Eight billion pounds. Eight thousand million pounds using today’s financial vernacular. Take a moment to think about that sum. The cost of almost 133,000 new social houses. Enough cash to pay the annual salary of 96,000 hospital doctors. The price of providing 15 hours a week of childcare for every child over the next eight years.
Or, alternatively, the amount raked in by the Premier League for the next three years of domestic and international TV rights.
The recent announcement by Liverpool FC that they would increase the top ticket prices at Anfield to £77- and their subsequent climbdown after approximately ten thousand supporters walked out of their match against Sunderland in protest- has brought football pricing back into the spotlight and been the subject of a large number of articles in print and online over the last couple of weeks, highlighting once more the excellent work of the Football Supporters Federation in lobbying clubs to reduce prices for away fans as well as stimulating debate over what constitutes a fair price to watch football in 2016. But what has been the result? The issue became big news for a short time, and then died away with little change; indeed, the Premier League voted against an away ticket price cap only two days prior to the protest, and there has been little sign of a u-turn despite the adverse publicity.
The biggest surprise is perhaps that we, as supporters, still have the capacity to be both shocked and enraged by the situation. The insatiable appetite for rolling sports news will continue to provide airtime for the views of Frustrated of Finsbury Park, Furious of Fulham Broadway and even Bellicose of the Boleyn Ground, but to what end? Our outrage should perhaps be tempered by the fact that the phenomenon is entirely our own fault.
Loyalty amongst our exorbitantly rewarded players is highly prized by supporters. The reason for that emotional connection is fairly straight forward; the attitude of the long serving player is taken to be reflective of ours. It reinforces our views about the importance of our football clubs, and helps us believe that our favourite players, like us, have an emotional connection to them, and, in turn, to us. The difference between us and the player tends in most cases to be rather marked, however. Our relationship with our club is entirely emotional. Theirs is financial. We choose to continue to provide that finance no matter how many price increases are thrust upon us, no matter how many players profess loyalty shortly before being photographed wearing a rivals shirt, no matter how we feel about the way we are treated as away fans, the over the top security, the dry trains, designated pubs and ‘kettling.’ We agree to pay membership fees every year just to be allowed to purchase expensive tickets and we agree to often be treated like criminals just because we want to watch football. We pay our every increasing Sky and BT Sport subscriptions then moan when they move our matches to ridiculous times at short notice. We effectively acquiesce in our own exploitation.
Premier League income is, as we all know, greater than ever before. No fewer than eight of our clubs now appear in the Forbes list of the top twenty global earners. The clubs could choose to significantly reduce prices to show appreciation to supporters for purchasing the match tickets, TV subscriptions, merchandise or food that underpins that income, but with a few notable exceptions they do not. They simply tell us how important we are to them whilst continuing to turn us upside down, shake us and then take whatever falls out of our pockets. They do that because they can. They know that, unlike in any other business, we aren’t simply customers. They know that we won’t abandon what in many cases is a lifetime of loyalty, and that however we moan and gripe we’ll still come back. So what if we walk out before a game has finished? It might not look good on TV but hey, they’ve already got our money, they’ll get it next week too, and the bad publicity will be forgotten about the next time a reality TV star says something outrageous and attention moves elsewhere.
The Football Supporters Federation are speaking to representatives of supporters groups across the country in an attempt to coordinate further protests, and that is admirable, but we have to ask ourselves what good future walkouts will achieve. Yet we do have a chance to make a significant difference; a chance to send a message to our clubs whilst still enjoying our football, a chance to have an influence whilst saving money and doing some good. What is required is not a walkout, but a boycott.
Sometimes it might be difficult to believe, but there is life outside the Premier League. Some of it struggles to get by. Only around 5% of top flight income drifts down towards the grassroots game, and whilst there may be some who argue that this is just economics, without investment and support the likelihood of the Non League game producing the next Jamie Vardy, Charlie Austin, Stuart Pearce, Ian Wright or Chris Waddle is severely restricted.
Walkouts are difficult to organise and have a very limited effect. But what about a campaign to boycott Premier League home matches for a weekend and instead support the grassroots game? The likes of West Ham United (top priced ticket £95), Arsenal (£97), Tottenham (£81), Chelsea (£87), Manchester United and City (£58) would certainly notice the impact of twenty thousand supporters not showing up. They’d notice it not only in the short term damage to their income stream, but in the impact on the atmosphere, the ninety minutes with empty seats being beamed across the world, and the realisation that their supporters do indeed have a choice. We could be sure that the corporate sponsors and those international TV companies would notice too, and have an opinion.
Whilst voting with our feet we could be watching a match at Enfield Town, Hendon, Hampton and Richmond, Salford, South Liverpool, Droylsden, Bishop Auckland or Bromsgrove. For the cost of the lowest price Premier League ticket we could search out our local Non League side, pay admission, buy a programme, have a drink and a burger and still have change. We’ll be welcomed, not subject to over the top policing and security, be allowed to drink a pint whilst watching the match, and appreciated for coming. And more than that, if a large number of Premier League fans actually spend a Saturday protesting whilst watching the grassroots game, they’ll be providing many clubs with enough income to significantly improve their financial security for a long time to come.
Protest is necessary if change is to be achieved. But it has to be the right protest. A Premier League walkout will be big news for a small time. But a Premier League boycott with a Non League twist would not only send the message loud and clear whilst hitting the clubs in the only place they really feel pain, but would also send a moral message about the need to support the grassroots game whilst making a positive difference.
Perhaps that’s something that the Football Supporters Federation- and supporters representatives- could consider during their discussions.
Published on in National.