The football economy: could we see Government intervention?

As PR stunts go, it was an incredibly effective one. As the clock turned to the 77th minute of their game against Sunderland on Saturday, thousands of Liverpool fans got up and left. It wasn’t the team – they were two nil up at the time – but rather it was at protest over plans to increase ticket prices from next season, including introducing a new pricing level that would put some tickets at £77: hence the time of the protest.

Liverpool were not the only Premier League club to suffer a self-inflicted PR wound this weekend. My club, Arsenal, sent out an email on Thursday evening informing season ticket holders they’ll be charged an extra £20 for the forthcoming game vs Barcelona in the Champions League – even though the game is theoretically included in our season tickets. Cue outrage.

Both PR disasters have similar elements to them; both show how even brands and institutions that inspire fierce loyalty can test the patience of core fans until it snaps. Both offer lessons that the clubs may or may not learn. They’d better: the ticket price issue will not go away anytime soon.

For a start, both moves had potential costs that far outweighed any gains. Liverpool’s £77 ticket will apply to about 200 seats at a handful of games. Arsenal demanding an extra £20 from each of its 40,000 or so season ticket holders will have bought them less than £1m – a pittance by the club’s standards (it makes more from each match day than any other club in the world).

Neither mooted change was explained well. The new £77 bracket was explained appallingly, if at all. Arsenal’s £20 surcharge relied on the fact that season ticket holders have seen different categories of games within their season ticket allocation this season. Clear? No, of course not. It left fans not just angry but bewildered.

Both clubs underestimated the level of anger that their proposals would inspire, partly because both clubs completely ignored the wider context. Incredibly, Arsenal managed to send an email out demanding an extra £20 from season ticket holders, who already pay the most for their ticket in European football, on the day that Premier League football clubs announced they will share over £8bn – eight billion pounds – from TV. For a club with a generally assured communications department, this is an astonishing tin ear. Liverpool too were clearly taken aback by the size of the protest at Anfield on Saturday: approximately 10,000 (or over a quarter of Liverpool fans in the ground) took part.

Liverpool and Arsenal have eloquent, well-organised fans groups. Furthermore, they have the support of vast swathes of the print and TV media: Saturday’s Match of the Day, the most-watched football programme in this country by a distance, featured an impassioned demand from Alan Shearer that prices stay low. (Both clubs, incidentally, have backed down somewhat – Arsenal sent an email to fans barely 24 hours later cancelling the charge and Liverpool are “reviewing” ticket prices.)

Fans also, ominously for the Premier League, have the support of politicians from across the board. There is literally no political downside to demanding that very rich football clubs indeed lower ticket prices. Fans have helped make this point to politicians thanks in part to the able Football Supporters Federation lobby group: the FSF are now publically musing on the possibility of a co-ordinated walkout over one weekend by fans from Premier League clubs. It would get my support; it would get the support of most, I wager, of the people that sit around me in the North Bank.

This would be a PR catastrophe for the Premier League, whose global appeal has been built in part by big, noisy, packed football stadiums providing an atmosphere that other leagues have not been able to match. The Premier League itself is an admirable organisation in some respects: it disperses TV money around its 20 different clubs giving smaller clubs – like, say, Leicester City – the resources to at least try and keep up with the richer ones. All its decisions are also reached by consensus, so rich clubs cannot bulldoze their way to what they want.

Yet this means that there is little leadership from the League as a whole. Last week, at one of their meetings, the clubs failed to agree that away ticket prices should be capped at a modest £30 across the League’s clubs. That it’s on the agenda for the next meeting in March instead will placate nobody: indeed, the very fact that the clubs rejected a reasonable proposal at a time when billions are flowing into their bank accounts, has increased the fury of fans even more.

The Premier League, and the vast majority of its clubs, have sophisticated, intelligent leaders managing multi-million pounds budget with the assistance of clever, experienced communications departments. That they can still get it so wrong is…alarming. The time and latitude for clubs to make their own decisions on ticket prices is running out. If they continue to fail then fans, and maybe even the Government, will force their hand for them.