A fortnight ago Swansea City were widely, and rightly, lauded for their continued commitment to reducing the cost of watching the club. They established their ‘True to 22’ initiative, subsidising the price of tickets so that no adult supporter will pay more than £22 for an away ticket this season; no concession will pay more than £15. As a statement on the club’s official site read: ‘The club’s subsidy is set to amount to a £300,000 saving for supporters across the 2015-16 campaign.’
Without wishing to look a rare gift horse in the mouth, it’s impossible not to see the cloud beneath that thin silver lining. Swansea should receive only praise for their initiative, but generosity is an endangered virtue amongst football clubs. Swansea received £80.5m in central income payments from broadcasting and other commercial rights; this excludes any matchday or sponsorship revenue. The £300,000 subsidy accounts for 0.3% of their 2014 turnover – this is a token gesture rather than overwhelming munificence.
Swansea should not be criticised, but their example offers a stark reminder of the manner in which modern football clubs continue to fleece their fans. Rather than community institutions, they remain cut-throat corporations. In this scenario, supporters are little more than embarrassingly loyal customers. Their addiction makes them ripe for exploitation.
Take a four-hour drive from Swansea, and you come across another stark example of football’s ability to squeeze the last drop from every fan. Last week Sheffield Wednesday released details about the price structure of their home match tickets. There was no accompanying information to explain the news that, for the highest category games, adult tickets in the club’s South Stand would be priced at £52. Under-11s would be allowed in for £21.
The brainwave of new owner Dejphon Chansiri, these price increases are ludicrous for a Championship team, whatever their aspirations of promotion. Of equal concern was the way the news was conveyed via the back door.
“The matchday ticket price structure came as a big shock to Wednesday fans mainly because it wasn’t communicated by the club,” said supporter and Sheffield Star columnist Laura Jones. “The prices appeared on the club website without explanation. It took two days for the club to address the issue in the form of a chairman’s statement.”
When that statement finally came, few Wednesday supporters can have been appeased. “Regarding tickets, as with almost every football club, we pressed home – and continue to press home – the advantages of buying a Season Ticket,” Chansiri finally explained, alongside the unacceptably capitalised ‘S’ and ‘T’. “That commitment guarantees by far the best savings and numerous additional benefits.”
Chansiri also mentioned that supporters could save £5 on each ticket by purchasing a club membership for £30 per season. Securing money up front is clearly key.
The most worrying message was yet to come. “If we are to achieve our ultimate aim of promotion, we must embark on this journey together,” was Chansiri’s concluding message. If in doubt, resort to emotional blackmail. The limits of FFFP were supposed to force clubs to do things the ‘right’ way. Instead, the message is this: Signings will be made, but only if you fund them. Fail to do so, and fans only have themselves to blame.
The other conclusion is that many Sheffield Wednesday fans will no longer be able to attend home games regularly, and many families will struggle to bring through the next generation of supporters. Football should be accommodating and inviting; instead it is becoming increasingly elitist, open only to those with middle-class incomes.
In January, a report revealed that South Yorkshire is the fifth poorest region in Northern Europe, and it has the highest level of child poverty in the country. The region also has the second highest unemployment of any region in the UK, and average earnings in Sheffield have dropped by almost £2,000 per person since 2008 – the worst fall in Yorkshire. Still, the multimillionaire owner says “we’re all in it together” so that’ll keep everyone warm at night.
Not every game at Hillsborough this season will set home supporters back £52, of course. The opening day fixture against Bristol City (promoted from League One) will cost only £36-£43 for adults. You can get a ticket for a Wednesday night game against Reading for £36, if you book a month in advance.
The avarice continues apace. Want to have a long-sleeved home shirt with the club captain’s name on the back delivered to your home? That’ll be £70.85, please. There is a £2 discount for short sleeves, mercifully.
Some will not care, of course, and these fans at York City on Saturday certainly seem pleased with their rich owner. There is no doubt that an element of the club’s support will stomach the hike and manage, comfortably or otherwise. For balance it is worth pointing out that season tickets only increased by £50 on an ‘early bird’ basis.
But others won’t be able to stomach it. They will either be pushed into it, their addiction to their club laid bare by missing out in other aspects of their life, or they’ll simply have to say no. If this is going to be Wednesday’s big push for promotion with their ambitious new owners, they will follow it on BBC Radio Sheffield.
This is not to say that Chansiri is a dictatorial monster. He has injected funds into much-needed developments at Hillsborough, and begun a squad overhaul. But to increase the cost of a match ticket by £20 from one season to the next is a deeply concerning development.
Whatever the case, there is a sad home truth: This isn’t the fans’ club anymore, it’s Chansiri’s. They are now at the whim of a multimillionaire businessman – son of the 40th richest man in Thailand who makes his money in frozen fish – and that has never been more apparent. He has previously admitted that he bought Wednesday because his son persuaded him. His son is ten.
“We will do whatever is appropriate to invest in the club to get them to the Premier League,” was the message from Sheffield Wednesday’s owner upon taking over. That’s exactly the issue – fleecing supporters has become the depressing rule, not the exception. Just another tale of accepted exploitation…