Liverpool supporters protest about ticket prices during the English Premier League football match between Liverpool and Hull City at the Anfield stadium in Liverpool, northwest England, on October 25, 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Premier League clubs are less and less able to ignore fan discontent over ticket prices

There are tentative signs that Premier League clubs are starting to take fan campaigns against high ticket prices more seriously.

At first they ignored it, then they tried to rubbish it, but now it seems that there are some faint indications that those with power in football are realising they have to do something about the price of tickets to the match. And make no mistake, that’s because of a sustained campaign by fan organisations.

That’s been most evident recently at Liverpool’s Anfield ground, where the usually impressive flag display on the Kop was replaced first by black flags, and then by no flags at all. The Spirit of Shankly supporters’ union and the Spion Kop 1906 group told the club they would stop flying flags until the club met them for proper discussions over pricing. “It’s because we support the team and this football club so much that we are protesting,” said SOS’s Jay McKenna.

Before Liverpool’s home game against Stoke, the last flags to be flown at the front of the Kop read: "1990 - £4; 2000 - £24; 2010 - £43; 2020 - ?" It’s a clever protest, because it affects something the people who run football value. The Premier League makes much of "the passion of the fans" when it markets itself as a global brand, and something that so visibly demonstrates a dampening of that passion has a direct impact on the brand profile. And it does not ask the fans to absent themselves in order to get noticed, something the call for mass boycotts of games does.

Those protests also come at a tricky time for Liverpool. Because this week the club announced that long-planned expansion of Anfield from 45,000 to 59,000 seats would go ahead. And in doing so raised some interesting issues.

In the aftermath of the announcement, press attention focused on the increase in hospitality eats and corporate boxes. It’s a narrative that seems to drop into the lap – honest football fans being priced out of the game while corporate hangers-on get more massively-priced tickets. But, like most narratives that appear to drop into the lap, it’s not quite as simple as that. And what’s more, the focus on the apparently easy appearance of heroes and villains glossed over a more important question.

Liverpool FC chief executive Ian Ayre was anxious to point out that the proportion of corporate seats in the expanded stadium would be roughly the same as they are today. He pointed out that corporate seats are not necessarily filled by the ‘tourists’ or ‘hangers-on’ that many fans are so disdainful of, and he has a valid point. But he also said this.

“Driving prices in those corporate areas helps… they make a huge contribution to the football club and keep ticket prices at the level they are. Without them, the revenues would be much smaller and if other costs were at the same level, everybody else would get hit in some form: sponsors, general admission prices, everyone. I don’t think there’s a football club in the country who could afford to spend money on a new stand without the assistance of corporate hospitality.”

Let’s think carefully about what Ayre is saying here. Corporate pricing is so linked into the rest of the pricing model that not only would tickets be more expensive without it, expansion to meet demand would not be possible without it. But corporate pricing is not, or rather should not, be a core earning area. By definition it is a luxury, a top-end experience. And so, for example, when there’s a recession, companies that may once have been happy to fork our for a bit of corporate will cut back on this first. For them, it’s a luxury, a nice bit of something of extra, but not a necessity.

What Ayre is saying is that the model of football club financing in the English Premier League is fundamentally broken. Because it is reliant not on core income, but on luxury income. And that should be of concern.

This is not, I should point out, an argument against the existence of corporate seats at the game. There are some who do argue that corporate hospitality has no place in sport, but I happen to think that argument is wrong. If a leisure business can persuade people to pay top dollar for a corporate experience, that’s absolutely fine. I’ve written before about why it is too simplistic to say business is ruining sport. It’s the level of reliance on the corporate income that is the issue. And it’s an argument the fan movement needs to get to grips with, along with a few others, if progress is to be made.

For example, another of those easy narratives is that “working class people are being priced out”. Leaving aside the usual arguments about what definition of class is being used, I don’t think that is true. Of course, there are people who have been priced out – you’ll often find them in the pubs near the fullest Premiership grounds on matchdays – but my own experience at Spurs is that the class make-up of the crowd is not that different to what it has been traditionally. What’s different is that more people are spending a greater proportion of their disposable income on football than they were. Which goes some way towards explaining why many fans are disaffected.

These may seem like minor details, but they are important. We need to present the case as it is, not as it is most easily presented, because it’s on the detail that these arguments are won and lost.

There are indications that a number of clubs have realised that they need to do something to properly address the issue of high ticket pricing. The steps are tentative, and it is very easy to be suspicious of moves intended to play to the gallery rather than take concrete action. The clubs have also proved themselves masters of presenting themselves individually as backing price reform, while at the same time arguing that they cannot do anything until everyone else acts.

But, very slowly, more clubs are coming round. Soon, perhaps, one or two major clubs will suggest an initiative and invite others to support it. Something that could keep commercial income high as pressure increases on that aspect of the business in the light of UEFA’s financial Fair Play rules, protect the brand passion that is so valuable, and result in genuinely easing the financial burden grass roots fans are asked to bear.

Achieving such a solution will require diplomacy, nous, hard-headed business sense, in-depth understanding of marketing and customer relations and a sprinkling of courage and imagination. Just the qualities that senior executives command high salaries to possess.

Martin Cloake’s book, Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars, is out now

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide