Power to the people’s game

IN THE MID-70s and 1980s, football started to become very unfashionable. In some quarters, you were almost embarrassed to say you were a regular fan. You couldn’t give away tickets at some clubs. And it was still relatively cheap to watch the game.

In 1975, a ticket at a First Division game was around £ 1.50 – that represented 6.5% of the weekly wage. In 2013, a seat at the Emirates Stadium for an Arsenal Premier League game could cost £50 – 13% of the weekly wage.  So, in relative terms, football is twice as expensive as it was 40 years ago.

If you adopt the law of supply and demand, football doesn’t need to concern itself too much. In 1975-76, the average first division crowd was 28,000. Today, the Premier average is more than 36,000 and crowds are up again in 2015-16. Furthermore, some clubs have lengthy waiting lists for season tickets. So why should they worry?

If they take a long-term view, they should worry, for there is something stirring in the far-from-cheap seats. Football has still not grasped that supporters are, in fact, customers. Like many things in the game, the dynamics often operate outside accepted business practices found in other industries. For example, publically hiring managers while the incumbent looks on – effectively becoming a “dead man walking” – and players arbitraging for moves while on a contract, using the media to achieve their objectives.

Football clubs prey on the loyalty of their fans. They flood them with merchandise, raise ticket prices, serve up sub-standard and extortionate catering, allow them to be herded like cattle going to market and bombard them with often inaudible (thank you, Wembley) noise at their stadiums. Very few clubs give anything back to the supporters.

While the recent assessment of “Graham from Sheffield” on a Radio 5 Live phone-in was inappropriate in classifying football fans as being of “limited intelligence” and the game as being “played by morons, watched by cretins”, his point that fans would tolerate any level of price exploitation because they could not live without the game, was very relevant.

The game has become opium for the masses. They cannot do without it. It is part of a weekend routine for young, working and middle class people. There is almost a fear of missing out on something if they do not attend the match.

Fans have enormous power – if only they realised it

Yet without them, football is nothing. Empty stadiums and no atmosphere means less revenue for the club. Rarely has a great game been played in front of an empty stadium. The game and the crowd feed off each other.

Liverpool fans did something almost unprecedented when 10,000 of them walked out of Anfield to protest at ticket prices. There were 13 minutes remaining and Liverpool were 2-0 up – there followed a capitulation that ended with two Sunderland goals. If ever there was an argument for the impact supporters can have on the outcome of a game, perhaps this was it. Fair play to Liverpool’s often derided followers.

Football fans have incredible power – if they choose to exercise it. If you think about it, you have 40,000 people in one confined space – the size of a small town in England. If you had 40,000 people on a protest march, that would represent a significant body that can sway opinion in town halls. With a football match, this crowd is in an orderly zone and the collective voice could be quite frightening.

Equally, take 40,000 out of that zone and you left with a structure that could well be a multi-storey car park for all its architectural banality. People make the stadium. They make the game what it is – which is why attendances have been published in newspapers for decades. It is a critical part of the culture of football. They are part of the narrative.

Although the staunch allegiance that characterises the loyal fan is hard to shake off, football clubs have to realise that people still have a choice. It is, after all, almost 100% discretionary spending that drives football revenues. If ticket inflation continues in Britain, in an economy where inflation is negative, there is a chance clubs could price themselves out of the market – especially if the world enters another major economic recession.

Football should tailor its outgoings to meet its revenues, not increase the customer’s mandatory revenue stream (i.e. admission price) to meet outgoings. British football has untold riches from broadcasting and benefactors – perhaps some of that money can be redirected away from players’ wallets and used to ensure Association Football remains the Game of the People – affordable, accessible and value for money.


twitter: @gameofthepeople