Football’s experience is a warning to all sports and government

As the old saying goes, the public votes with its feet. Never has a phrase been more apt than when footall supporters deserted the Anfield stands a fortnight ago in protest at exorbitant ticket price increases by Liverpool Football Club.

As my colleague Sam Blainey has previously noted, the discontent over football ticket prices hasn’t been limited to Liverpool. And why should it? Football is set to share in a multi-billion pound TV deal windfall in time for next season. Inevitably this begs the question as to how this new-found wealth should be spent. And when hundreds of thousands of supporters each week are spending a sizeable portion of perhaps limited disposable incomes on tickets, transport and everything involved in a day out, it’s not unreasonable to expect some of this money to be used to assist them and make the game more accessible.

In Sam’ blog he raised the question of whether some form of government intervention might be on the horizon. This may happen, but the mistake made by commentators and the media so far has been to look at football in isolation.

Football is the richest sport in the country by far. But going to an England rugby match during the Six Nations will set you back perhaps £100 per ticket or more. Tickets to one of the show courts at Wimbledon are hardly cheap. And who can forget the eye-watering cost of some of the tickets for London 2012.

The wider issue of the cost of attending sporting events begs three important questions. First; what responsibility do sports clubs and associations have to ensure ticket prices remain accessible – and what responsibility do governing bodies have to compel such action? Second; how can clubs, associations and governing bodies reasonably articulate and explain rising ticket costs in the face of more revenue than ever before in sport thanks to the National Lottery and all manner of commercial sponsorships? Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – are the rising costs associated with viewing sport now a barrier to participation in sport or physical activity?

It is the third that might spark action rather than indignation from politicians and ultimately government. The Government has committed to encouraging the population to be more physically active as part of a strategy set out before Christmas. It remains the case that many people – particularly children and young people – are encouraged to try things based on the examples set by their role models, many of whom are in the sporting world. But it also remains the case that, despite the recovery since the crash of 2007/8, Britons remain reluctant to spend, especially during a period in which rising living costs have not been matched by wages. In short, rising prices for sporting events push tickets out of the reach of many low and middle income individuals and families, making sport more the preserve of the boardroom, and reduces the likelihood of young people being inspired to take up a physical activity.

The communications challenge facing sport is a sizeable and delicate one. But while football is the highest profile example, don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s an isolated issue. We may see government action on sports costs across the piste.