Monday, 14 January 2013

The Price of Success

The game against Man City on Sunday proved more memorable for events on the pitch than the much-hyped protest of away fans refusing to shell out £62 for a ticket. Given that this was the first time City had won at Arsenal since 1975 you could be forgiven for thinking that ten times the national minimum hourly wage was a reasonable price to pay to witness such a rare occurrence. The suspicion is that their next victory will not be as long in coming, not because of Arsenal's current failings but because of City's accession to the game's financial elite. The point about the original complaint over ticket prices is that City's achievement in winning the League has promoted them to category A status at the Emirates Stadium. In other words, £62 is literally the price of success. Man United and Liverpool have been paying top-whack for years.

It's worth remembering that there was no actual protest by City fans, no coordinated action or "stand taken", merely an inability of the club to sell their allocation. The "protest" was entirely a construction of the media, assisted by the quote-ready representatives of supporters clubs. I was amused to see the Telegraph claiming that City possess "one of the most devoted away followings in the country", despite the failure to take up the full allocation proving precisely the opposite. The most devoted away fans I've seen at the Emirates this season were those of Schalke 04. As all British football fans know, Germans pay practically nothing to watch a game and get a free wurst and a stein thrown in (actually, they pay 15 Euros to stand and seats are in the range of 26-52 Euros.) Schlepping over to uber-expensive North London was surely a sign of real devotion.

Failing to take up a full away allocation is not that unusual and, while the increase in prices due to recategorisation may have given them pause, City fans are no less capable of finding the funds than anybody else (the idea that they are all either impoverished Moss Side scallies or the Gallagher brothers entourage is just a lazy stereotype). The media coverage has completely ignored what this says about the fragility of Man City's support, though some have at least acknowledged that the relentless increase in prices has been fuelled in large part by the "financial doping" of rich benefactors like Abramovich and Mansour. The author of that particular phrase, Arsene Wenger, has also pointed out the simple truth that Arsenal's ability to compete with City in terms of resources depends on maximising revenue. It's either high ticket prices (i.e. the self-sufficient model) or become the plaything of a rich man.

Arsenal's prices are high, though not as exorbitant as routinely claimed. Most clubs' season tickets cover 19 Premier League games. Arsenal include an additional 7 Champions League and FA Cup credits, so a total of 26 games. Consequently, the cheapest season ticket costs less per game than those at Liverpool or Spurs, while the cheapest single match ticket is less than that charged at Man United and the same as Man City. Arsenal's real money-making capability comes with the higher ceiling and larger capacity at the top-end of the price range, which explains why so many clubs would love to replicate their strategy in moving to a new, purpose-built ground. Price comparisons tend to focus on the bottom and top prices, even though this is statistically meaningless if you're trying to gauge average costs per game.

The cliche of Germany's pro-social football culture featured in Will Hutton's lament that the beautiful game embodies everything that's bad about Britain. Hutton is a social democrat who wants to save capitalism from its moral failings. He treats modern football as an analogue of the free market in which there are insufficient rules to prevent clubs being taken over by "looters" or run with disregard for the interests of the fans. The reality is that the free-market in football ended with the formation of the FA (who imposed rules) and the creation of the Football League (who controlled access to the market and the trade in players). Football is a successful example of central planning. Hutton is right that football suffers from rent-seeking, but primarily in the form of rents extracted by players, agents, officials and administrators, and such rents are pretty much the same in Germany as in England. Value extraction by owners is largely a non-issue outside of a few exceptions like Man United. The really serious capital accumulation occurs through the commoditisation of football as media content. Rupert Murdoch has made far more money out of football than Roman Abramovich has invested in it.

There is something distasteful in the sight of media organisations, including self-appointed moral arbiters like the BBC and the Guardian/Observer, talking about "the people's game" and the need not to price fans out. The expansion of media means that far more people experience football today than ever had a chance to do so in the past, even if that experience is via a TV screen or smartphone. Attendance at live matches has become a "premium product", but that very fact points to the vast expansion of the overall population of consumers, many of whom are busy consuming the football-related products of the BBC and the Guardian. It is obviously hypocritical when the same sources that lambast Arsenal for not buying (or retaining) the best players criticise them for high prices, but it is more profoundly hypocritical when they accuse the game of being exploitative while feeding off it themselves.

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