Premier League doesn’t need fans to survive – but football is about more than finance

Protesting Liverpool fans walk out at Anfield before the end of the game against Sunderland
Protesting Liverpool fans walk out at Anfield before the end of the game against Sunderland
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Football doesn’t need fans. I’m sure 100% of everyone reading that sentence would disagree and to a certain degree I do too, but the fact is it’s true.

When I see Premier League clubs merely thinking about raising ticket prices next season it made me think we’ve reached a point when the most important people in football have been pushed to the bottom of the game’s priorities.

The tide is beginning to turn and clubs should be taking note.

David Preece

I’m not stupid, I know it’s been coming for a long time but the tipping point is upon us.

I follow quite a few supporters of both Liverpool and Arsenal, and as I incredulously began reading their tweets of complaint about potential ticket price rises at both clubs, my first thoughts were of absolute disgust.

Forget about business models and marketing jargon, with the influx of £8billion flooding into the top end of the game, this was the ideal chance for clubs to not only freeze ticket prices but actually reduce them.

Imagine that. After years of wringing money out of the fans with the price of tickets and merchandising, clubs could have gone a long way to making up for the disconnection and discord felt by their supporters and giving something back. But no.

Football is a business but that doesn’t mean it has to be soulless.

There can be a balance, but I take you back to my original statement. The Premier League, its clubs and the revenue streams they’ve created aren’t reliant on the income from ticket prices and could easily survive, and survive well, on the £100million a season alone they will receive from next season.

To a degree, the age of audience-less football has already begun and the crossover and influence of simulated games on football itself is growing.

Football Manager has morphed from a bedroom obsession into an influential scouting tool used throughout the professional game and the vernacular used by kids playing FIFA 2016 has now seeped into game, becoming the norm.

I gave up my addiction to Football Manager when fatherhood arrived and I’m not a gamer either, so I had to get an 11-year-old to explain to me exactly what he meant when he made a “finesse” pass to set up a goal for his friend. He even described a trick he did, not by name, but by the sequence of buttons pressed to perform it on his Xbox.

These kids are the fans being lost to the game. They sit in their rooms watching other gamers on YouTube playing online against one another.

Of course it’s a generational thing. Kids would rather sit goggle-eyed for hours on their consoles than kick a ball against a wall or try over and over and over to break their keepy-up record in the back garden.

But it’s also down to the fact that because their parents have been priced out of the game, they have too.

I’m lucky. Either as a coach, as a writer or just through friends in the game, if I want tickets to a game for my friends and family, I could generally get hold of them and for that I’m as grateful as anyone could be, because I wouldn’t pay the price of a ticket to watch a game in the Premier League, regardless of who is playing.

That may sound as if I’m somehow uncommitted or that I don’t love football as much now but if there’s one thing three years of Conference football has taught me is to appreciate what the game is really about.

It’s still professional but the two most important aspects of football are held above all at this level: the game itself and the fans who follow them.

There’s no frills, no razzmatazz, just an honesty and in most cases, a shared struggle on both sides of sponsor boards.

For years now, I’ve suggested that fans of upper echelon clubs unhappy with what they have to shell out should go and watch another local side down the ladder where their “custom” would be appreciated far greater than where they usually take their business.

At Sincil Bank, an adult and child ticket will set you back £20, whilst the cheapest at the Stadium of Light for the same is £35-£40 depending on the age of the child.

You could argue that the difference you’re paying in price is for the holistic experience of watching a higher level of football superior surroundings but no ticket ever comes with the guarantee of entertainment or quality, as we all know too well.

No doubt it’s at this point someone begins talking about “the product” and getting what you pay for and perhaps if I ever stray into the corporate side of the game I’ll understand more but right now, I see exactly where those Liverpool fans who walked out on their side are coming from.

In an interview I did with Radio City Liverpool on Friday morning, a preview of a game against Sunderland turned into a debate on whether the fans prepared to protest were right and I had no hesitation in declaring I was right behind them.

And actually, whether Liverpool’s relinquishing of the their lead had anything to do with the walk-out, I was glad it had the effect on the pitch that it did, not just because Jermain Defoe saved us a point either.

Clubs can survive on empty stands but they can’t survive on empty points columns and the sooner those who have the authority to affect ticket pricing realise the positive and negative effect their “customers” and “consumers” can have on the pitch and on their players, perhaps they will begin to understand what fans bring to the game.

Places like Anfield are synonymous with helping lift their sides to victory, so why would anyone with a genuine interest in the club jeopardise that?

F.C. stands for “Football Club”, not “Football Company” and fans aren’t customers either. Treat them as such and you shouldn’t be surprised if they begin to shop elsewhere.

The thing is though, this is football. Fans love their clubs more than they love Tesco or Asda.

Everton won’t be poaching fans from Anfield by lowering their prices anytime soon.

Germany set the standards for looking after fans but as Borussia Dortmund’s fans demonstrated this week, even they won’t stand being taken advantage of.

Their relationship with their fans has had a trickle-down effect which encompasses the whole club.

There are no divides, they are one, through thick and thin and whatever business model English clubs choose to follow, they’d be foolish not to put the fans first.

The tide is beginning to turn and clubs should be taking note. Yes, they can survive without the fan in the stand, but who wants to just survive for the money? The game is about the two F’s; football and fans. Not finance.