A young football fans’ first live match can be a defining experience. For me, it was love at first sight. Beckoned by the glare of the Anfield floodlights, on the 3rd of May 2000 I made the first of many pilgrimages down Anfield Road, amongst a sea of red-clad enthusiasts, and stood wide-eyed at the first glimpse of the illustrious stadium.
Walking in the footsteps of generations of Liverpool fans who came before me, the gift of the match day experience was passed down to my eight-year-old self, as I prepared to witness the heroes that adorned my bedroom walls for the first time. While those previous generations of Kopites likely enjoyed comprehensive victories in the 70s and 80s, the Liverpool of 2000 provided me with my first footballing disappointment, succumbing to a Muzzy Izzet inspired 2-0 defeat to Leicester City. In spite of the defeat, the evening had not been soured, and I left through the famous Shankly gates having experienced football in its most authentic form for the first time – an experience that Sky Sports cameras can never truly replicate.
Fifteen years, and countless Liverpool-centric disappointments later, my love of the match day experience remains as fresh as that May evening in 2000. Unfortunately, I now mostly partake in my passion from an armchair rather than the Kop due to the significant rise in the cost of football. According to the BBCs Price of Football study, the ticket, programme and shirt that I acquired as an eight-year-old would now cost a whopping £107.89, making the prospect of passing down the match day experience to the next generation an extremely costly one. With Premier League clubs now generating 54% of their revenue from broadcast deals, and 27% from commercial ventures, clubs no longer rely on gate receipts to fuel their existence, which has many scratching their heads at the cost of attending football matches. Football appears to have ripped itself from its working-class roots, leading to fractious relationships between clubs and fans. The game that my eight-year-old self fell in love with is running headfirst towards commercialisation, kicking its dust in the face of the fans who struggle to keep up.
The Premier League announced in February 2015 that it had secured a record £5.16 billion domestic broadcasting deal, a 70% increase on the previous deal, unsurprisingly causing concern as to how the money would be distributed. As the extra revenue from the bumper deal equated to £46 for every fan at every game, the Premier League found themselves under intense pressure to use its sizable income to appease the disgruntled fans, with ex-pros such as Jamie Carragher clamouring for ticket prices to be cut. Although the head of the Premier League Richard Scudamore appeared reluctant, insisting the Premier League was “not a charity” there has undeniably been marked progress as 70% of tickets have had their prices frozen, and 18.09% reduced, signifying that the fans pleas for change are being heard. While this is a welcome reaction, relationships between fans and clubs continue to widen, leading to increased fan activism and protest movements.
A particularly prominent movement surrounds the ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign spearheaded by the Football Supporters Federation, which proposes a cap of £20 on away tickets. Liam Thompson, the communications officer for the FSF, advises that taking care of the fans is beneficial to the Premier League as “those £5.5bn+ media deals would take a tumble if the stands were empty“. “Dedicated campaigning on ticket prices has had an impact” he continues “ticket prices have been inflating rapidly, but they’ve started to stabilise now”. The campaign has been met with vociferous support, as a nationwide protest took place in October of last year, with terraces up and down the country emblazoned with the ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ slogan in solidarity.
While Thompson acknowledged that football clubs are now businesses, he counters that “We cannot pretend that they’re normal businesses. They are part of the community and we want this to be reflected in how they operate & deal with their supporters“. The ‘Twenty’s Plenty‘ model is an appealing one, having saved fans of compliant clubs £342,000 in its maiden year. The Premier League certainly cannot ignore it if it wishes to keep hold of one of its crown jewels – the vibrant atmosphere created by fans.
For Chris Pajak, co-creator of fan channel The Redmen TV and season ticket holder at Anfield, one of English football’s most recognisable stadiums has seen its famous atmosphere erode as ticket prices increase, saying that “over the years the atmosphere has got worse at Anfield. The working man/woman roots of the club are being slowly moved away from for a more affluent spectator”.
