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
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad