Michel Platini’s plans for financial “fair play” in European football has garnered great debate over the past year or two, and I won’t say much more on that. But it has struck me that there might be an unwelcome consequence of these plans that wasn’t part of his remit.
Regarding ticket prices, Manchester City’s owners could have done something wonderful. They could have provided cheap tickets to all, filled the ground every week and brought back those that have been priced out of the modern game. I’m not saying they would have done, but they could have done, and having already put in place many positive changes to the match day experience, they may have done. And why? Well, they own the club not for profit, but to expand their “profile”. Ideally a club pays for itself, but I doubt City’s owners would have lost much sleep if City had continued to run at a loss.
Either way, we’ll never know. Because now, thanks to Platini, City, like every club will be looking at maximising income, in every possible way. Most clubs do anyway of course, but a wealthy owner, for all the criticism they receive, removed the need to generate every penny they spend. You might think this is how it should be morally, but in the end it will be the fans that pay the biggest price, as always. Because while City would always have looked to expand globally anyway, and sought out the biggest commercial deals they could possibly get, it is only natural that they now look to the fans as well for even more income. While income from tickets is but a small slice of how clubs generate money, it is an important slice nevertheless.
Not that all Premiership teams are definitely going to put up their prices. Last week, Everton announced a freeze on ticket prices for next season, a surprising move for a club in a perilous financial position. My season ticket has only gone up £40 over the past five years, following City’s own recent price freeze. The changes are creeping in at City though – the owners are pushing their marketing towards children and executives. So while the children still get in cheap and the whole of the north stand has been adapted to suit their needs, around the middle tier the fancy executive areas are beginning to spread outwards towards the corner flags, and as the seats get plumper and the facilities plusher, the prices have already started their march upwards. As we all know, corporate fans bring in far more money than your typical working class man who wants a pie and a pint and a seat anywhere. Thus we see the situation where City have sold out their limited allocation for the Chelsea away match this month, but you can still buy tickets if you want to spend quadruple the amount and go corporate.
City’s decision makers know of course that there is a tipping point, that prices cannot rise too much as people will simply stop going to matches, hence why Cup tickets have remained cheap as chips (even cheaper if it’s the chips sold inside the ground), and then there’s the special offers for group purchases and the sale last summer of £250 lucky-dip season tickets. Even this hasn’t filled the ground up, but with the City of Manchester stadium hosting a minimum of 28 games this season, it is an expensive passion following a top-level team, however cheap the tickets are. In a survey sent out to City fans recently by the club, there was a rather ominous question that asked how much we were prepared to pay for a season ticket. This doesn’t sound like a club that plans to freeze season ticket prices. I know many City fans though that won’t pay over £500.
What’s more, it’s something of a false economy for a club to only look at how much they have made on ticket sales. It’s better for a club to sell 40,000 tickets for £10 pounds than 20,000 tickets at £25, as a large percentage of those 40,000 fans will eat burgers, drink beer and potter round the club-store.
I write with a premiership bias of course, as I usually do. Cheap tickets will still exist, further down the football pyramid. The question remains that if tickets continue to rise in the top leagues, will fans abandon their teams and stop watching football, or perhaps go and watch lower-league football instead? Plenty already do, but attendances in the top divisions don’t show any signs just yet of tailing off.
Many, many clubs have often spent beyond their means, because the general rule is you have to spend to be successful. And once you become successful at the highest levels, the financial rewards mean you tend to stay successful. This is why so called well-run clubs like Everton and Aston Villa are absolutely riddled with debt, Aston Villa’s announced at a cool £70m just this week.
My fear is that rather than stop spending, clubs in the Premiership who are not duking it out with the elite of Europe will keep looking to spend to ward off the financial nightmare that is relegation. So they’ll look to make more money, and the only way they can do that is through the likes of you and me. Even Arsenal, the epitome of a well-run club (so everyone tells me), generate a large slice of their income through a huge match-day income. I think I am right in saying they generate more on a match-day than any other club on the planet, and recently introduced for their match against City the first ever non-corporate £100 match ticket.
There is one other scenario – one that some tabloid journalists have mentioned, so its veracity is unclear. And that is that clubs will take a gamble in dismissing the idea that UEFA would go as far as excluding clubs from European competition, and thus have no intention of meeting the criteria. It’s also worth noting that the sanctions UEFA can impose only apply to exclusion from European competitions. So if a team is not in Europe and it isn’t looking likely that they will be in the short-term, then they won’t be overly worried about meeting UEFA’s criteria.
But if a club running at a loss is to meet the criteria set out by UEFA, then they have three options. Spend less, or generate more money. Or both. I don’t agree with UEFA’s new rules, but it will be interesting to see how clubs react.