Premier League cultural shift under way as ticket prices spark outrage

Steven Chicken

It tells us something about the mental state of the Premier League that Financial Fair Play is such a big talking point at the moment, because the simple fact is that neither clubs nor fans are particularly interested in cost control measures except when it suits them.

Those rare clubs who aim for fiscal responsibility and self-sustainability all eventually come under fire for being ‘unambitious’. Those who end up in financial difficulty or under investigation from football’s various powers that be always end up blaming either the owners, the authorities, or both.

Adversarial English culture hurt protests’ strength

There is a transparent hypocrisy behind this: on the whole, demand spending, then wail about how unfair it is that they must suffer the consequences when their clubs go too far and wind up in danger.

Of course, we’re well aware that fans are not, in fact, one amorphous blob of unified consciousness; the two ends of that reaction/counter-reaction routine do not necessarily cross over in a Venn diagram. That many are willing to protest for cheaper season tickets – as Liverpool fans are just the latest to do, but far from alone – tells us there are thousands who take these things very seriously indeed.

But there are plenty more who do not really seem that bothered about where money comes from or where it goes, as long as it improves their own team – and preferably as long as the fans aren’t asked to pay for it.

This is in contrast to some other countries, where fans are more likely to come out against their own clubs if they feel they are behaving unethically or irresponsibly, with rival supporters nodding along in agreement with the cause. There is a recognition that the overall state of the game is more important than club loyalties.

That still exists here, but it has been a difficult battle for organisations like the FSA to put that across to the majority of more casual fans. (By genuine coincidence, the FSA published some enlightening and helpful numbers while we were writing this piece).

No one set of fans are especially better or worse than another for this; there is simply something baked into English culture – from the tabloids to our legal system to our politics to our football tribes – that everything has to be adversarial, at all times, and whoever argues best or loudest or longest gets to win. In this climate, co-operation for mutual benefit is for losers.

But things may well be changing. Some fan groups genuinely are willing to repeatedly challenge and question their own clubs, while there have been significant successes when it comes to causes that have seen different sets of fans coming together – the Twenty’s Plenty campaign being a notable example. We’ve seen encouraging signs of cross-club cooperation in recent weeks, with Spurs, Newcastle, and Liverpool fans liaising on banners and protests to keep the issue in the public eye.

Premier League fan groups were also key to Football Supporters Europe’s campaign to keep ticket prices in UEFA competitions capped.

That’s great to see, because up until now, fans’ general isolation from one another has made their position weaker. Blanket agreements to cap home ticket prices may be an easier pill for clubs to swallow, if only fans showed a genuine desire to push for them, as they have successfully with away prices. Instead, their unwillingness to join forces meant clubs could simply shrug and say ‘but we have to raise prices to keep up with that lot up the road’. 

Meanwhile, there are actually some clubs who wish things were different, but feel trapped in a game with transparently stupid rules, but where the only chance to succeed is to play along. For them, it is very much a case of hate the game, not the player.

The Premier League’s aims are at least along the right lines in terms of setting a spending cap pegged to a percentage of revenue. Football’s problem, demonstrably, is not an absence of wealth in the game; it is that money is so freely and poorly spent out of all proportion with necessity. If the guy next door has a Jaguar, you have to get a Ferrari.

That’s because if club owners were interested solely in making money, and not ego and glory, they would never, ever have bought a football club in the first place; there are far better investments one can make if that is your aim. 

But…for all the glumness of these complaints, we also get it. Yes, we’d all be quite happy in a Seat Ibiza in reality, but Ferraris are more fun – and most of us will never get the chance to actually own an Italian sports car. The next best thing? Watching an Italian sportsperson who nominally represents you.

There’s a reason that lots of people are prone to letting football clubs subsume more of their identity than is necessarily helpful – and sport, at its very core, is not about sharing and caring. It’s about the glory of winning and (avoiding) the abject misery of losing. It’s not surprising that over time, that morphed into full-on Logan Roy, free market, greed is good, ‘we won the transfer window’ revelry in matters off the pitch as well as on it.

It’s genuinely fantastic as long as you don’t look past the gloss of it all, and god knows you can’t spend your entire life joylessly tut-tutting at everything. It’s easy to despair at fans for their lack of interest in balance sheets, but nobody falls in love with the game because they would spend Saturday afternoons eagerly watching the results come in on the Companies House website.

But those who do campaign tirelessly for these things are an ultimate benefit to the game, and their increasingly willingness to start working with each other only makes that even more the case.