How the Premier League can claw back its lost generation of fans
In the future, terracing might offer a solution to over-priced tickets for younger fans, writes BBC Sport’s Alistair Magowan.
Passionate Gunners fans show their support for ‘the Arsenal’ during the first leg Champions League tie against Bayern Munich at the Emirates Stadium on February 19.
If you have a place to stay in Munich or are prepared to party all night, you could have bought a return flight to Arsenal’s Champions League game this week and a ticket at the Allianz Arena for less than a seat at Emirates Stadium two weeks ago.
Such is the discrepancy between the English and German legs of this tie that the most expensive home ticket at the Gunners, trophyless for almost nine years, was £124 whereas its equivalent at Bayern Munich, the German and European champions, is £43.
The overcharging of English football fans is not new to Malcom Clarke, the chairman of the Football Supporters Federation. He says the Premier League has a “lot to learn” from the Bundesliga where supporters are the majority owners of each club and keep their ticket prices low despite significantly less TV income.
Clarke says: “The current Premier League TV deal [£5.5bn over the next three seasons] means that clubs could let in fans for free all season and still make more than they did last season.”
In contrast to their German counterparts, English football fans have little sway over club owners.
Some clubs have acknowledged rising costs by freezing season tickets this season. BBC Sport’s price of football survey found that, after an average 5% drop in Football League attendances, average season ticket prices had decreased by 2.4% across English football’s top four divisions.
But last season, despite the average cost of the cheapest Premier League season ticket rising slightly to £489, there was 95% capacity in stadiums. So is this really a problem?
Well, yes, according to Clarke. The average age of a Premier League supporter is now 41 years old and there is a danger a younger generation could be priced out of going to football matches, preferring the comfort and affordability of the pub over the stadium.
This could affect a club’s longer-term revenue and is a problem Stoke chairman Peter Coates is aware of. He says: “We have one of the youngest supporter profiles of any Premier League club and that’s something we have worked on because they are the future.”
There are attempts by other Premier League clubs to try and encourage younger fans back to the ground, and a £12m grant has helped away supporters’ costs, but with unemployment hitting the 16-24 market hardest in the UK, there is a fear it is not enough.
The interesting aspect of this debate is that it comes at a similar time to the potential re-introduction of safe terracing. A recent Mail on Sunday survey said 19 of 20 Premier League clubs would be willing to discuss proposals.
And if clubs were willing, they could try and conquer two problems with one solution.
A quick calculation shows that if 2,000 seats in each Premier League ground were offered to young adults at £20 rather than £40, it would cost a club £760,000 over the course of one season.
With the bottom club in this season’s Premier League set to earn £60m in TV revenue, as much as champions Manchester United pocketed last term, it amounts to 1.3% of that income and if it brings in new custom, the club stands to gain in the long term.
One recent report also suggested it costs £100 to convert seats to “rail seat” standing, where a steel bar is installed, allowing supporters to lean on them. So the same 2,000 seats could be transformed for £200,000.
The terracing debate is an emotive one, and many clubs have spent millions of pounds on purpose-built stadia. But if they are willing to increase prices at the same time as making grounds safer and more diverse, then perhaps they can redistribute some of their newly-acquired funds while using this as an opportunity to address gaps in their future market.
Coates says he is not against safe standing in principle, but believes clubs would be unwilling to spend money on converting seats unless it was part of a new-build stand or stadium.
“Having changed to all-seater stadiums as part of the Taylor Report, to knock them down again and start again, I don’t see how the costs would make it an attractive proposal,” he said.
But League Two AFC Wimbledon, who are one of four supporter-owned professional clubs in England and therefore closest to the German Bundesliga model, say they can offer cheaper season tickets because two of the stands at their ground are terraced.
This traditional and sought-after combination might also solve the problem of subdued atmospheres in some of the Premier League’s bigger grounds.
Manchester United have already taken steps to try and improve noise levels inside Old Trafford by successfully trialling ‘singing sections’ at recent Champions League and Premier League games. It is no coincidence that fans in these areas spent the whole game stood up.
The importance of buoyant crowds and travelling support is crucial to the long-term health of the game, says Clarke, who cites the FSF’s current campaign to keep Premier League away tickets at £20 each. “Clubs are finally waking up,” he adds. “If teams play in empty stadiums, TV executives are put off and it might affect future TV deals, so it is in their interest.
“But there is a still a complacency from club owners and it is a danger to them; there is an assumption that the media rights will continue to rise.”
So long as they do, an open goal remains to offer a route back in for younger fans while helping secure a club’s long-term future. Even those with completed stadiums, such as Arsenal, are willing to join the discussion about terracing.
If the Gunners go that far, the Emirates could yet rid its tag as the most expensive place to watch club football.