NUST board member Michael Martin reports back from Premier League HQ on Fri 23rd Jan 2015
Back in the summer along with the Football Supporters Federation, the Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust organised a bus from the North East to London so that fans from the region could participate in a march on Premier League headquarters registering protest at the spiralling cost of watching top level football in England. Despite billions pouring into the game via television deals it has never been more expensive to watch the “People’s Game”. No-one in the world pays as much to watch football as the English PL fan.
The march attracted significant media interest and the issue of sky-high prices to watch Premier League football was pushed up the sporting agenda with politicians of various stripes all in agreement pricing was completely out of hand. How much we pay to watch football is now a subject of the chattering classes but my hope that every match-report in every newspaper details the ticket prices paid for that game is yet to capture anyone’s imagination. Sighs.
As political parties now gear up for the General Election, football has never gained such attention as all kinds of commitments in manifestos – the most significant of which is Labour’s clear determination to address the question of the game’s dysfunctional governance with greater involvement of Supporters Trusts at clubs and the wider game in general. Already the Premier League and the clubs is attempting to outflank these commitments with spurious commitments to “engage” with a wider cross-section of fans all of which begs the question, why have they waited until now? Doubtless our MPs will be subject to the blandishments of lobbyists operating in the vested interests of football’s status quo and attempting to divide and conquer supporters.
Back in the summer, I was delighted to be asked to form part of a delegation to meet with several executives within the Premier League included amongst which was Richard Scudamore, Chief Executive. To be honest, I found his whole laissez-faire economics regarding pricing entirely predictable but nevertheless remain staggered at his self-description as a representative of a trades body. Staggered and depressed, I left PL HQ with a few prejudices confirmed but with little optimism anything was going to change any time soon.
So, it came as a surprise when the FSF contacted me again and asked if I would like to return to PL HQ as a representative of the NUST to re-open discussions regarding ticket prices. Led by the FSF’s Chief Executive, Kevin Miles and including representatives from the Spirit of Shankly (Liverpool), the Blue Union (Everton), Spurs and Man Utd Supporters Trusts we once again went through the shiny black door of PL HQ to meet with a collection of PL executives for second round of talks.
The issue of ticket pricing although a simple matter i.e. it costs far too much is multi-layered and complex. As I discovered from a London-based Man Utd fan (no surprises there eh?) his idea of £35 for an away fan being reasonable is rather different to mine from Tyneside. There are specific issues for young people who when reaching 18 move from discounted children’s tickets to full price at a time when they are likely to still be in full time education and/or in low paid jobs etc.
As you would expect the discussion was wide-ranging, there were complete differences of opinion and quite a bit of to and fro. I didn’t envy the PL suits having to cope with two Scousers, two Geordies and a Mackem in full flow. In these situations, I’m always anxious that although the subject can be maddeningly complex that we come away with something positive, something we can distil and work on practically. At the end of all of these meetings, we need something to show for it, something to put in front of football supporters. Frankly, for all of the days off work to have been worthwhile!
I think we got there in the end by focusing on the away fan and what he/she pays. That was buttressed by the final realisation at the Premier League that in the words of the great Jock Stein: “football without fans is nothing”, that noisy stadiums, with colour and passion are part of the “product” (sic) being sold to TV and which gives English football its authenticity and which is under challenge from the Bundesliga. If English football loses that (and its already lost a lot of it), it loses a big part of its unique selling point. It loses its value and when that happens, it will lose its money.
Of course, there has already been some progress. To be fair to Newcastle United, they have been a leading proponent of price-matching for away fans and you can only but say fair play to them for that. However, it would also seem that the price-matching, welcome though it is has been for those fixtures which are traditionally less popular than others i.e. West Brom, Swansea, Southampton etc. You might argue the reciprocal deals have been directed by a supply and demand relationship, which isn’t exactly what we’re after is it? When United agree reciprocals for Chelsea, Arsenal, Man Utd, Liverpool, Spurs and the Mackems, I’ll tip my hat to them. Until then …
Back to the meeting at PL HQ and I think there is an appetite to get there with ticket-pricing and despite current TV deals and independent business models and all the rest of football’s new business-babble, I left King’s Cross positive about the PL’s intentions, though not naive enough not to realise we could all be getting a using for some other game those PL operators are playing. I could be wrong, I hope I am.
I think we have now had the cards on the table with the PL, I think they get it and I think if they don’t do something, they are very likely going to have something done to them by an incoming Government. I don’t kid myself they have been worn down by the strength of the argument. They are working with us because of the pressure the FSF and people like Spirit of Shankly, Blue Union and Supporters Trusts of which the NUST has been prominent have brought to be bear and the political consensus that has established that Premier League football for all its riches is broken.
The big question of course is – what happens next?
Well, right now the TV rights are again up for grabs. More money is ready to flow into football as it never has before. When the dust settles on that, we’ll be back and we’ll be pressing the Premier League, clubs and broadcasters to use some of the riches of the game to make it more affordable for you and I to go and support our team.
The Newcastle United Supporters Trust will be right at the heart of those discussions with our friends from the FSF and others. We’ll keep you posted.