Premier League Pricing Structure Is Impacting on Supporter Engagement

Rowanne Westhenry@@agirlintheshedFeatured ColumnistNovember 26, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 03:  Crystal Palace fans hold up protest banners during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Sunderland at Selhurst Park on November 3, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Ian Walton/Getty Images

The Premier League is booming. Figures published by Deloitte earlier in 2014, per CNN, showed that the overall income generated by England's top division has surpassed the £3 billion mark.

It is the most watched league in world football with more than 4.7 billion television viewers worldwide in 2010-11, and attendances are up year on year. Fans travel from all over the world to visit "their" clubs as the Premier League's global brand initiative has recorded a huge success.

However, this globalisation of the English game is having a detrimental effect on domestic supporters.

So What's the Problem?

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 03:  Victory fans hold up signs in protest during the round 23 A-League match between the Melbourne Victory and the Newcastle Jets at AAMI Park on March 3, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Originally the preserve of the working class, who found themselves with an extra day to fill when the weekend was introduced in the 20th century, going to the football has become an unaffordable activity for the majority of the traditional supporter base.

The BBC has been running its Price of Football survey for four years now, and its most recent report only confirms what many suspected: The cost of attending football has risen at more than twice the rate of the already extortionate cost of living in Britain today.

Since 1990, ticket prices have risen far beyond the rate of inflation. Per David Conn at the Guardian, Manchester United’s cheapest matchday ticket has risen a whopping 785 percent in 24 years, from £3.50 to £31. If prices had risen within the retail price index, that ticket would cost £6.94.

Matchday revenues are on the up, and according to data from Sporting Intelligence (via the Daily Mail) there are more individual tickets sold for Premier League games year on year. However, per the Guardian, season-ticket sales are plummeting.

Clubs have noticed a decline in their supporters' ability to fork out, on average, £500 a season to watch their club. Many loyal supporters who have sat in the same seat for years are forced to take out financing options or face losing their seat

This fractures the sense of community within the stands, as the people who sit around you become part of your football family.

The three most expensive season tickets in the Premier League can be found at London's three "big" clubs.

Arsenal charge £2,013 for a ticket that grants access to 26 games. Tottenham Hotspur are next in the ranking, with their top ticket coming in at £1,895 for 19 Premier League games, while Chelsea charge £1,250 for the same deal

Considering that the average London rent is twice that of the national average at an eye-watering £1,412 per calendar month, per the Independent, it is clear that supporting one of the capital's glamour clubs on a regular basis is an activity that is all but unaffordable for the ordinary local.

The Premier League premium does not only affect fans of the big clubs. In the bottom half of the table, clubs threatened with relegation on a regular basis are forced to maximise their revenue while they can, often failing to cut prices when they fail to beat the drop.

Leeds United have not featured in the Premier League for a decade. After gambling on European qualification that failed to materialise, the once-mighty club slipped into the third tier of English football between 2007 and 2010.

Despite this, their season-ticket prices remain among the highest in the Championship, behind recently relegated Cardiff City and Fulham, as well as Birmingham City and Ipswich Town.

NORWICH, ENGLAND - APRIL 05:  A boy reads his matchday programme prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion at Carrow Road on April 05, 2014 in Norwich, England. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
Tom Dulat/Getty Images

Across the English game, a generation of supporters are finding themselves priced out of attending matches on a regular basis. While discounts are offered for juniors, they are generally restricted to the designated family area of the ground.

Parents who already have season tickets elsewhere in the ground are forced to move away from their friends or face forking out for two adult tickets.

Despite the dramatic rise in prices, attendances have increased steadily across the top tier since the advent of the Premier League. According to the organisation's website, grounds were 69.6 percent full during the inaugural season compared to the average 95 percent today.

However, the increase in the number of bums on seats has not translated to an improvement in the atmosphere. Instead, the ever-increasing ticket prices are giving rise to a generation of spectators rather than supporters.

Spectators vs. Supporters

This makes me ashamed... #SelfieStick #CFC #Chelsea@georgegray1: This is what's wrong with modern football. pic.twitter.com/oVIxt2V1F5

— Matthew Bondie Bond (@mattybond) September 13, 2014

The casualisation of the average match-going fan has had a negative impact on the atmospheres at many clubs.

Jose Mourinho is the most recent manager to highlight this problem, per talkSPORT, but it is by no means restricted to Chelsea. Per BBC News, Manchester United brought in an acoustics expert in an attempt to improve the matchday atmosphere at Old Trafford, and the singing section that resulted from this consultation has been massively over-subscribed.

This shows that there are still a significant number of supporters who understand that their role is to get behind the team, but the silence from the majority tends to drown them out.

The average Premier League supporter is 41 years old, while 13 percent of season-ticket holders are under 16, per the Guardian. However, attendance dips dramatically once the junior discount ends, with figures from 2005-09 showing that only around 10 percent of supporters are between 16 and 24 years old.

Tourists play an integral role in the UK economy, and their importance to the clubs is by no means irrelevant.

According to VisitBritain, 900,000 people attended a football match while on holiday in the UK in 2012. These tourists spend around £200 more than the average visitor and are likely to shell out a significant chunk of that extra cash on souvenirs from the club shop.

