The Cost of Being a Football Fanatic

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE CAMBRIDGE GLOBALIST ON FEBRUARY 15th 2016

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f you had said the number seventy-seven to a fan of Liverpool Football Club at the beginning of the season, the odds are that their minds would have been taken back to the evening of May the 25th, 1977. That night in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, an up-and-coming Liverpool side cruised to a comfortable 3-1 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach to secure the European Cup for the first time and, in so doing, inaugurating a period of success in Europe that would continue well into the 80s. Forty years later, however, any positive connotation of the number seventy-seven has been lost. After a period of consultation with the management and members of the supporters club, Fenway Sports Group—the owners of Liverpool Football Club—announced their ticketing plan for the 2016-17 season. There, amongst the various figures that were contained within it, appeared the number seventy-seven: the price of the highest general admission tickets for a match at Anfield. Seventy-seven pounds.

What resulted was uproar. From the previous season’s high of fifty-nine pounds, the seventy-seven pounds pricing represented a 30% increase in cost. When confronted about this rise, the owners cited the need to begin repaying a £120m advance that had been given to the club by the Fenway  Sports Group in order to develop a new Main Stand for the club’s stadium. This did little to appease the supporters. At the home game against Sunderland on February the 6th, 10,000 fans vacated the stadium on the seventy-seventh minute in protest at the hikes in ticketing prices. At that point, Liverpool were comfortably beating their opponents 2-0. Conceding twice in the final ten minutes, the game eventually ended a draw. In a post-match interview, Liverpool’s head coach, Jürgen Klopp, was forthright in stating his own opinion: the raise in ticket price was not just a problem for the fans—it was now a problem for him too.

Whether it was these comments, the reality of the effect that the protest had, or a combination of the two, the owners of the club backtracked. In an open letter released on the 10th of February, they issued an unreserved apology to the supporters. Within the letter they made it clear that their motivations for the ticket price rise was not, as the fans suggested, the result of an inherent greed on their part. ‘[W]e have never taken a single penny out of the football club’ they assured the supporters. In fact, quite the opposite: ‘[W]e have injected vast sums of our own money to improve the playing squad and modernize LFC’s infrastructure.’ In spite of this, though, they were quick to admit ‘part of the ticketing plan we got wrong’. To correct this error, they proposed a number of revisions to the ticketing plan: a freezing of ticket prices at the previous season’s levels; a removal of any game categorisation so that ticket prices could not be lifted for big games; the freezing of the highest season ticket price and a slight lowering of the cheapest season ticket; the provision of reduced-cost tickets for 17-21 year olds; an allocation of 10,000 tickets priced at £9 to be offered across the season; 1,000 tickets to be given out to schools to be allotted to school children on merit.

The Liverpool Football Club walk-out is undoubtedly one of the most effective instances of protest in the history of football. Whilst is to the credit of the owners of the club that they listened to the supporters and took their concerns about the rising cost of football fandom seriously, they are lucky enough to be able to relax ticket prices, offsetting them against other forms of income. For many other teams in the football league, this sort of luxury cannot be afforded. It is only a matter of time, then, before such disputes become commonplace within the game as the fans seek to hold the owners to account. Already schemes such as the Twenty’s Plenty campaign run by the Footballer Supporters’ Federation are garnering unprecedented backing. It is becoming increasingly impossible for football clubs to ignore the financial cost that fanaticism has upon their supporters.  The question is: how can the beautiful game remain affordable in the face of the booming economic growth that football has undergone in recent years.

How did we get where we are?

Football was professionalised in Britain in 1885. In quick succession, a number of the larger clubs established themselves as limited companies so as to protect their directors and shareholders from financial liabilities. This opened up a new possibility within the footballing world: the potential to run a club for money rather than simply as a sporting organisation. Recognising this, the FA introduced a series of rulings in the 1890s designed to prevent these clubs from simply ignoring their social responsibility to the communities within which they had emerged. These rulings were gathered together within the FA’s rule book under the auspices of Rule 34 which stated, amongst other things, that the dividends paid out to shareholders were to be restricted to 7.5% of profits; that no director could be paid by the club or work for them directly; that any surplus from winding-up sales could not be redistributed to the shareholders but must be given to a sporting charity.

Beyond this, there was a recognition between the founder members of the Football League that a competitive balance should be maintained between the various teams of which it was composed and so two further laws were imposed in order to achieve this. In the first place, it was noted that a disproportionate income might jeopardise smaller clubs and so it was agreed that a slice of every gate receipt would be shared by the away team. Initially, this was set at a flat rate of £10 up until 1919 when it was settled at 20% of the gate. A second potential source of inequality was distinguished in the bargaining capacity of football’s labour market to drive up wages which would benefit the larger teams in the long run. To prevent this from happening, two further regulations were imposed: a wage cap—set at £10 per week—and a player licencing arrangement which stated that players could only leave a club by the clubs consent or in the eventuality that they were not offered a contract with terms comparable to their current one. As David Goldblatt would write in The Game of Our Lives, then, “the Edwardian football club was neither a business not a charity but a form of social enterprise-cum-civic association, collaborating and competing with other clubs in a complex set of sporting and business networks.”

