After years of coughing up whatever it cost to watch Preston, Gavin Willacy has had enough. Or rather, too much, as ticket prices spiral beyond common sense
Last August Bank Holiday was a pivotal day for me as a football fan. For the first time, I decided against going to watch my team, Preston, solely because of the ticket price. We were away at Ipswich – a relatively local game for me, living in Hertford – and I was away on holiday when we won down the road at Watford on opening day. So surely I would go to Portman Road? Not with tickets at £25 a pop (plus an extra two quid on the day!), especially as it was live on Sky. Instead I watched it in a pub and celebrated our astonishing 4-0 win with friends at a barbecue.
Having earned something like the national average wage for most of my 12-year working life, I must be a fair barometer of ticket price affordability. Granted, there are no children in the equation but my wife is now almost as fanatical about North End as me, and while the drunken train journeys – or “field trips” as my mate charmingly calls them – have been mainly replaced by dignified drives to PNE games via country pubs, the cost of going has become restrictive.
The price of tickets in the Championship this season has blown my mind. Preston, like most others, have quietly nudged the price up by a pound a year – always way over inflation – and now it’s another £2 if you pay on the gate. Elsewhere, the cost has spiralled. Based on what casual attendants or away fans are charged on the day, the average price for the cheapest seat in this division is now more than 20 quid (see table below).
A pattern has emerged. Those clubs recently relegated from the Premiership continue to charge top-flight prices either because they are a) in financial difficulties or b) think they might get away with fooling the public into thinking they are still a big-time club for another season. Or both. Ladies and gentlemen I give you £25 to watch lowly Derby, £26 to laugh at Southampton, £24 to contort yourself into seats built for dwarves in the shoebox that is Loftus Road.
Nowhere would you get enough change from a £20 note to buy a programme – even they are moving out of my price range. But what about lower down the pyramid? Arguably, you get even worse value: League One Swindon, looking doomed on and off the pitch, charge visitors £23 to sit and watch basement- standard tosh; it’s £16 at Oxford’s new ground and £15 at Darlington’s; even in the Conference it is £13 at Stevenage and £11 at Morecambe. Part-time football is more affordable, but is no one else wondering how Conference South club St Albans City dare charge £9 to stand on a terrace and pee against an open wall?
And yet attendances continue to grow across the board. But surely there are thousands more fans like me who are now being priced out of the game? In his post-Hillsborough report, Lord Justice Taylor set a “fair price” for football of £6 at top-flight matches, which is £11 now taking inflation into account. Try getting into St James’ Park or Old Trafford for that. Of course, most stadiums have been hugely improved, some of the world’s best players now grace our top flight and we live in one of the world’s most expensive countries. But still the cost of English football compares unfavourably with similar economies and facilities. Most tickets in the Spanish Primera Liga are around the £24 mark. Bayern Munich tickets start at £15, while Borussia Dortmund and Juventus charge from just €10 – that’s about £6.80, less than a lot of non-League clubs here [see Web Review page 40].
In the United States, NFL tickets are as expensive and difficult to acquire at most clubs as Premiership briefs, but I saw Jacksonville Jaguars last year for about £25 and Arizona Cardinals will practically pay you to go to watch them. The ludicrously rich may spend £2,000 on a courtside seat at an NBA game, but you can also get in for $10 (£5.70) at Miami Heat. Baseball nuts could go to a Major League game every night of the week for less than it costs to watch West Brom from the East Stand at Stamford Bridge.
One of the cheapest Premiership grounds to visit is the JJB Stadium. Wigan Athletic, understandably reluctant to price out any of their small band of loyal supporters and desperate to attract new ones, are charging just £17 for most top-flight fixtures. Under-11s go in for a fiver and under-16s a tenner. That is how to price a football match. The Latics, like many clubs, price games depending on the opposition, with a £5 surcharge when the big boys come to town. Bizarrely, that includes the late-season appearances of Aston Villa and West Ham, but not Portsmouth on the last day. Tottenham’s visit on a Saturday in November was considered worthy of the knock-down price.