However, due to the one-off nature of their involvement with the club, these ticket holders spend more time taking selfies than singing the songs that show support for the team.

Tim Payton of the Arsenal Supporters' Trust said of the Emirates atmosphere, per the Guardian:

There is no doubt the pricing has led to a certain type of gentrification. In some ways it's probably better in that it's brought in more families, more children. But maybe you've not got a community of people that want to sing. It's the pricing, it's the new generation of fans, it's the seating. It's a bit of all of that.

Football clubs in England, especially in the Premier League, have turned from being focal points of their local communities to global brands run as businesses. The fans have little to no involvement in the club's affairs and are expected to stump up ever more cash for the privilege of supporting their team. Meanwhile, they are told to sit down and are herded around like animals at allegedly "high-risk" matches.

Frustration with this state of affairs has meant that an increasing number of supporters are leaving the Premier League behind for clubs further down the English football system, with some abandoning the country altogether.

Fan Flight

According to BBC Sport, around 1,000 supporters travel from England to watch Borussia Dortmund at every home game. According to one disillusioned Arsenal supporter, each trip to the Bundesliga club costs him £65, including travel, accommodation and tickets to the match. Compare that with the £51 it cost him to watch Arsenal and you can see the attraction.

Part of the reason behind the Bundesliga's pricing structure is the 50-plus-1 ownership model, which ensures that no one party has more control over the club than the supporters. This means the fans are treated as key stakeholders in the club and means that ticket prices cannot be raised without the agreement of a majority of match-going fans.

Dortmund's marketing director, Carsten Cramer, is obviously pleased that a club that relies on supporter-generated revenue rather than a super-rich owner has attracted such support. He told the BBC:

It's amazing. It's always nice when English fans tell me that including the cost of a flight, two beers and a ticket, they do not pay more than a match in England.

Why are tickets cheap? Football is part of people's lives and we want to open the doors for all of society. We need the people, they spend their hearts, their emotions with us. They are the club's most important asset.

Those last sentences perfectly sum up what it is to be a football supporter.

They go on journeys with their clubs, whether it's across Europe for a major cup final or down the M1 to watch them play Basildon in the FA Cup. They suffer the losses and celebrate the victories with even more passion than the players, all because they love their club.

They will spend their whole lives having the moods of their weekends dictated by whether their team wins, loses or draws, and they will outlast even the richest oligarch owner.

It is a sad state of affairs that the leader of the top division of the country that invented the sport has lost sight of this. Instead, Richard Scudamore prefers to focus on the impact that the supporters have on his ability to exploit the Premier League brand globally.

According to a report by Owen Gibson in the Guardian, Scudamore said: "Unless the show is a good show, with the best talent and played in decent stadia with full crowds, then it isn't a show you can sell."

What Can Be Done?

Inspired message from Portsmouth 'Don't let your kids grow up thinking that football is a TV show' #PFC #Pompey #PUP pic.twitter.com/xikkdmmYP3

— MatchDayApp (@MatchDayApp) May 11, 2013

There is a slow but steady swell of support for the fan ownership model in English football. Portsmouth FC were on the brink of disappearing from existence before the supporters rallied round and saved them, and Swansea City Supporters' Trust have a 21 percent stake in the club.

AFC Wimbledon were founded by supporters who rejected the decision to "rebrand" Wimbledon as MK Dons 60 miles up the M1, while FC United of Manchester grew from a group of Manchester United fans who were disillusioned with the Glazers' ownership.

However, without a revolution in football governance in England, this solution is unlikely to take hold in the Premier League.

The Labour Party have promised to address this issue if they win the 2015 general election, with MP Jon Cruddas, their head of policy review, saying:

The Premier League is a huge success. But football is more than a business. Football clubs are part of people's identity and sense of belonging. Our plan is to give fans a stake in their clubs.

Admirable though that is, the chances of it being enacted without any gaping loopholes for the people who currently profit from the Premier League to exploit are slimmer than the average supporter's wallet.

Could Safe Standing Work?

If You Want Atmosphere Let us STAND pic.twitter.com/XMoGweqBiz

— KABAR CHELSEA (@KABAR_CHELSEA) November 23, 2014

Safe Standing is another option to improve the matchday atmosphere and bring in lower prices, but this would take several years to implement due to the legal challenges involved post-Hillsborough.

Organised singing sections have been attempted at several grounds in the recent past, with some success, but these vocal supporters would still represent a small portion of the crowd.

The Football Supporters' Federation have organised marches and petitions against the rising cost of football, which has succeeded in bringing the issue to wider attention.

Their "Twenty's Plenty" campaign for tickets for away fans to be capped at £20 led to the creation of the £12 million fund for clubs to subsidise away tickets and travel for their supporters. However, many people feel that more drastic action needs to be taken.

Calls for a boycott of all televised games over a single weekend are laudable, if a tad misguided. The inflated demand for tickets would ensure that there would be someone hovering to take the seat of a disenchanted supporter, but if it led to swathes of empty seats and silent stadia, it would prove the point that underlines this whole issue: That football, without fans, is nothing.

Outraged by the price of Premier League football? Join the Football Supporters' Federation here.