By Tony Attwood
Every season the media and their allies in the fundamentalist blogs and associated fan support groups make a fuss about ticket prices for matches. Sometimes Arsenal are singled out, sometimes the whole of the Premier League.
By and large the debate is pretty basic stuff made up of two points:
a) Premier League clubs earn lots of money from TV
b) Therefore they should make it cheaper to go into a game.
While this story gets run over and over again, strongly stoked up by the media who like simplistic tales without any complicated things in them like counter arguments and maths, the reason why the clubs don’t reduce prices are not normally run.
I thought of this particularly this morning after reading the various pieces in the press yesterday about tickets for Arsenal v Chelsea changing hands for £1000.
Now one might feel this is a typical journalistic exaggeration, except that I do remember being offered in all seriousness £750 for my upper tier ticket for Arsenal v Barcelona a few years back. The ticket cost me £49 (that is to say if I took the price of my season ticket and divided by the number of games, the cost was £49 per match).
Prices have gone up a bit since then and my ticket for Chelsea is about £51, worked out in the same way, but still I am not taking my £949 profit, but undoubtedly some will. Indeed almost certainly some will have bought a ticket just to sell it on.
So how do we balance these two closely related stories, which the protesting blogs and anti-Arsenal fundamentalists generally fail to bring together? Prices are too high, but people will pay them.
When I am not running Untold, I work in an advertising agency, and quite often I find myself needing to take my agency’s clients back to the very basics of selling, in order to show them how and why advertising works or fails. Selling, so the standard definition goes, is about having something people want at a price they are willing to pay. It’s simple enough, but easy to forget.
Now as far as I know, no football club has ever auctioned its tickets to the highest bidder, but in asking that they might hold their prices down we are asking the clubs to go against all normal market forces.
This argument is put forward on the grounds that whereas I might choose to buy, or not to buy, a Mars bar or a Mercedes sports car, I don’t choose my football club in the same way. I’m born into it. It’s emotion and heritage. And that’s a fair point.
But there is another factor, and it is one that was originally highlighted by Alan Sugar when in 1992 he was the only representative of the then “big five” (Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham) who voted in favour of Sky’s bid for Premier League television rights.
However in so voting he was also very much in favour of setting aside some of the huge amount (by standards of the day) that would be paid for live TV into a trust fund which was not to be paid out to the clubs. It was to be used for the development of football – what we would today call “grass roots”.
David Pleat recalled later that at the time Sugar said, at a League Club meeting, ‘Gentlemen, it doesn’t matter whether the television company gives us £3m or £33m, we’ll piss it up the wall on wages.’.”
Pleat added some years later, “I believe [Arsène] Wenger runs a football club like a football club should be run. There is a definite balance between what comes in and what comes out,” which was a courteous thing to say, and it makes the same point as Sugar did more recently when it called TV money “prune juice”. It goes in one end and comes out the other.
Everything stems from that early decision not to set up a major trust fund for the good of the game. Almost all of the money from TV goes to the clubs to spend how they want. The clubs and their fans demand not just success but success now (just look at the outpouring of bile against Arsène Wenger by Arsenal’s fundamentalist aaa supporters with their incessant and repetitive “fourth is not a trophy” campaign).
However we know that to win the league you need
a) a brilliant manager
b) a club that has the resources to attract the top players (ie a record of entering the Champions League, a big stadium and modern facilities)
c) money to outbid other clubs when it comes to buying players.
Now of course a) and b) do help reduce c), because a player will accept less in order to play for a club he wants to play for under a manager who he believes will develop his career. And Arsenal have benefitted from this.
But it is noticeable that the very same people who have criticised Wenger for being mean with Arsenal’s money and failing to bring in top players because he has never been willing to spend enough, are the people who complain about ticket prices.
It seems you can’t have both success and low ticket prices – unless of course you are partly owned (not sponsored by, but owned) by the likes of Adidas and Audi as Bayern Munich is. Indeed the German model suggests that perhaps, if Sugar’s plan had been accepted at the time we could have kept prices much lower, but that is quite different from reducing prices now. You’d need everyone to agree, and you’d need to get agreement from the state concerning anti-competition law.
If Arsenal cut their prices dramatically, on their own, they would not increase gate receipts because the ground is always full anyway.
Arsenal earn about £3.5m a match played at Stadium Wenger and cutting prices for tickets could reduce that from £93m a year to about £55m a year I guess, which would mean one or two fewer superstars per season joining the club.
The chances are the other clubs wouldn’t do this, so it would just be Arsenal.
Now since this lack of spending on players is, as I have said, what the fundamentalists complain about, I can’t see them being happy – not least because the move wouldn’t allow people who don’t have tickets now, into the stadium, and this is what I think the people who argue that it is not fair that they can’t afford to go to Arsenal.
If prices were reduced, people like me would still be buying their season tickets, and other people would still be buying tickets and selling them for much higher prices. I am not an aficionado of ticket touting, and like my pal Black Sheep am annoyed and outraged at the open way ticket touts prowl around Stadium Wenger before the games. But from what I gather, for most games, tickets from touts cost about two and six times what people like us pay for our tickets.
So let’s think this price reduction through.
Prices go down by half. The 40,000 season ticket holders get a bonus and just pay less each year. The silver and red members who buy individual games just pay less each year. No new people come to the games because of this, for as we know there are waiting lists for season tickets and silver memberships. So the people who were coming anyway are still coming, but paying less.
The people who benefit are the people who sell their tickets on for higher prices via the criminals who lurk around the ground, and about whom the police do so little.
That’s not really a priority for me.
Arsenal on this day, from the Anniversary Files…
15 April 1912: George Leavey resigned from the board of Woolwich Arsenal after 14 years with the club. Quite where his wealth came from (he ran a gentleman’s outfitters shop in Plumstead) has never been clear, but he was a major force in Arsenal’s survival until the arrival of Henry Norris.
15 April 2006: Arsenal nominated the home match v WBA match as “Dennis Bergkamp Day”. Dennis came on as a sub… and of course scored in the 89th minute! It was his last goal for Arsenal as Arsenal beat WBA 3-1 with the other goals coming from Hleb and Pires.