Sunday 20 April 2014

Opinion: Do the Premier League or clubs really care about away fans?

If a shop had one customer who purchased goods twice a month and another who bought a maximum of twice a year, it's pretty clear where the majority of their efforts lie. A similar approach appears to be being taken by football clubs with visiting fans.

An event held by the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) in London this week devoted a significant proportion of time to discussing attending away matches. The football fans body has spent much of this season campaigning for it's Twenty's Plenty initiative - it demands away fans should not pay more than £20 for an adult ticket or £15 for concessions - and has rolled that into a wider drive called Away Fans Matter. 

The campaign aims to highlight the difficulties facing away fans including sky-high ticket prices, eye-watering train prices, inconvenient kick-off times moved at short notice for television and facilities at away grounds. The FSF note that the raft of problems, as well as the economy over the last six years, has hit attendances - in the Premier League 9.6% fewer away fans attended last season than the one before and figures were even harsher lower down the football pyramid. 

It's a campaign which strikes a chord with me. As an 'exiled' Sheffield Wednesday fan living in London, I go to as many away matches as home. I love the pack mentality of arriving at an away game and for a bellowing singer like me, it's a buzz often missing at Hillsborough. But it does cost a fair bit with trains, food and a pint or two - and I usually grimace at the facilities or poor spot in the ground we're allocated. For fans visiting Hillsborough it's even worse. Most visiting fans tell me the Leppings Lane end is horribly antiquated and unpleasant, a fact made all the more mortifying by the tragedy on April 15, 1989 - 25 years to the day before the FSF event.

FSF chief executive Kevin Miles did, however, outline some interesting progress in improving the away experience. The Premier League has awarded each club £200,000 to spend on away fans for three seasons and clubs have approached the initiative in different ways. Some have spent it on refurbishing away ends, some discounts on train travel or free buses - which interestingly proved controversial as many small, independent bus firms rely on football business. 

Miles argued discounts on tickets was the only fair use of the funds  "Not everybody wants to go to a game on a bus, get money off a pint or DVDs of their own team playing on the away concourse," he said. "The only thing that every fan does is buy a ticket."

The advent of reciprocal pricing as a result of campaigning appears to represent some progress. Following banners and marches, Newcastle United have discounted ticket prices for visiting West Bromwich Albion and Swansea fans and received the same treatment at The Hawthorns and Liberty Stadium. The FSF's next campaign is an attempt to break down price categorisation whereby fans of top teams such as Chelsea and Manchester City have to pay 'category A' prices wherever they go while lower profile teams enjoy cheaper prices.

"Could another drastic drop in the number of away fans damage the price of the next lucrative TV rights deal?"

But do the Premier League's clubs really have an appetite to improve the experience for away fans? For those visiting from the big clubs, allocations quickly sell out every season so price is unlikely to be a factor in filling the ground. As players wages continue to balloon, a reduction in the price of tickets for fans who visit infrequently is unlikely to be appealing. FA rules stipulate away fans must be charged equivalent prices to home fans but then often take other measures to justify charging more. 

Perhaps a surprising contrast is the Premier League's stance. Miles claims that chief executive Richard Scudamore is concerned about the reduction in numbers of away fans. Away fans obviously punch above their weight in adding atmosphere to proceedings and as such a lack of them could, Miles claims, damage the chances of another huge hike in the next TV broadcasting deal. But is that true? For many clubs, a televised match has meant swathes of empty seats for years. A TV game on a chilly Friday night has often kept home supporters not owning season tickets and away fans at home. Would another 10% drop in attendance really stop a broadcaster shelling out for the rights?

Miles is more concerned by the clubs' approach. "The clubs are less keen to see that big picture," he said. "Some of the clubs only see the away fans as people who come once a year, don't spend in the club shop and cost more to police." As TV money has become far greater than ticket sales in the Premier League, so fans actually being in the ground has slipped down the agenda. 

Clearly football clubs are businesses and many will prioritise their biggest customer, TV, over fans. But an acknowledgement is needed that away fans are not simply a bunch of drunk idiots arriving in a city to intimidate the public, buy a few pies and leave but the essence of why we attend matches rather than become armchair fans is vital. 

The FSF's goals are largely admirable and a refreshingly realistic approach is being taken to much of the issue. However, if the £20 ticket target is achievable, the impact on attendances at lower league clubs where ticket revenue is far more important and prices not much cheaper, needs to be carefully studied.

Yes, away fans matter and their voice needs to be heard.

Article originally appeared on


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