Friday, April 27, 2007

Buying And Selling, Buying And Selling...

One of the abiding talking points of this football season has been the cost of it all. Whether it's Premiership clubs seeing more and more empty seats at their matches, the possibility of even higher wages being offered to the best (or most marketable players), or the funding and financial structure of football clubs themselves, it's all been about money, money, money. The issue of ticket prices have been at the top of the agenda for months now. The Football Supporters Federation support a flat rate fee of £15 for away supporters for all Premiership matches, and Manchester United's vast travelling support has threatened to boycott matches in protest at all of their away matches being classed as "Category A" matches, meaning that they pay more for their away tickets than anyone else in the Premiership.

Against this backdrop, season ticket demand for next season has been reportedly low, and most clubs have reacted accordingly. Bigger clubs, frightened by the fact that their crowds are falling whilst crowds are still increasing further down the football pyramid, are slashing their season ticket prices accordingly. Charlton fans will, from the start of next season, be able to get season tickets for £275, and Crystal Palace supporters are getting a free season if they buy a four year season ticket. They have a secondary concern, too. They're pricing out the younger supporters. If you go to any Premiership match, you won't find many supporters between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. They simply can't afford it any more. In twenty years time, who will replace the forty and fifty-somethings that make up the majority of the crowds?

It was implicitly sold to us, when ticket prices started to shoot up, that the gentrification of football was necessary. We were sold a simplistic and, frankly, false image of football hooligans being young and working class. The more "middle-class" the game became, it was implied, the better it would be. It relied on the stereotype of the young and the working class as being inherently "dangerous", somehow - racist, violent drunks, hell bent on destroying the game from within. Now, of course, the hooligans have gone (and not because young, working class males are, by their nature, "bad", but because of excellent policing and stewarding, and a shift in the general culture of the game which transcends mere class generalisations), but there's no-one young there any more.

So, the ticket prices are coming down. Almost universally. "Almost" is the key word, here, because they're not coming down everywhere. Most noticeably, they're not coming down at Manchester United. Far from it. United announced an average increase in the cost of a season ticket to The Theatre Of Branded Merchandise of 14%. Manchester United, however, are in a different situation to most Premiership clubs, because they are in debt up to their eyeballs. It seems almost beyond absurd to remind myself of it, but Manchester United, the single most marketable name in world football, are £660m in the red at the moment. This came about, as some of you will already know, because of the strange way in which Manchester United came to be bought out by the Glazer family. United were one of the first clubs to list themselves on the Stock Exchange, and the Glazers' stealthy acquisition of shares meant that, under stock market rules, they didn't actually have to buy the club themselves. Having reached the required threshold, the Glazers forced the sale of all remaining shares in the club, but with the club itself paying for it. Extraordinary stuff. The stock market works like this, though. Most people, if they are financially destitute, can't borrow money for love nor money. Somehow, though, Liverpool have been taken over by a partnership, half of which has been declared bankrupt twice, once for $66m.

As I've said before, they're not doing this for fun. Glazer might have got himself a bargain, but it still cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and Gillett & Hicks have promised massive investment. They're doing this for a reason. Ultimately, this money will have to come from somewhere, and I suspect that it will be their supporters. The Old Trafford wage bill has been slashed and, with the injury list growing, the size of their squad could yet cost them all three of the trophies that they could win this season. All this is happening for a reason, and that includes another massive hike in admission fees.


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