Supporter loyalty: It works both ways…

Date published: Tuesday 10th May 2016 8:14

Over the last three months, Arsenal supporters have become the Premier League’s 21st club, spectatorship gone meta like a sporting Gogglebox. Watching them has been at least as exciting as seeing Watford or Crystal Palace or West Brom or Aston Villa or Stoke play, for example; they’ve certainly got more column inches. Reports of fights between supporters after the FA Cup exit to Watford were followed by more of the same against Swansea. There were reports too of disturbances in the away end at the Etihad on Sunday.

Arsenal Fan TV, already the natural habitat for football’s clinically unhinged, has turned the what-the-f*ck-ometer up to 11. The producers (if telling people to point a camera at the moving angry things counts as ‘producing’) have feasted on the club’s slump from a position of great hope. Nothing sells quite as well as documented distress. If you look closely you can actually pinpoint the exact moment the heart breaks in two.

While it’s clear that this interminable docu-soap is a vast exaggeration of the median view, the rise in football extremism is replicated across the country. Protest is no longer reserved for woeful mismanagement at boardroom level, but also on-field mediocrity. Arsenal are merely the highest-profile paradigm of the trend.

The clubs’ reaction to fan impatience is well documented. “I think Brucie has suffered because of that but that’s the kind of supporters we have these days – no patience,” said Alex Ferguson when Steve Bruce was sacked by Sunderland in 2011. In the last few months, both Arsene Wenger and Roberto Martinez have not only criticised supporters for a lack of patience, but also cited their disillusionment as one of the root causes of failure.

Attacking the supporters is an easy way out, but this general decrease in patience is an effect rather than cause. More importantly, it is the clubs that are directly to blame.

The change in football crowds over the last 20 years is one of England’s biggest cultural shifts. In 1996, the price of an Arsenal ticket was around £14, or around 0.09% of the average UK wage. By 2016, that ticket price is almost £46, 0r 0.18% of the average UK wage. Put simply, supporters are forced to spend almost double the proportion of their wages on watching their team. Arsenal have the most expensive season ticket in the country at £2,013.

The direct result is obvious. Robert O’Connor wrote a fantastic piece last week in which he detailed the change in Arsenal’s match-going support over the last two decades. The most obvious conclusion is that an increasing percentage comes from outside the local area. As ticket prices rise, so too does the identity of the typical spectator. There is a general trend from working-class sport to middle-class entertainment.

The clubs, well aware that the average in-ground spend (refreshments and merchandise) of a once-in-a-season fan is far higher than a regular attendee, are more than happy to get on board. The repeated cliché about someone queuing behind you to take your seat rings true.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this shift, and asking clubs to ignore simple principles of supply-and-demand pricing is a folly other than in exceptional cases, even when gate receipts make up such a minute fraction of total revenue.

Yet the indirect result is the lack of patience that so frustrates Wenger, Ferguson et al. New supporters, particularly those who attend games infrequently, are far less likely to stay loyal to a particular manager or style, for their love – addiction, even – is far less entrenched.

What’s more, these supporters are more likely to come from a culture where desires very quickly become reality. If you are spending £5,000 a year on taking your child to home games and back, you have been conditioned to expect a level of proficiency in return. Want to go out for a nice meal? As easy as booking a table. Want to go on holiday? Book the flights. Want my club to win the Premier League? Ah. Supporters advised to remember the hard times can return only a puzzled look. “We weren’t here for the hard times, fella.”

“The thing about the really cheap prices, being able to decide on the day whether you went or not, is that it creates an addiction,” said Nick Hornby in 2012. Hornby is the author of Fever Pitch, about Arsenal’s 1989 title victory. “We made up our mind whether to go on Saturday lunchtime. You can’t do that anymore. Most kids see live football, like theatre, as a treat three or four times a year.”

Removing the addiction to the club removes (or at least lessens) the ‘through thick and thin’ mentality of supporters going along to support their team whatever the weather or division. In 1989, football success was a privilege, not a right. That has not changed entirely, as Leicester’s title victory shows, but the financial hierarchy within the game at least muddies the water.

It’s important to note that we are discussing the minority. Yet those fans protesting are a minority swelled by those who live in a culture where answers are demanded post-haste. ‘What do we want? Success! When do we want it? Yesterday!’

Nor too should their protests ever be truly discouraged, particularly when the clubs brought on their own headaches. They were hoisted by their own petard, forcing out loyal and local supporters only to gripe at the indirect result.

“When people pretend to be Arsenal fans and, every week, they come out against the club, you cannot say it’s not manipulation,” said Wenger last week when expressing his disappointment at protests against the lack of on-field progress. Sorry Arsene, but loyalty works both ways. Having made their beds in a bid to exploit demand for tickets, clubs can hardly complain when asked to lie in them and it gets uncomfortable.


Daniel Storey

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