Not Going Away; On The Cost of Watching Football

Football Supporters - Cost of Watching Football - popular STAND

At the start of Doncaster Rovers’ fixture at Hillsborough earlier this month the Radio Sheffield commentary team voiced their surprise that the entirety of the upper tier of the Leppings Lane End was not completely awash with red and white hoops. Mickey Walker couldn’t believe that the away end was not packed out for a derby game. However, Walker’s opinion, and that of the match commentator, had been voiced with no knowledge of the prices Rovers supporters had been asked to pay. £29 or £30 for adults and £18 for juniors is quite frankly a ludicrous price to be asked to pay for a lower second tier fixture between two teams from the second poorest county in the UK. And, it was a price which rightly many Rovers fans refused to pay.

If you’re a match going fan you don’t need me to tell you football is expensive, the drain of funds from your bank account will have already done so. And therefore you may have been as surprised as I was earlier this year when the BBC announced the findings from their annual Price of Football survey, proudly stating that the cost of attending matches was falling; down around 2% on last season. Like chopping £5 off your monthly rent, it’s not  a price decrease you will, or are likely to have noticed. Such has been the significant rise in prices over the decade that came previously, this perceived drop is akin to throwing a few bits of deck furniture from the Titanic; football is still sinking, just a little slower than before.

Among Championship sides Sheffield Wednesday are sadly not alone in charging £30 or more to away supporters; Ipswich Town, Leeds United and Queens Park Rangers all fall into this bracket, whilst other clubs including Birmingham City are often within a pound of the same benchmark. How did we allow football to get to this point? People flyer outside stations when train tickets go up in price, and I’ve known folk switch locals for the sake of 10p on the price of a pint, so how did we allow mid-ranking second tier sides to think that £18 for a twelve year-old to watch football was an acceptable deal?

The problem is just that; we as supporters have allowed the increases in ticket prices to happen. For too long we have allowed football teams to set their prices by what other teams are charging, rather than what their own supporters can afford. The starting point club boards move from too often appears to be ‘What can we get away with based on the rest of the division?’ rather than ‘What price will help bring our own fans into the stadium?’ Just a few seasons back Rovers boasted that match tickets were X amount cheaper than Leeds, and so many pounds cheaper than Ipswich. So what? We’re Rovers fans, we don’t want to watch Leeds or Ipswich, what relevance is this to us? Compare it to our income or something we might actually spend our money on and you might get yourself a sale.

Of course our loyalty and refusal to traipse off to Elland Road or whatever Huddersfield are calling their ground these days for our football is what has provided clubs with sufficient leeway to reach this point. We want our team to find success and so when we look at the millions other clubs receive through parachute payments and our own club tells us that they have to charge what they do in order to compete at this level we grudgingly accept that to be the case. If we say we don’t want to pay it our support gets called into question by those with more disposable income. “You won’t pay another £2, do you want this team to get relegated?” And so the prices go up because unlike the High Street say, where stores need to be wary of others undercutting them, there is no such competitive threat to reign in ticket costs, we won’t suddenly start shopping at Oakwell at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.

For the biggest clubs what they charge is of no real concern. Teams such as Manchester United, Chelsea, or Arsenal are already too far removed from realism for it to matter whether they price out their core or traditional support. A family from two miles down the road can’t afford to attend anymore? No bother, there are enough moneyed idiots hung up on Premier League hype in this country to buy a replica shirt and take their place. For second tier sides however, such a luxury does not exist and the alarm bells should be starting to sound; attendances are dipping. At Hillsborough last Saturday there were 8,000 less people than had attended the corresponding fixture between Wednesday and Rovers five years previously; does no-one at a football club analyse such things?

Increasingly it seems that as football supporters, and particularly away football supporters, we are one of two things to clubs; a bumper pay-day or a big inconvenience. We are not regular custom, we will never be the subject of any of their marketing, we are just the latest set of gatecrashers. So ultimately PR goes out the window, because there is no need to charm us into returning next week, no need to coerce us into thinking we are doing our bit for a supposed greater good. So the prices are hoiked up to the maximum, because firstly they may as well get as much money out of us as they can whilst we’re here. And secondly, the higher the prices go, the less likely people are to attend and the less people attend, the lower the policing costs.

Ultimately, we need to forget what other supporters pay to watch other teams, take the football blinkers off and look at the price of tickets against the other costs we face day to day. When we do that can any Championship club truly justify charging over £20 to watch second tier sport? This is not the crème-de-la-crème after all, just the 500 next-best footballers currently plying their trade in this country? In September I paid about a tenner to watch La Grande Belazza, probably the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen. By way of comparison, the poor touches, endless shanked passes and general fumbling football served up at Hillsborough the other Saturday cost three times the price. When you look at it that way an afternoon football is less a treat and more a polite mugging.

In the wake of the prices charged by Sheffield Wednesday several supporters suggested Rovers should adopt a similar approach to pricing for the return game and drive the costs up for the visiting Owls fans. But what does that achieve? A smaller attendance and bad blood; 3,000 visiting fans paying £23 is a much better return than 2,000 paying £29. In the end there is only one way to stop prices from rising, and that is to do as many of you did on Saturday cease to pay them. The more we boycott matches we deem unreasonable, the more clubs will start to notice the red marks on their balance sheets. If it’s too much to pay, don’t pay it. You’re still a supporter whether you’re there or not, and don’t let anyone ever tell you that boycotting on principal is to the detriment of your club. By not being there you will be doing more for football’s bigger picture, and that can only benefit all of us.

Glen Wilson

This article, written by Editor Glen Wilson, first appeared in issue 66 of popular STAND, a football fanzine for the likes of Doncaster. popular STAND has been in print since April 1998, and continues to this day as a print fanzine with six issues a season. If you would like to order a back issue of the fanzine or take out a subscription, you can find further information here.