am I boycotting Genk, I am also boycotting Leverkusen, and Valencia. My choice, I know, but as soon as the ticket prices were announced, I made the decision. Why? Because I don’t want to wake up one May and find I can’t afford my season ticket any more.
“The only way to send a message to the Club is by a low attendance at the Genk game. Remember Rosenborg. You all enjoyed low prices for a while because people talked with their feet. DO IT NOW, while you can still afford to go,” said Shaw.
cfcuk even called for chief executive Gourley to go and, with thousands staying away, described the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge as “probably the worst it has been for years against Leverkusen last night with the German visitor out-singing the home supporters for the entirety of the match.”
Bayer Leverkusen’s fan support officer Frank Linde agreed and told the Football Supporters' Federation he’d heard good things about the atmosphere at English grounds but found Tuesday night “noisy like a cemetery”. Linde also outlined how much cheaper tickets in the Bundesliga often are compared to the Premier League.
“In the Bundesliga we will pay €15 [£13] plus service of five per cent for the expensive away terrace in Munich, other stadiums take €10 to €14 for standing. It’s not so cheap like in the 90s, but it’s OK. When you need a seating ticket, it starts at €20.” Cheap like the 90s or not, these are prices that most top-flight fans can only dream of and, unsurprisingly, the Bundesliga consistently has the highest average attendance in Europe.
Sheffield United v Huddersfield Town
However, it’s not just pricing structures in Europe’s elite competitions which have driven fans to the ‘nuclear option’ of a boycott. On the same night that Chelsea played, Huddersfield Town also visited Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane for a derby which would usually have seen hordes of away fans follow their team. Last season the Terriers took more than 4,000 to Hillsborough but this season only 1,549 made the short journey to Sheffield.
Sheffield United had originally set aside 4,507 tickets for the away support meaning approximately 3,000 were not sold. At £28.50 per ticket this means the boycott could have cost the club as much as £85,000 in ticket sales if every ticket had otherwise been sold. Fans on Down At The Mac kept a running total of those boycotting and estimated a £15,000 loss from their forum users alone.
The FSF first reported in August that hundreds of fans were threatening to stay away and the incident was subsequently reported elsewhere. Most complaints focused on the Blades’ decision to charge £28.50 for a third-tier game – twice the amount Bury fans were asked to pay only 10 days earlier.
Away supporters were also angry at being forced pay up to £4.50 more than Blades fans sitting in “equivalent” seats thanks to a loophole in Football League rule 33.2.8 (b). Away fans were charged just under 10 per cent more than the home support plus another £2 discount for home fans if they are signed up to the Blades’ membership scheme. As far as the FSF is aware the Blades are the only club to exploit this loophole although the FSF is following up other fans’ complaints on this subject.
Huddersfield Town Supporters’ Association did not officially back the boycott but instead made clear it was up to individual choice. They also raised the issue with the Football League as well as Sheffield United, and plan to follow this up now the official attendance figure is known.
As a category ‘A’ match home fans also had to pay fork out top dollar for tickets and this had a significant impact on attendance. Fewer fans trundled through the Bramall Lane turnstiles for a local derby than did for matches against Brentford and Bury.
Terriers fan Stan Frontczak said: “I believe that their pricing policy had an obvious effect on the crowd. Whilst our organised boycott campaign has had a lot of publicity and looks to have been well supported by the majority of our travelling support, it looks like many Blades fans chose to stay at home too.
“This should have been a well supported Yorkshire derby between two sides going very well at the top of the table. I’d guess if the match had been more reasonably priced a crowd of 22-23,000 should have been attainable. What we had was the Blades’ second lowest crowd of the league season so far.
“Club owners and chief executives have to realise that the price of a football match for many fans now means it’s becoming a luxury item. It went well beyond reasonable in the Premier League years ago and whilst most fans will pay over the odds for a one-off game, like a play-off final or a big cup game, they will not pay excessive prices for bread and butter league football anymore.”
The FSF contacted both Chelsea and Sheffield United for their views. Neither club replied.