There are some interesting firsts in Irish media history, one of them is the first live field sports broadcast in Europe on the national radio station, 2RN as it was then, which covered a hurling match between Galway and Kilkenny.
This was not without controversy though; the GAA worried that live broadcast of the game could affect attendance and insisted that the coverage of the game start only after a post kick-off delay. This was not unique to the GAA; in Britain such was the concern that radio or TV coverage could affect the all-important revenue generating gate receipts that for decades conservative forces in the FA and club ownership fought against the regular live broadcast of matches or even of extended highlight packages.
For certain generations the only games that they would likely witness on TV were the FA Cup final and certain home internationals. Even Match of the Day was originally limited to highlights of one game from the Saturday fixture list. This persisted into more recent decades with “live” matches being shown at half hour delay.
However into this old-fashioned and protectionist space moved British Sky Broadcasting in the early 1990’s. The time was ripe for a televised sport revolution. The 1990 World Cup, televised extensively and shown at times that suited a British TV audience was a ratings hit, helped in no small part by the English team reaching the semi-finals.
There was also something cinematic in its production, from the Nessun Dorma of the Three Tenors to Gazza’s tears, it showed that football could be spectacle and appeal to the more casual viewer, which is a theme covered well by Pete Davies in his excellent All Played Out.
The Taylor Report had also been published in that same year in response to the horrors of the Hillsborough disaster. It outlined a new way forward for British football and lead to massive investment in new stadiums, infrastructure and facilities that had been sorely lacking in previous decades. This had the effect of helping create a safer and more welcoming environment for families and potential football fans previously deterred from attending live football by the perceived danger of hooligan behaviour. Into this space came Sky Sports and a newly branded and separate top division; the Premier League. To a certain extent the marketing of English football had finally begun to come of age.
When the time came for England to host Euro 96, the regeneration of top level English football was well apace and a certain gentrification had begun to emerge, perhaps best summed in Roy Keane’s infamous prawn sandwich remark or John Thompson’s Nouveau Football Fan in The Fast Show.
Going from a decade that had witnessed the disasters of Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough, the scourge of hooliganism, proposals for state issued ID cards for supporters and calls by Chelsea owner Ken Bates for electrified fencing, to a decade where football was now part of Cool Britannia, with politicians falling over themselves to talk up their footballing credentials, Tony Blair talking about his time following Newcastle in the era “just after Jackie Milburn”, it would be not too much to say that the change was meteoric.
Compare Blair’s cringey faux-blokeyness on Football Focus with Thatcher’s attitude to football fans and it would not be too much of the stretch to suggest that just over ten years previous to him taking office that Margaret Thatcher viewed football supporters as being of the same ilk as the trade unions when she dubbed them as the “Enemy Within”.
Fast forward to the present day and Sky remain a principal player in the TV coverage of football with BT the latest new kid on the block to challenge their dominance, TV coverage of football is ubiquitous and the amount of choice is, for practical purposes, infinite. The Premier League is the self-proclaimed “best league in the world” and football has become part of the establishment, its potential to promote the image of England overseas and generate tourist revenue is now well recognised as is the star power of individuals of like David Beckham. The revenue generated by TV rights continues to rise and beginning with the 2012-2013 season, overseas TV revenue will mean a £5.5 billion windfall for Premier League clubs, on top of the already huge domestic TV revenues.
In stark contrast to the past, match day revenue is now only a small percentage of clubs total earnings and is dwarfed by these media revenues. This has not meant that clubs have not sought to maximise revenue from gate receipts. There has been significant anger from supporters at the costs associated with attending Premier League matches, banners have been displayed, marches organised and significant lobbying work has been undertaken by groups like the Football Supporters Federation (FSF).
There is a growing feeling among football supports in the Premier League that the gentrification of the game and the focus on maximising revenue has seen traditional support bases priced out of attending games. Similarly there has been significant negative media comment from managers in recent months about the type and quality of support offered to their teams on the pitch.
The Premier League will point to some encouraging stats that demonstrate the more pluralist make-up of the crowd at an average game, with about a quarter of fans in an average stadium being women, and more than one in ten being from an ethnic minority, however this cannot hide the fact that the average age of a Premier League fan is 41 and that there are significant gaps between the numbers of children attending in family groups and the next logical demographic step, young fans in their late teens and early twenties, the next generation of season ticket holders.
In contrast, Bayern Munich have been rightly praised for their pricing policies, the difference between the German, majority member owner club and English clubs were discussed by Uli Hoeness last year in the following way;
We could charge more than £104. [Bayern’s cheapest season ticket] Let’s say we charged £300. We’d get £2m more in income but what’s £2m to us?
In a transfer discussion you argue about that sum for five minutes. But the difference between £104 and £300 is huge for the fan. We do not think the fans are like cows, who you milk. Football has got to be for everybody.
That’s the biggest difference between us and England.
Bayern Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge continued on this theme recently when he said:
We have expensive tickets, in the lounge and business areas, and thanks to those we can still sell standing tickets at around €7.50 per match, cheaper than it costs to go to the cinema in Munich. A poor guy, maybe without work, we want him to be able to go and watch football. That is our obligation.
Compare this with Arsenal who have recently been criticised for their plan to increase their season ticket prices by 3% when they are already the highest in the league.
