x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Football and ticketing: Counting the cost of putting fans last

Television rights and clubs' priorities mean it is the supporters – particularly the travelling ones – who are paying the price at matches, writes Andy Mitten.

Fans hold a banner in the stands relating to the price of tickets during the Barclays Premier League match at The Emirates Stadium, London.
Fans hold a banner in the stands relating to the price of tickets during the Barclays Premier League match at The Emirates Stadium, London.

Barcelona charged €14 (Dh69) for a ticket behind the goal for their Copa del Rey quarter-final against Spain's fourth-best team, Malaga, last month. After advancing to the semi-finals with some difficulty, they charged almost nine times that figure for the semi-final against Real Madrid later this month. A €14 seat became €119 on the third tier behind the goals.

I know, because I bought my father one, a chance for him to see the clasico for the first time. He booked time off work, I reserved him flights. Then Barcelona changed the date of the game, meaning my father will go to Spain, but he will not see the game.

Fans are seldom at the top of the agenda in Spanish football. Kick-off times are changed up to 10 days before kick-off and played at unpopular times to suit the television audience.

Barcelona kicked off at midday last week for the first time in 47 years. It is a time many fans are either at church or still just rising, given that Spain stays up late on Saturday night.

Not for nothing are games not usually played in Spain's midday sun, but when football started agreeing to huge television deals, Sir Alex Ferguson said: "When you shake hands with the devil, you have to pay the price. Television is god at the moment."

Smaller Spanish teams play late on Friday and Monday night, moves which deplete attendances and lead to protest, yet every game is now televised, often globally.

You can sit in a cafe in Brazil, Belgium or the UAE and watch wall-to-wall coverage of English and Spanish football, game after game through most weekends. The armchair supporters are not affected by ticket prices at the stadium, but they are sold on the spectacle of full venues.

As in other forms of entertainment, Barcelona are reacting to the market. They do not charge their season-ticket holders anything like €119 for a seat - it is more than €19, but if you are a fan who wants to watch a one-off big match, then you will pay for the privilege.

The Malaga game saw 55,151 attend. The Madrid game, despite being played at 10pm midweek in February, sold all 98,000 seats within a day.

There were few complaints about the high prices in Spain because the regular match-goers do not pay them. If football tourists want to pick a glamour game or a match that is in high demand, then the fans who go every week have no problem with them getting stung for the privilege.

The problem comes with away fans, especially fans from other European countries.

Away followings in Spain are small and limited to a few exiled supporters or tourists, the culture and size of the country sees to that. A Barcelona fan from Catalonia who wanted to see his team at Malaga in the second leg faced a seven-hour high-speed train journey, an 11-hour drive or a 90-minute flight. Fewer than 50 made the trip.

Yet when Manchester United played in Madrid on Wednesday, 5,000 travelled from England. They paid an average of €80 for the worst seats on the top tiers of the towering Bernabeu. Last season, United fans paid €91 for seats at Athletic Bilbao, the most expensive away seats in the club's history for a non-final match.

Spanish clubs argue that it is the same, but away fans are not the same. Why would a Manchester United fan watch every Athletic Bilbao game in person?

There is a similar problem in England, where many clubs also categorise their matches according to opponents. A Fulham fan would have paid £60 (Dh344) for a seat in the Riverside Stand for last week's game against United, £40 for the same seat against Stoke City in two weeks. Fulham can defend it, but it is harder to justify the £55 they charged United fans and fans of other "Category A" clubs when they will charge Stoke fans £20 less.

In their new status as champions, Manchester City have become a Category A team and their fans have hit out at the prices they are being asked to pay, most publicly with the £62 tickets at Arsenal recently.

City returned nearly one-third of their 3,000 allocation unsold. Of the fans who did attend, two fans held up a banner stating "£62, When will it end?" until it was confiscated. Liverpool fans at the same stadium recently held up a banner stating: "Football without fans is nothing."

Liverpool, like United, are more popular and if fans do not take the tickets, the international tourist market which exists around their games in the capital means all tickets are sold even at the higher prices.

Yet it is those high prices which have depleted away followings at Old Trafford in the last three years. Fulham took just 320 fans last March from a possible allocation of 3,000 and only four clubs sold out of their allocation at Old Trafford last season.

A trip to England's biggest stadium was once a highlight of the season, at least until the game started. The away fan is becoming an endangered species at some clubs.

Travelling fans are rightly angered, they have put tribal rivalries aside, come together and held meetings, most recently in Manchester and London. A campaign called "Twenty's Plenty" was launched by the Football Supporters' Federation (FSF), with the aim of capping prices.

Given that Tottenham Hotspur were charging more than £26 for away fans as long ago as 1995, it may seem like a big ask.

The FSF point out that Premier League clubs could cut the cost of every ticket by £32 with the upcoming increase in TV money - not that clubs will use the money to complement such measures.

Fans complaining about prices is nothing new in English football, but they are finding a more sympathetic ear than they expected from football's authorities - though it is the clubs who set ticket prices. Away fans provide much of the atmosphere on which the Premier League sells their product globally, which the clubs sell to sponsors.

Ticket revenues, which once accounted for 90 per cent of all takings at clubs, are now one of three main streams of income behind booming television and commercial revenues at some clubs.

There is influence from the British government too, which issued a report in January, criticising football for failing to implement changes, with the report's chairman John Whittingdale MP stating: "Much greater reform is needed to make the game inclusive, sustainable and driven from the grassroots, where it should be."

If clubs continue to ratchet up the prices, then away ends will empty or be full of tourists who add nothing to the spectacle. Just like in Spain.