Last Wednesday, the German double winners, Borussia Dortmund, came to the reigning English League champions, Manchester City, and played them off their own park. Only an excellent individual display by goalkeeper Joe Hart kept City alive before a late debatable penalty salvaged a point that kept them off the bottom of a competitive Champions League group. Though a high quality group, with City as strong as they have been in their mixed history, the match wasn’t seen by a full house, with empty sky blue seats visible to the watching millions on TV around the world.
City are not alone. Arsenal also failed to sell out their first home Champions League group game of the season last week, and Tottenham Hotspur, who have tens of thousands on their season ticket holder waiting list, had thousands of empty seats when SS Lazio visited in the Europa League last month. Meanwhile, ahead the kick-off in Tottenham’s last league game against Aston Villa on Sunday, the PA announcer told White Hart Lane all “true Spurs fans” would buy the monthly magazine in addition to a matchday programme. There’s a recession on yet the attitude of most English clubs continues to treat its fans with contempt, as a cash cow that can continually be milked.
Next month Arsenal host Spurs in a North London Derby that never fails to sell-out. With that knowledge, Arsenal have raised the ticket price for the away allocation to £62, an £11 increase for the same tickets that were sold in the corresponding fixture in February. A near 25% rise in the space of nine months is the sign of a business that thinks it is immune to both the current tough economic climate and also any code of respect for its consumers.
Yet the empty seats suggest the clubs haven’t entirely got away with it. What a contrast to Dortmund who, as David Conn wrote in this excellent piece on how German football has deliberately sought to make sure the people’s game doesn’t price people out of the game, not only attract 80,000 for league games, but have nearly 25,000 fans who pay the equivalent of £148 for a season ticket – a little over double what Arsenal are charging for one game.
As Conn writes, in Germany football clubs are recognised as more than just businesses, but as “social and cultural institutions”. The evidence outlined above from recent European competitions suggest English football clubs aren’t even using simple business logic by failing to realise they could attract more spectators by reducing prices, so increasing their overall matchday revenue, producing a more attractive spectacle for sponsors and actually increasing their on-field chances of success by creating a better atmosphere.
The European cup games are more likely to be missed by spectators than Premier League games not because of ridiculous hype and, as Dortmund showed, certainly not because of the quality, but because the games are not tied to season tickets, which few will willingly give up, often for the cultural and social aspect recognised in Germany. Manchester United tried to tie cup games in with season tickets, but as their televised cup games show, such as against Newcastle United in the League Cup recently, the problem remains. In a recession, people will vote with their pocket when they are not forced to do otherwise.
For individual games the power is still in the hands of the fan. It is almost laughable when there is criticism of crowds for not getting behind their team vocally enough or even not filling the ground. Just as in the Olympics and in attempts to generate noise at Wembley there is a recognition that the fan is an essential part of the product that is being sold. Yet at the moment, for many English clubs, it is a one-way street. When punters start drawing the line at 25% price hikes for individual games, empty seats will send a message louder than the fake atmosphere of a Mexican wave.
The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview for free and download for less than the price of a pint in the Champions League Final from Amazon and Smashwords. It documents football at the highest level and the journey of travelling around Europe following a sport where money is now valued alongside trophies. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.