He sees the governing bodies as having an obligation to protect the fans as “people are so entrenched in going to the footy that they will destitute themselves and run up a debt just to be able to follow their team. The clubs and the FA should have a responsibility to ensure that this doesn’t happen,” a sentiment shared by many who are campaigning for a fairer run game. He goes on to posit a grim future for the sport where “most working class fans will have to give their hard earned money to TV broadcasters to watch their team play while the clubs continue to fill their ground with fair weather and corporate fans,” but offers that “setting a reasonable maximum ticket price would be a good start” towards reclaiming English football’s renowned atmospheres.
Whether the authorities decide to pull the trigger on a sensible cap remains to be seen. As conveyed by the Spirit of Shankly led the boycott of Liverpool’s away game at Hull City during the 14/15 season, though, many fans are reaching breaking point.
The creation of the Away Supporters Initiative, which provides clubs with £200,000 each per season to subsidise away fans attempts to recapture dwindling away attendances, which had fallen by 10%. As is often the case, this hasn’t trickled down to the Football League, as Simon Sadler of the Newport County AFC Trust warns that “the cost of away tickets and travel prohibits fans from taking their children & the risk is that clubs don’t look to the future enough,” insisting that “we need to drive initiatives to lower the average age of our regular supporters“. This rings true of most clubs, and the concern is that the next generation may only recognise the beautiful game as what they see on their television screens, which would certainly signal the death knell for football as we know it.
The burying of the match day may be premature, however, with recent reports suggesting record attendances at Premier League grounds in spite of the uproar surrounding ticket prices. The underlying tensions are not necessarily resulting in outright protest or boycott, and with top flight clubs such as Stoke City recording 97% occupancy at home games, as well as announcing initiatives such as £8.70 tickets for under 17s, it could be suggested that regular attendance is attainable. Perhaps all is not lost at the top of the game after all.
In spite of the high attendance figures, the frustrations persist. A common stick used to beat the Premier League with is the disparity between itself and ticket prices in the Bundesliga. It is indeed a baffling state of affairs when the cheapest season ticket in English football – £120 at lowly Eastleigh – is more expensive than one at German champions Bayern Munich. Even more galling are the results of the GoEuro football price index, which ranked English football at 4th for value for money, with German football topping the value table.
Graham Thomas of FC Bayern Worldwide, who rose to prominence in the wake of the high-profile protest at the Emirates stadium last year, explained that “Bayern and Dortmund could charge more, but clubs tend to be more under control of fans due to the 50+1 rule,” which insists that the club’s members have a majority stake in the club, warding off external investors and ensuring that the club is run honestly. With many dissatisfied fans heading to non-league to get their football fix, as evidenced by a 250% increase in attendance at non-league Dulwich Hamlet FC, likely boosted by supporters of Manchester City and others taken an interest in the club, the introduction of a similar ruling would surely be welcomed with open arms at fan level.
Some exasperated fans have opted to focus their support elsewhere, with fan-owned clubs such as Wrexham allowing supporters to feel connected to their club in an organic way, and as though their support and contribution is valued. There is a tendency at the top level of the game for owners to treat fans as customers, and this defection to lower league football is a rejection of the soulless business that football is in danger of becoming. It could be argued that only a full boycott would force the moneymen at the top to take notice. While the attendance figures suggest contentment, as long as the majority are willing to pay exorbitant prices & fill stadiums the owners will continue to line their pockets at the fans expense. Simon Sadler reiterates this point, proposing that “the saving grace might be that TV companies won’t want to show games at empty grounds, which could be the breaking point in the model“. While boycott remains the “nuclear option” to the FSF, fan connections with top-tier football are clearly in a state of emergency.
The Premier League may point to a 96% ground occupancy rate as proof that English football is alive and kicking, but there remains a lingering frustration from fans who want a return to the game those before them enjoyed. The wonderment I felt as an eight-year-old at Anfield is what groups such as the FSF serve to protect, and while changes are being made, it is evident that they are a mere drop in the ocean. As the Bayern Munich fans held aloft for the world to see at the Emirates, ‘without fans football is not worth a penny’.