t may not have been the ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ that supporter groups have been campaigning for in earnest since 2013, but the Premier League’s announcement earlier this week to cap away ticket prices at £30 from 2016/17, was a landmark decision for the English game and proof that fan power really does work if you bang the drum hard enough.
With the Premier League’s increasingly bloated TV revenues reducing the reliance on matchday ticket income as a fundamental revenue source on the balance sheet of most top-flight clubs, the rationale for fans paying over the odds to see their team on the road has become increasingly hard to justify.
While the announcement shows progress and the ‘unanimous’ agreement highlights the Premier League’s efforts to work more collaboratively to seek solutions to ease the financial burden for fans, the announcement still left some broader questions that remain unanswered.
1) What happens after three seasons?
While the news has been applauded and rightly so, the announcement was clearly positioned as a deal that would be in place for ‘the next three seasons’ – a caveat that potentially threatens to rear its head again ahead of the 2019/20 season, if the deal is not extended or improved beforehand.
It makes sense that the Premier League should want to review the initiative after a set period in order to review its success and gauge fan sentiment – putting a specific timeframe on the deal is a sure sign that the Premier League and its clubs want to keep the door ajar for some wiggle room further down the line and stay in control of the narrative.
2) Will home tickets be next?
Away travel is unique in the sense that for most, the overall ‘matchday cost’ far exceeds simply the cost of a ticket. Throw in travel expenses, food, drink, the cost of a programme and following your team on the road becomes an expensive pastime.
Now that the Premier League and its clubs have bowed to fan pressure on away tickets, there is a feeling that momentum around the debate is shifting irrevocably towards the terraces.
Liverpool chiefs were quick to scrap plans and apologise for their controversial £77 top ticket at Anfield earlier this year after the reputational damage caused by thousands of fans leaving a match in protest in the 77th minute. The pictures of a stadium emptying long before the final whistle being beamed around the world to an international audience were not something that the club or the Premier League wanted to see.
The truth is that home ticket pricing is still something of a minefield across the board, with prices varying depending on where you’re sat in the stadium, category of opposition etc. While it would therefore be difficult to see universal pricing caps being introduced anytime soon, it would be no surprise to see more and more clubs introducing fan-friendly initiatives or match-by-match offers that show a willingness to give supporters better value for money across the board.
3) Where does this leave the Football League?
We’ve all seen the high-profile protests that have acted as standard bearers for the wider pricing debate, but one look at the BBC’s 2015 Price of Football survey shows that are still 12 clubs outside the Premier League (11 in the Championship) where the most expensive away ticket exceeds £30 – indeed, I found myself paying a princely £34 to visit Loftus Road earlier this week.
Realistically, the Football League is in a tricky situation. The £5.1bn incoming Premier League TV deal (closer to £8bn with overseas rights) dwarfs the Football League’s deal, while the commercial revenues of the country’s leading clubs swell the coffers even more. For clubs further down the ladder, ticket income remains the primary source of revenue, so any similar caps that may be introduced will automatically be felt more acutely.
But with the ground swell of public support and ‘football socialism’ strengthening its grip, it may be hard for the Football League to hold out for much longer – after all, it’s not easy to justify spending more to go and see Preston North End than it is to go to the Emirates.