As the history of football in Britain unfolded, these careful checks on clubs would be gradually eroded away to the point at which we find ourselves today. In 1961, with the help of Jimmy Hill, the Professional Footballers’ Association succeeded in removing the cap on players’ wages. The laws regarding the away team’s percentage of the gate receipt would be relaxed in 1983 but by this point, a leniency with respect to the profit-making capacity of directors and shareholders had already been achieved two years earlier. Irving Scholar, the then owner of Tottenham Hotspur, was devising more and more ingenious ways of legal and financial engineering which allowed him to maximise his chances of making a profit from the team and siphoning it off whenever it suited him.

The final nail in the coffin within which the vestigial remainders of the Edwardian model of responsible football ownership were finally laid to rest would come in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. The Taylor Report, commissioned in the wake of a number of stadium disasters and a growing problem of crowd violence, advocated the immediate improvement of the crumbling infrastructure upon which Britain’s footballing culture was dependent. The Major government emptied the coffers that had been filled with money from the pools and other forms of gambling, distributing £100m pounds around the clubs in the old First Division. This injection of cash would begin a project that would push British football into a drive for modernisation. Yet, to borrow from Goldblatt’s narrative once again, ‘Alongside the subsidized reconstruction of their grounds, clubs took the opportunity to start raising ticket price at considerably above the rate of inflation, not as a one-off price hike to fund the rest of the stadium reconstruction but as a central component of their business model.’

In the present day, football is an economic behemoth. Television revenues, sponsorship and advertising have multiplied the turnovers of the larger teams many times over. Player wages and the sums of money that teams are willing to spend buying players out of their contracts continue to increase exponentially with each season outdoing the one before it. One thing that remains unchanged, however, is the expectation of the fanbase—supporters continue to offer their loyalty to clubs as though they were still the civic institutions that gave predominantly working-class men a form of enjoyment in their otherwise dreary lives. Of course, the financial and social outlook of these fans has undoubtedly improved over the years. Yet there is only so much that they can accept in return from their unwavering allegiance. And as we have seen, when the clubs neglect their supporters for too long, then the supporters will take matters into their own hands.

Where to from here?

The story we have told so far is one of regulation and de-regulation—the careful balancing of competition in the wake of the professionalisation of the game followed by a slow de-regulation in the post-Thatcher period which has left us with a yawning chasm between the richest and the poorest clubs. It would be naïve to suggest that what is required now is a volte-face in an attempt to stem the tide of inequality within the modern form of the game. Football has changed irreconcilably and no amount of false reminiscence will bring us back to the past: the game continues to be about winning and, leaving aside the outlier that is Leicester City for the time being, the winning teams will continue to be the ones who follow the money to some extent. That said, any notion of change should not be ignored out of hand. What is needed is a creativity of thinking that offers solutions to the problem of rising ticketing prices from within the current context.

In the first place, the dismantling of the cap on players’ wages in 1961 continues to be the efficient cause of the rising cost of tickets within football. Regardless of the burgeoning turnovers that the football clubs are now commanding in the wake of television receipts, sponsorship deals, and brand marketing, the increase in players’ wages swallows up any profitability to which such ventures might seem aimed. This increase has undeniably emerged from the relaxing of any limit upon players’ wage: Where the ratio between the average wage of a first division player and that of a fourth division player was once 5 to 1 (£75,000 to £15,000), it now stands at 35 to 1 (£1.4m to £40,000). To put this into perspective, if Manchester United sold Wayne Rooney at the end of the season, they could use the money they saved on his annual wages alone to give a £10 subsidy for all 90,000 tickets that Old Trafford has available on a match day for all of their 19 home games. In other words, the gate receipts from Old Trafford each season only go so far as to pay the salaries of 4 or 5 of United’s highest earners.

Inevitably, any talk of the introduction of a wage cap at this point will be countered by claims that it will encourage a migration of players out East into the Chinese leagues. Such assertions are made on simply economic considerations though. For in spite of the monetary benefits offered in China, the prestige of Champions League football and Europe’s finest teams will retain their allure upon the games finest players. In light of this, a wage cap of, say, £250k per week might eventually bring down football club’s overheads in the long run without occasioning any long-term economic effects.

Beyond this, the players themselves could be encouraged to think about their own responsibility to the fans who fund their inflated wage bills. Many of the players who have retired from the game have gone on to start foundations in their own names that seek to use football as a means to help the underprivileged. Although many of these foundations have yet to focus upon the increasingly high cost of following a football team, there is a notable exception. Steven Naismith, a current Norwich City player, took it into his hands to help out unemployed Everton supporters, buying a number of season tickets and donating them to Jobcentres around Liverpool to be distributed amongst the jobless. In the light of the support that many of the ex-players have given for the walk-out at Liverpool, it may be the case that a wider organisation might be started which allows for ticket subsidies to be given out to those who struggle to afford them.

There are a myriad other ways in which careful thought can be put to the problem of rising ticket prices: the PFA themselves could be brought in to help raise funds for ticket subsidies; a tax could be levied on the agents who cream so much money from the football leagues (£129.9m last year alone); sponsorship could be brought  in on a game-by-game basis to reduce the cost of match-day tickets on any given day. However, as is increasingly the case in our late-capitalist society, such arguments will fall on deaf ears until they can become translated into material terms. In light of this, it is likely that fan protests similar to Liverpool’s will increase in the future.

Liverpool’s most famous manager, Bill Shankly, once quipped “At a football club, there’s a holy trinity—the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.” Shankly, though, lived in a different age. In the present day, a new holy trinity has emerged—the players, the managers and the directors. Supporters don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques. It is only once the cheques begin to dry up that the clubs will start to listen.

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