Opinion Articles

Football Ticket Prices: Some Lessons from History

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From its earliest days, supporters have been central to the attraction of football. Of the many sports codified in the nineteenth century, only football developed into the type of mass spectacle that helped to define British popular culture in the twentieth. Recent concerns over tickets prices have reignited long-standing fears that the very constituency that made the game what it was might be priced out of it. But the history of ticket pricing in football is more complex than is normally assumed. Gate prices alone have never determined the changing fortunes of the game. Shifting trends in leisure and entertainment and people’s disposable income are vital in understanding the rise and fall of attendances.

From its beginnings in the 1880s, the Football League insisted on a minimum admission charge so as to prevent price competition between its clubs. This was important because a culture of fierce loyalties to a single team had yet to emerge. Fans often switched support between neighbouring clubs according to who was performing best and who the opposition was.

Even during its early history, football was not a sport that all could afford to attend. The standard price of a shilling was often raised for glamorous cup ties, leading supporters to complain that the working fan was in danger of being priced out. This was a particular problem where unemployment was at its worst between the wars, and a number of small professional clubs in south Wales and northern England collapsed as a result. In the larger industrial cities, however, attendances could be remarkably resilient to wider economic conditions, suggesting the strength of an attractive team’s appeal.

The minimum admission price rose to 1s 3d in 1946 and then 1s 9d in 1950 but this was more affordable than ever before and football benefited from higher rises in wages and an economy of full employment.  Attendances boomed, hitting 41.2 million in the Football League in 1948-9, compared with 27 million in the last pre-war season.  This owed much to the lack of alternative entertainments in these years of austerity but it was also a marker of how attendances were also determined by the fashions of the day and the rival demands on people’s disposable income.

That was further evident in the 1950s and 60s, as attendances plummeted in the face of rising disposable incomes, the allure of television, more comfortable homes, day trips in the car and perhaps a greater commitment to family time at the weekend. There were now, as one report on the future of the game noted, ‘alternative outlets for the money that more and more people have available’, acting as ‘a pull away from the conventional Saturday afternoon soccer match’.

Falling attendances put pressure on the game’s finances and in 1960 there was a further rise in minimum prices from the 2s introduced in 1955 to 2s 6d. Affluence was not universal and this rise seems to have contributed to falling attendances by pricing out some poorer fans. In 1960-61 the Football League attracted 3.9 million fewer spectators than it had the season before. Football was falling out of fashion.

The dynamics of the football market also changed in the 1960s. First division prices increased more than in the lower divisions and yet attendances at the top held up better. Thanks to television and motorways, a few clubs such as Manchester United began to attract fans from outside their natural catchment areas. In response, most fans became more tribal about supporting their local team.

Clubs were thus protected to some extent from the vagaries of the free market and the danger of losing fans to a neighbouring club that was doing better or charging less. But hooliganism and an expanding consumer culture was rendering football an increasingly marginal leisure pursuit. 1985-86, the season following the Heysel and Bradford disasters, saw aggregate attendances in the Football League reach a record low of 16.4 million.

Football’s subsequent recovery owed much to the new fashionability it gained with England’s success at the 1990 World Cup, declining hooliganism and the better stadiums ushered in after the Hillsborough disaster. Paying for stadium improvements was a considerable financial burden on clubs, despite the generous support available from the public purse via the Football Foundation. The money that television deals with Sky generated from 1992 onwards could have limited the costs passed on to fans but instead it was used to fuel a hyperinflation in player wages. This enabled the Premier League to attract many of the world’s best players, sheltering it from the impact of market prices by delivering a much better product to be watched in now more comfortable surroundings.

With top-level stadiums sold out, clubs became less and less concerned with controlling prices. Between 1989 and 1999, Premier League ticket prices rose by 312%, in a period when the retail price index increased by 54.8%. By 2008, the Premier League’s own research suggested that 75% of its match-attending fans were middle class (AB and C1). At Chelsea and Arsenal, two of the most expensive teams to watch, half of the fans were from social groups AB. By 2011, there were reports that at some clubs ticket prices had risen by 1000% in two decades.

Attendances remained strong but sociological studies highlighted warning signs for the game. A new culture of fandom was emerging, based around watching games on television in pubs. This was not only cheaper but some felt the atmosphere was better than actually being in the stadium, especially in grounds so large that the players were little more than matchstick men in the distance.

Football’s own history shows that it should not be assumed that the last twenty years of high attendances will last. People’s willingness to pay high ticket prices is dependent on whether football is fashionable and what other forms of entertainment are on offer. Although 12% of Premier League season ticket holders last season were children, a new generation is growing up that is as used to football as a television programme or video game as a live spectacle and they might not be as willing as their parents and grandparents to pay the prices demanded by parts of the Premier League. Crowds are younger than the wider population but the average age of adult fans who attend Premier League matches is 41.

The culture of fandom, where most people are committed to a single club and want to witness both its highs and lows as a badge of loyalty, has sheltered the game from normal market forces and last season Premier League grounds sold 96% of available tickets. Yet oral histories also show that some fans are willing to change clubs. They rarely ‘trade up’ but they do sometimes adopt a smaller team in search of not just cheaper entertainment but a less sanitised product than the glitzy spectacle that some feel the Premier League has become. This trickle could easily swell into a tide, especially if smaller clubs are better at realising and exploiting the opportunity that exists.

But a far bigger threat to the Premier League than empty seats is damage to its reputation. Since the late Victorian period, football clubs have claimed to represent their communities and to be more than just another commercial purveyor of entertainment. That has been largely true and the deep emotional commitment fans feel to their clubs, often based on family histories decades long, lies at the heart of the anger some feel at ticket prices. There are still large numbers willing to pay these prices but the more they feel exploited in doing so, the more they will vocalise their anger and that can only damage a brand that claims to value its supporters and what they contribute to its spectacle.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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