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27 April 2022

You might support your local team – but don’t expect the same in return

The cost-of-living crisis is presenting football’s fans and finance chiefs with some difficult choices.

By Jonathan Liew

“We know the cost of living is increasing,” the official Twitter account of Coventry City reassured its fans on 31 March, as the club put its 2022-23 season tickets on sale. “So we’re highlighting our V12 Finance payment option, giving supporters the option to spread payments over a period of time.”

A helping hand from your friendly local club at this difficult moment. Once you looked at the finer details, however, the offer was not quite as generous as it seemed. For starters, early-bird season tickets have soared from a pre-pandemic price of £260 for 2019-20 to £345 for the upcoming season. For the financing option there was also a hefty “arrangement fee”, contributing to a representative APR of almost 27 per cent. As it turns out, it’s not just the fans who have bills to pay.

For sporting organisations still trying to claw back pandemic losses, this can be a delicate balance to strike. Watford is among the football clubs that have cut season ticket prices for next season. Dozens more have either frozen prices or extended their range of concessionary discounts. At the other end of the scale, you have Uefa, which announced on 20 April that the most expensive tickets for May’s Champions League final in Paris will cost an eye-moistening €690.

[See also: Football cryptocurrencies herald a dystopian future where fandom isn’t free]

With inflation spiralling and household budgets coming under increasing strain, it is possible to wonder whether we may be approaching some kind of pinch point. For years leisure spending in Britain has been growing at a faster rate than retail spending. Accordingly, the entire financial model of elite sport here – not just ticket sales but television and streaming subscriptions, corporate and sponsorship revenue, betting and merchandise – is founded on the assumption of inexorable expansion: bigger audiences, bigger prices, bigger returns, bigger thrills. It’s a model built for good times: low inflation, low costs, consumer confidence and above all a steady stream of disposable income. So what happens when the good times start to run out?

Perhaps the 17,000 empty seats at Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Manchester City on 16 April offered something of a clue. It is fairly common for cup semi-finals not to sell out when a smaller club is involved, but here were the country’s two outstanding teams, playing out the latest chapter of an enthralling rivalry. And yet many fans had decided that the cost of travelling from the north-west to London on an Easter weekend – before you even consider tickets, hotels, food, booze and cocaine – was simply not justifiable in this climate.

As with the economy at large, the real pain is probably still to come. When belts tighten, leisure activities are often the first items of expenditure to go. A 2021 study of football crowds in Europe over the past 60 years found that around 80 per cent of the seasonal variation in attendances can be attributed to unemployment levels. Sky, which owns most of the rights to broadcast sport in the UK, has already raised the price of its premium packages. According to a Deltapoll survey, 27 per cent of people have already cancelled non-essential expenditure such as TV subscriptions as a result of the cost-of-living crisis.

Sport is doubly vulnerable in this respect because, while a household can economise by downgrading from restaurant meals to takeaways, or from foreign holidays to domestic ones, sport is habitual and tribal. If you can’t afford your Chelsea season ticket any more, you’re unlikely to start watching Brentford instead. And given that prices at most football clubs have been going in only one direction for most of the past 30 years, once you stop there are no guarantees that you’ll return.

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For clubs, leagues and governing bodies, this has seldom been a problem until now. If you price out one demographic, there is usually a more affluent one ready to take its place. English cricket learned this some time ago, hiking ticket prices for the England men’s team, hiving ever more of its content away behind a subscription paywall and increasingly tailoring its offering towards the corporate hospitality market. Still, the punters kept flocking through the gates and signing up for satellite contracts. They were just different punters, older punters, richer punters.

And so it’s tempting to regard all this as temporary turbulence: a fleeting threat that will dissipate when the economic weather improves. But perhaps this is also an appropriate juncture to reconsider some of the steps that have been taken along the way: the gradual conversion of elite sport from a mass popular ritual to a sort of premium consumer good. With leagues and teams increasingly being funded by private equity, the whole edifice is built not just on profit but on growth, the relationship between a sport and its fans increasingly resembling that of a business to its consumers.

In a more rational world, we might pause to ponder how we reached a point where a football club is essentially acting as a credit broker to its own supporters, under the guise of benevolence. Then again, maybe not. On 20 April Coventry announced that the club was on course to surpass its all-time season ticket sales record. That’s the thing about sport: it’s not in the least bit rational.

[See also: Abramovich’s Faustian pact with Chelsea is a parable of English football]

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma