Why offering free football travel pulls the wool over our eyes

Manchester City, Etihad Stadium

Following a fortnight that has seen the ever-hideous cost of ticket prices thrust back into the public consciousness, right on cue, the Premier League press machine went into full flow on the charm offensive.

Heralded in some quarters as a ‘radical initiative’, reports emanating from the most recent full meeting of Premier League shareholders suggested that an idea to provide away support with free coach travel to games, was being bandied about as a measure to keep travelling attendances at an all-time high.

The initiative, said to be championed by Stoke City’s chief executive Tony Scholes, was based around the notion that each club in the league set aside around £800,000 a season to provide their legions of away support with the option of free coach travel to each fixture.

Considering Manchester United fans travelling to London this Sunday for their game against Tottenham Hotspur can look forward to shelling out £68 for the cheapest return train ticket from Manchester Piccadilly, you would have thought it’s a gesture that would be greeted with goodwill, not hostility from fans across the country. Not quite.

With the next batch of Premier League television money set to be worth an estimated minimum of just over £60million per club next season, it seems almost macabre that those in the corridors of power can herald clubs allocating barely 1% of that money to helping out supporters, as some form of positively redeeming exercise.

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Because even if we take away both the practical and even cultural issues that somewhat destabilise the offer of free coach travel, the Premier League’s latest initiative to ease the strain on supporters’ bank balances isn’t even offering a viable compromise to inflating ticket prices – it’s skirting around the issue altogether.

While the age old saying goes ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’, in offering supporters free coach travel, the Premier League are pretty much forcing that horse to drink. Because while you might save yourself a bit of money in avoiding a train ticket, arriving by coach isn’t going to make your matchday ticket any cheaper. In fact, if anything, you might even be helping vindicate clubs’ decision to keep inflating prices.

Demand for Premier League tickets is arguably as high as it ever has been in recent years. Seat occupancy for top tier games sat at an imperious 92.6% for the 2011-12 season and according to The Guardian, a league spokesman has suggested that figure may have in fact risen to a staggering 95% so far this season. With a rise in attendances going hand in hand with an 11.7% rise in ticket prices across the board in English football over the last season, it seems fans are voting with their mouths rather than their feet, when it comes to the revolt against the extortionate cost of watching football.

And by putting on free coaches to ferry fans to away games, the chances are this measure would only boost clubs’ revenue. The £800,000 cost to put on the coaches (a figure thought to be more closer to £500,000) is hardly going to take long to offset if clubs’ secure the extra money brought in from gate receipts. Should the free coach travel idea have been implemented this season, Arsenal would have already recouped £55,000 from the 900 tickets Manchester City sent back to them. That’d be 11% back already.

If putting on the free coaches boosts what is already an unprecedented demand for Premier League tickets, this might only fuel ticket inflation further. If Arsenal can sell out 60,000 seats for a Category A home game with £62 representing the cheapest ticket, what reason have they got to possibly lower prices? Their current season ticket waiting gives you a good 40,000 reasons not to.

Yet even if we take the Premier League on face value, while the notion of coach travel will appeal to some, the idea reeks of a group of executives more in touch with business charts and accountancy, than the desires of your average football fan.

The truth is that supporting demographics simply aren’t the same for every club and they certainly aren’t as they were 20, 30 odd years ago. Gags about every home game being an away day for Manchester United fans might amount to something of a cheap joke, but while free travel to away games might suit teams like Stoke City who possess a very strong localised support, for the likes of Arsenal, West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur, the idea doesn’t seem as good value

The idea of spending money travelling for an hour before you get to your coach isn’t going to be particularly appealing for fans living a little further afield from their home clubs. And for some, the idea of travelling on coaches to away games simply just doesn’t appeal.

Many of the current services prohibit alcohol and for many, an away day encompasses so much more than simply turning up half an hour before kick off, watching the game and coming straight home again. There is a feeling here that you can’t have your cake and eat it and the personal preferences of some shouldn’t knock those who want a cost-efficient ways of away travel. But given the money already involved in the Premier League, this should already be in place.

Because while free coach travel to away games might help some supporters, the fact is that the initiative’s heart most certainly isn’t in the right place. It’s simply throwing supporters a cheap bone and protecting the revenue that the Premier League is already generating. This measure won’t bring ticket prices down – it’s only going to secure them.