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Why the Premier League is in danger of losing its most valuable asset - the fans

While the Premier League's popularity increases every year, fans are bearing the brunt

Football without fans is nothing
Premier League ticket prices have reached a tipping point

Every time we switch on the television to watch the Premier League, we are greeted with the same rhetoric before kickoff of how crucial a match it is – be it a top of the table clash that decides the title or a relegation ‘six-pointer’ that could leave a club in dire straits. We are repeatedly reminded that the outcome is unpredictable – why the English Premier League is indeed the “best in the world”. 

There is no question about the competitive nature of the league. Although it has seen only five clubs lift the title in the last 23 years – three in the last decade – the manner in which teams regularly win and lose to opponents up and down the table gives the EPL a certain edge over the other top leagues in Europe. The atmosphere at the clubs’ stadiums and the highly successful marketing done by television channels only adds to the allure and reach across the globe.

However, while multi-billion pound television deals bring fans closer to the game, the ticket-buying fans – the ones who attend games on a regular basis – have been slowly alienated. A rise in ticket prices have, as one banner aptly put it, driven away the working class fans by charging them business class prices for matchday and season tickets. 

“Football started in the street with people building the club and coming from local places. You want people who live around the stadium to be capable to go to the game. They are fans basically because they were born there.” – Arsene Wenger

Clubs’ greed accentuated by EPL’s new TV deal

Last year, the Premier League announced that they had signed a record-breaking TV deal worth £8.3 billion. UK broadcasters Sky Sports and BT Sports paid more than £5 billion between them – a jaw-dropping 71% increase over the existing deal which ends this season.

The contract will run for the next three seasons between 2016 and 2019. To put things in perspective, the new deal is worth a little over £10m per game!

The TV rights deal predictably had a cascading effect. With money also coming in from overseas as television audiences grew, the price of everything went up. Unlike La Liga, the money earned from broadcasts is equally distributed among all 20 clubs in the EPL – a move that has seen even the smallest clubs compete with European bigwigs to sign targets which would otherwise have been out of their means.

Players’ wages will only increase as contracts are renewed while an already inflated transfer market (also due in part to a select few wealthy clubs) will see astronomic bids to convince clubs to sell their best talents. Smaller clubs will not be reduced to feeder clubs anymore, now armed with a war chest to pay similar wages as the top four clubs. 

Fans take matters into their own hands

With the new cash windfall, fans expected clubs to freeze ticket prices considering the amount of money coming into the club’s coffers. However, the clubs did not spare a thought and their moves to increase ticket prices backfired; spectacularly in the case of Liverpool.

The Anfield club’s decision to charge £77 for a ticket in their new stand next season saw their own fans stage a walkout in the 77th minute of an EPL match. Approximately 10,000 fans left their seats chanting “Enough is enough, you greedy bastards” and Liverpool promptly lost a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 with relegation-threatened Sunderland.

A couple of days later, a last-gasp extra-time winner saw West Ham eliminate them from the FA Cup. Liverpool’s owners eventually backed down after a ‘tumultuous week’ and released a statement to apologise apart from also freezing ticket prices until 2018.

Liverpool fans protest Anfield
No Liverpool fan wants to pay £77 for a ticket

Although the owners justified the move to increase ticket prices using their own investment into improving the club as an excuse, fans had a right to be aggrieved with the team stuck in limbo the past few seasons and hardly playing Champions League level football to pay such exorbitant prices. 

The same was the case with Arsenal. An e-mail was sent out to season ticket holders regarding a £18-30 surcharge on their ticket prices next season if they attended the Barcelona game in spite of the match falling under the cup credit scheme. The Gunners allow season ticket holders to watch seven cup ties but the club tried to cash in on the Barcelona game claiming it was a category ‘A’ fixture. 

The backlash was understandably swift and furious. The social media outcry was enough for the club to perform a U-turn and release a statement claiming they would have to “improve our supporters understanding of how the system works”. 

Should EPL clubs be blamed?

Last year, Bayern Munich fans held up a banner with the words 'Without fans, football is not worth a penny' when the contingent of travelling fans paid £64 to watch the Champions League group stage game at the Emirates. They even refused to take their seats for a few minutes to highlight the situation. The move even saw Arsenal fans applauding them.

Bayern Munich fans Arsenal Emirates banner
Bayern Munich fans protest the high ticket prices in England

German football fans are not used to shelling out so much money on tickets. Their most expensive season ticket is only £559. Arsenal’s cheapest is £1,014 – one of the highest in the country. But while Wenger agreed prices should be affordable, he refused to be drawn into comparisons with Bayern Munich.

“Bayern Munich paid one Euro for their ground whereas we paid £128m for our ground,” he explained. The Allianz Arena cost €340 million to build but €210m of that cost was incurred by the Munich city council and state government.

In contrast, the total cost of Emirates Stadium came up to £350m – all paid for by Arsenal. In this case, Wenger has a point. Many clubs in Italy and France do not own their stadiums and don’t even pay for its maintenance. Those who did build their own stadium (like Juventus) come nowhere close to the capacity of the Emirates. 

“A poor guy, maybe without work, we want him to be able to go and watch football. That is our obligation.” – Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge

While Bayern have long since paid off all stadium costs 15 years earlier than planned, the Gunners live in a state of "healthy debt" to finish paying off theirs. Arsenal reportedly have between £160m to £200m in the bank depending on which source you believe. So a season ticket surcharge of up to £30 would have seen them rake in around £800K in total.

Was it worth antagonising the fans and placing the burden on them over an amount that is less than a third of their income from gate receipts of a single match day? 

Wenger then justified the price hike in lieu of player transfers in the future. “You know as well that it is down to the pressure of the market to pay for the players with a higher price and our expenses will come up straight away to increase their wages.” Wenger opined.

This argument does not hold water. As most top clubs have shown, commercial deals and kit deals will always give the club a steady cash flow every season.

The recent list of richest clubs released by Deloitte also shows that all Premier League clubs appear in the list of top 30 highest revenue earning clubs in Europe (except those who were promoted prior to this season). The list is based on matchday revenue, commercial deals and earnings from television broadcast rights. So do they really need to empty the fans’ pockets every year?

Back in the 1990s, Premier League tickets were very much affordable and fans never felt the pinch. Today’s tickets, even if adjusted for inflation, still cost almost four times that. 

While there may be a long waiting list for season tickets in spite of the increase the prices, the true working class fans who sing their heart out every weekend will be priced out and the next generation will be left in the lurch. Clubs need to understand that while the EPL is a cash cow, the fans are not. 

For without fans, football is nothing. 

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