Wigan are clearly taking into account the local economy. Rugby league, which draws the majority of its fans from the working class, seems relatively cheap compared to football. To see Brian Carney and co in Super League action at the JJB last year cost £13 to £17 and those reasonable prices are not confined to the north. You could stand in the open at London Broncos for £12 or sit under cover for £15. The typically more affluent rugby union fan has to pay more. Pre-booked tickets at the Stockport-based Sale Sharks start at £17 and rise as high as £40.
It is that breadth of prices – or “ticket price elasticity” – that so many football clubs lack. Charging next to nothing for kids is obvious, but not as widespread as you may imagine. It’s £3 for under-16s at Brentford, £6.50 at Preston, £10.50 for members at Old Trafford. But anyone wishing to take a child to see Spurs against the big four (and Newcastle or West Ham) has to enrol them as a family member then pay at least £18 on top of the £38 they have splashed out for their own “cheap seat”. And how many 13- to 19-year-olds are paying £19 to watch Southampton lurch from one apathetic display to another?
Tottenham exploit their market to the max: tickets for “Category C” games start at £26, but prices soar to £70 for the visits of the big boys. Manchester United sell some tickets to members at just £21, with the highest price for guests being £41 (not that most people can get their hands on one). And by seating away fans in an upper corner, they can charge them ten quid more than their own fans behind the goal. Chelsea pulled off similar stunts – until this season all away fans were down the touchline and thus charged a basic £48. To watch their team lose. Reprehensibly, the away fans are now housed in what is left of the Shed. Shame on you, Peter Kenyon.
The ideal is a much wider range of prices to cater for all and an increase in multi-ticket deals. For instance, it was only £20 for two adults and two children to see Worcester’s FA Cup clash with Huddersfield: what other entertainment can you get for a fiver each these days? (No, don’t tell me.) Of course, it’s all supply and demand now and clubs would argue that cheap tickets are not justified in modern stadiums where every seat has an unobstructed view: stuff any social obligation or community role, forget tradition and ignore the future.
Now I will pick and choose my games. I wanted to visit Highbury one last time so took advantage of Arsenal’s sensible Carling Cup pricing strategy to see their second string beat Reading for a tenner. A Liverpool-supporting mate rarely gets his hands on a Premiership ticket but goes to plenty of midweek cup games – even those oft magical European Cup nights at Anfield – because season-ticket holders don’t bother and tickets are plentiful. Liverpool charged a mere tenner to see the early rounds of their Champions League defence. But you need to be on the ball and/or on the internet to snare a bargain.
Fans on low incomes are getting out of the habit of attending and even affluent acquaintances no longer consider “going to the match” as part of their social life, assuming tickets are either unavailable or unjustifiably priced. Chelsea have resorted to advertising some games to shift unsold tickets, while Arsenal had tickets for their Carling Cup semi-final with Wigan still available a few days beforehand despite being priced at just £20, compared to the usual £30 to £54 for the Premiership. Only 12,000 turned up for the first leg at the JJB, despite it being just £15 or £20. One-off cheap tickets do not guarantee a big crowd, unless it’s a fiver or you’re Sunderland.
If you have decided to spend £400 a year on Sky Sports instead of going, sit back, relax and be glad you weren’t one of the 22,400 who paid between £30 and £50 to watch Palace play Brighton in October. Now, shall I bother paying £25 to go to see North End get beaten at Reading yet again? Nah, don’t be daft.
Championship ticket prices
Cheapest available (excluding special offers)
Crystal Palace ~£30/20*
Sheffield Utd ~£21
Coventry ~ £21
Luton ~ £20.50**
Watford ~ £20
Preston ~ £20
Cardiff ~ £20++
Stoke ~ £19
Sheffield Wed ~ £18
Crewe ~ £18
Burnley ~ £18
/ shows match category, A/B/C prices
* £25 away fans
+ £20.50 away fans
** £14.50 restricted view home fans only
++ £18 for standing
From WSC 229 March 2006. What was happening this month