Review of the Football Supporters (Access) Bill

On Wednesday, Justin Madders, MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston introduced the Football supporters (Access) Bill to Parliament. The crib notes of which can be read in an article in The Times titled Football should care more about its fans An interesting read, an interesting Bill, and well worth dissecting:

Football is our national sport, we invented the modern game and have the most popular league in the world, viewed by millions around the globe. I grew up playing and watching the game and loved every minute. I still play and watch when I can. I have less time and don’t move quite so quickly around the pitch, but I still enjoy it.

However, the difference between professional football now and when I was growing up is incredible. We have some of the best players from all over the world, huge media coverage of every millisecond of every Premier League game and more cash in the sport than it has ever seen before.

Mr Madders is correct, football has changed, and at the highest level, has become more about money generated rather than trophies won. In recent years Arsenal have been more interested in qualifying for the Champions League than winning an FA Cup. This season, Spurs played a 2nd string in a Champions League game which saw them get knocked out of the competition, to ensure they had a better chance of fielding a strong side at the weekend Premier League game to put them in the best place to qualify for next years Champions League.

More interested in qualifying for the Champions League than playing in the Champions League.

Despite this glamour and cash we still flatter to deceive on the international stage and the proportion of young home grown talent breaking through each year appears to be less and less. But not only are there fewer youngsters out on the pitch, there appear to be fewer in the stands as well.

With regards to the fewer youngsters out on the pitch comment, I feel this is baseless. The average age of Premier League players is currently around 26. He has more of a point when he talks about their being fewer in the stands as well.

During the 1980s a much higher proportion of match-going fans were younger (surveys suggest that about 20 per cent were aged 16 to 20) and it is no coincidence that the average age of a supporter now is in 40s. Some surveys suggest that the proportion of young people going to games is now less than 10 per cent. Cost plays a huge part in this, which is why my Bill, if it became law, would require all football clubs to provide 10 per cent of their tickets at discounted prices to people aged under 22.

Football crowds are getting too old. The average age is going up. That is undoubtable. And is a problem. A big problem is ticket prices. Back in the day, you and your mates could get together and go to a game with your pocket money. These days you need to take out a pay day loan.

But it is not all about prices. When you used to go with your mates back in the day, you could all pay on the gate, and stand together. These days you need to buy your tickets 2 months in advance, with membership cards, and you are limited to how many tickets you can get together. Gone are the days 15 of you could turn up and be together.

Another problem is season ticket waiting lists. The likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs have waiting lists a decade long. That will naturally increase the average age of crowds, as the average age of getting your 1st season ticket is a lot higher. You hear of less and less fans who have got their first season ticket at 13 these days. Because it is near impossible unless your parents are willing to put you on the list at birth – some do.

With waiting lists so long, people are less willing to also give them up as quickly. Add in people living longer, there are probably more 60+ year olds at games these days than there were in the 1980s. It is the same as housing in the UK. The average age of a house owner in the UK is also growing.

Whilst in theory, football clubs being forced to provide 10% of their tickets at discounted prices to people under 22 is a good idea, in practise it might not be workable.

Arsenal have the Young Guns Enclosure. A great idea to try and get teenagers at games, with friends, away from parents. It is not massively popular, to a point where at some games we only see 3 rows worth of ‘Young Guns’. We have created the supply, but where is the demand.

Also, Arsenal have around 44,000 season ticket holders (on this bit I reserve the right to be a little out with the numbers). Add in 3,000 away fans, and 3,000 in club level and boxes, this leaves around 10,000 on general sale. The Bill put forward by Justin Madders would end up with over half of the general sale tickets going to those under 22.

In theory, a great idea, in reality, impractical. And it is not just problems with the prices.

We need to do more to provide for younger supporters or we risk empty stadiums in 20 or 30 years time because the fans of the future have been driven away by sky-high prices. The match-going ritual was part of growing up for my generation, and I don’t want to see the next one lose out on that.

I do agree with the sentiment of the Bill, encouraging the future of football to go to games, it is the practicality I disagree with. And in an era of supply and demand, if stadiums are empty in 20 years due to younger supporters being driven away, prices will dramatically drop, availability increase, and we will see the fans flood back. Simple fluid economics of a capitalist society.

A second measure would require local authorities to consider the needs of match-going supporters when approving kick off times. This follows a number of high profile complaints after games were moved to times which made it impossible for to attend for travelling supporters using public transport. There are countless examples of matches being moved at short notice, in particular to accommodate the demands of TV, for example, when Everton and Manchester United played in the FA Cup semi-final in April. A 5.15pm start time meant that fans risked being left with no train home from Wembley.

At the other end of the scale, at the start of the season in the non-league, Eastleigh FC found their game against Barrow being moved to a 12:30pm kick off to accommodate TV. This left them with a 10 hour, 600 mile round trip. How can anyone seriously expect fans to travel to and from that game on public transport? The Bill requires councils to assess the availability of transport before a kick off time can be approved, so that travelling fans have a realistic chance of being able to get to the game.