Clubs in some ways can be seen to be guilty of failing to prioritise long term supporter development, losing key age demographics while expecting existing fans and/or football tourists to continue to pay ever increasing ticket prices to make up for any shortfall. This is both naïve from a match day perspective but also from the perspective of marketing the league and continuing to draw in huge TV revenue. Like it or not, as football fans we are commodified and sold. The match day atmosphere, the noise, the banners, songs and displays of fan culture play an important role in promoting and marketing the Premier League throughout the world for media multinationals paying billions for the broadcast rights.
The “packed stadiums” and “passion of the fans” are part and parcel of narrative of the “best league in the world” and a key sales tool. People want to “invest” (both emotionally and financially) in something that feels real, exciting and exclusive. Packed, noisy stadiums provide this in spades. However an ageing, less connected, less vocal fan base, who in many cases are frustrated or feel exploited are not good for the Premier League or for broadcasters trying to recoup their investment.
My modest proposal for change is as follows. As maintaining high attendance levels and stimulating a vibrant atmosphere are in the interests of those marketing and broadcasting the League certain conditions could be placed within the service level agreement between the league and broadcasters who provide the massive multibillion TV contracts.
As they are the source of such huge amounts of club revenue, media companies should specify that a certain number or percentage of tickets should be heavily subsidised by the club so as to make them obtainable by practically anyone. This would have the benefit of increasing match-day attendance, improving game atmosphere and improving club-community relations. While some small schemes do exist at individual clubs there is nothing league wide. I have broken down how such a scheme could work into four possible sections.
Subsidised season tickets
As shown above Bayern Munich have stated that one of the reasons that they maintain a lower cost season ticket is so a fan who finds themselves unemployed or receiving a pay cut could still realistically afford to attend games. A similar scheme could benefit hard pressed season ticket holders in England, or recently lapsed season ticket holders who could no longer afford to attend. To maintain a sense of fairness this could be changed each year with a new group benefitting from the scheme. In this way fans that may have felt disenfranchised or disconnected from their club can feel valued once again. It also ensures that those fans that are steeped in the culture and rituals of the club can be there to help create a vibrant atmosphere. This type of scheme would especially suit a club like Liverpool with a high average attendance and season ticket waiting lists.
There have been numerous incidents of away ticket allocations being unfilled, even by clubs whose supporters have a reputation for travelling en masse. Subsidised tickets, and indeed transport to games, could be provided, away supporters tend to be well organised and vocal and help create a sense of atmosphere and occasion, this is a huge part of British fan culture and is not seen in all Leagues, Spain’s La Liga for example has a much smaller amount of away fans at games. Manchester City, using funds raised from their playing staff have already begun operating a similar scheme.
Youth and social benefit
Free or heavily subsidised tickets could be offered to local community groups and organisations, especially in disadvantaged areas. This could be a way to engage with local young adults who traditionally would have formed the backbone of a club’s supporters but at present could not afford a season ticket. It could be a way for clubs to strengthen their ties with their local area and build on demographic gap in their support base. Tickets could be given to youth clubs, sports teams, community groups, these tickets could then be raffle prizes, or could be offered as reward to young people in recognition of some positive achievement recently in their life, be it sporting, academic, community based or otherwise, thus strengthening the mental association with the local football team and positive community and personal development.
Any club worth their salt will have carried out some type of research on their regular supporters, they will therefore be aware of the average fan profile and where they are falling short. Are their fewer women attending than on average? Fewer people from ethnic minority communities? In a way to help create more diverse spaces within stadia why not use the discounted ticket scheme to broaden the club’s fanbase and build connections with under-represented groups in the community. Social spaces can offer few occasions for people to engage with their neighbours, regardless of their background, we tend to stick with our small tried and trusted social groups. Perhaps a more diverse football stadium will help create greater social dialogue between supporters from different backgrounds. Similarly perhaps having more women or people of colour at football matches will act as break on the behaviour of the small number of idiots who persist in using racist or sexist abuse. From a global marketing point of view international broadcasters can only benefit if Britain’s diversity is beamed into homes around the world, viewers identifying more when the see that football support is not just homogenous white male but recognise people like themselves in the crowd.
These are simple recommendations and they could work. In some cases variations of these programmes already exist within the Premier League, for example each club has been given a €200,000 fund to subsidize away fan travel. However more needs to be done, it is not enough to have some responsible clubs while others make nothing more than token gestures. The short-termism that is prevalent in some clubs, coupled with the idea that there is no breaking point for football supporters and that they will continue to pay rising prices for tickets means that they are unlikely to be enacted without some form of coercion.
The owners of Hull City and Cardiff City have been happy to ignore the wishes of their loyal supporters and chase unquantified “international markets” as the cash cows for their clubs; the financial rationale for this has never been really made clear. So coercion from the money men would be required, failure to comply with this part of a broadcast service level agreement could mean that a club would lose a percentage of their international TV rights money.
This does not mean that clubs would need to start discounting ten or fifteen thousand tickets for next to nothing, it merely incentivises clubs to do those things that they should be doing anyway, such as fostering greater links with the communities in which they are based, making their supporters feel valued, and making it possible for those at an economic disadvantage to still attend live football.