That is particularly relevant as we approach the Christmas fixtures, when public transport options are more limited. Games are scheduled to kick off at noon on Boxing Day and 5.30pm on New Year’s Eve. This is also important for those fans who have gone to considerable expense to make travel arrangements well in advance, only to have the time changed at the last minute. And what about the shift worker who plans his time when the fixture list is released, only to find it is worthless as the season progresses?

Out of everything said by Justin Madders, MP, it is the kick off times I agree with the most.

Yes, Sky and BT pay a crazy amount for games, but it is time that the travelling fans get taken into account when it comes to scheduling. Anyone who has done away games on a regular basis will know the frustration.

A game put on a Sunday afternoon in Hull with no trains back to London. A Tuesday trip to Everton. A Monday jaunt from Bournemouth to Newcastle.

Where it becomes more frustrating is when you look at other games on TV that weekend. You will have West Ham v Watford at a favourable time. A time where if you were made to travel to Hull, you could get their and back. It is so frustrating.

Also how long it takes TV companies to decide what games they will show on TV is laughable, meaning that fans often miss out on the advanced train tickets, the cheaper travel options.

Games around Christmas and New Years do have some control, but you still end up with a trip to Southampton on New Years Day. Or this year for Arsenal fans, a trip to Bournemouth on January 3rd. The first working day of the year.

A third measure would require football clubs to set aside a proportion of transfer fees paid for the development of football facilities for local clubs and young people. This would apply only to fees paid by Premier League clubs who, during the last transfer window alone, spent £1.2 billion on players.

A levy of just 0.1 per cent could see an extra £1.2 million raised for grassroots football. I know money does go into supporting grassroots football but it is not enough. Given the cash washing around the Premier League it seems sensible to me to ensure a little of that money goes on helping secure our future players.

One in theory that makes sense, but seems to ignore that clubs already pump a lot of money into their local communities.

Last year, The Arsenal Foundation raised £1million to build pitches in London (and a few abroad). With £21m spent in the transfer market, Arsenal put in nearly 5% of all transfer spending back into grassroots.

Of course, not all of this was club money, some was raised from various initiatives. This year the Legends game against AC Milan will increase the foundation’s coffers further. Add in the players donating a days wages and the buckets going round the ground, the club clearly does a lot for the local community.

I can not speak about other clubs, but imagine they all do similar initiatives.

Add in the free work the players do, visiting schools, youth clubs, hospitals, and the hundreds of footballs, kits, bibs and cones clubs give away, the £1.2m Mr Madders is calling for is probably already being dwarfed by all the clubs.

In fact, Arsenal have nearly hit his 0.1% of transfer spending figure of £1.2m on their own.

A quick look sees Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs all do similar work in their local communities as Arsenal. And big spenders Manchester City have transformed the Eastlands area of Manchester beyond recognition.

If the clubs aimed for 0.1%, of transfer revenue, clubs would actually have to do LESS work.

The FA has a turnover of around £350m. Maybe instead of giving away thousands of tickets to the Football Family for FA Cup games, hosting conferences in 5 star hotels, spending £1b on a national stadium, £105m on St Georges Park, The FA should have focused more on grassroots. That is their job.

It seems Mr Madders wants the Premier League to put in the work because The FA are failing to do so.

Often pitches are in poor condition with few or no changing facilities. I recently saw a local pitch used for kids’ football where the goals were smaller at one end of the pitch than the other due to vandalism. We cannot expect the superstars of tomorrow to emerge if we are not prepared to invest in them.

Some of the worlds best players have learnt their trade in carp parks, favelas, avoiding bullets and needles. A lack of facilities did not stop the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Robinho and Carlos Tevez from making it.

We often hear that our young players are too pampered. The facilities are too nice. That we do not breed fighters, street ballers, players who will do anything to make it.

Mr Madders talks about a little bit of vandalism stopping players making it. It is clearly a fallacy.

If Carlos Tevez can make it ouf of Ejército de Los Andes and Alexis Sanchez can go from barefoot poverty to global supporter, I am sure David and Harry from Chingford, Luke from Kingston-upon-Thames, Jack from Stevenage and Frank from Romford can cope with a few broken windows in the changing room.

 

I feel the article, and Bill that Justin Madders, is coming from the right place, and does have some merit, but it also comes from a bit of a lack of understanding of what is really going on.

Having to buy tickets 2 months in advance is as much as a problem for a 15 year old as the price. Mr Madders clearly does not know what work clubs currently do in their local communities, or the hardship many of the foreign stars who end up on plying their trade on these shores have grown up in.

I think it is a positive that the situation many fans face is being bought to light, I only wish he had have actually looked beyond the surface and delved deeper into the problems that many match day fans have.

There is a feeling he has looked at the headlines of the problems, and not the problems themselves.

I will be watching the Bill’s progress with keen interest.

Keenos

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