Why football clubs could live to regret hiking fans' ticket prices

Why football clubs could live to regret hiking fans' ticket prices

A full six hours before kick-off in Tottenham’s home game against Luton this weekend, I was at the ground for a stadium tour and “SkyWalk” with my nephew.

Even on a sleepy Saturday morning, Spurs’ home is a slick money-making machine — turn left for the tour, go right for the SkyWalk, straight ahead for go-karting — and chairman Daniel Levy deserves credit for effectively future-proofing the club while many of their rivals sweat on financial fair play rules.

They were even selling drinks — mainly from the club’s “Official Craft Beer provider” — to SkyWalkers on the roof of the stadium at 10.30am and, as kick-off approached, a long queue formed outside the club shop.

Really, my nephew and I were behaving exactly how Levy and the club want supporters to behave: arrive early and take in the attractions; watch the game and then stay late, ideally spending as much as possible on food, drinks and merchandise along the way.

This is the future of match-days, as Manchester United’s new co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who has committed to redeveloping Old Trafford, explained last month.

“The fans benefit because there’s stuff to do,” Ratcliffe told the Geraint Thomas Cycling Club podcast. “The club benefits because they can buy better players.”

Spurs are well ahead of the curve, and it was no surprise the club this morning posted huge commercial revenues of £227.7 million for the year ending June 2023, up from £183.5 million in the previous 12 months. This ready flow of cash only makes it all the more contemptible, however, that Spurs are among the clubs exploiting the loyalty of supporters with a hike in ticket prices. The club last month increased the price of season-tickets by six per cent, and announced the end of all new senior concession season tickets from 2025-26 and the phasing down of senior discounts.

If Spurs hoped the backlash would die down by the time their accounts were released, they were wrong, and today’s financial results come after supporters protested changes to senior concessions during the Luton game by turning their backs on the pitch after 65 minutes.

There is another protest planned for Sunday’s game against Nottingham Forest and the issue threatens to sour the climax of a promising season.

Spurs are far from the only club hiking prices and the “race to the bottom”, as one fan group has described it, is a Premier League-wide issue: 17 of the 20 top-flight clubs have so far announced season-ticket increases for 2024-25.

Arsenal were the first to scrap future senior concessions, while Fulham fans have long fought against rising costs — 18 per cent for adult season-tickets this season and 58 per cent for juniors.

One of the main complaints of the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust outlined in a letter to the owners last month was a steep rise in match-day pricing.

Outside the capital, Manchester City fans unfurled a banner at the Etihad Stadium ahead of Sunday’s game against Arsenal reading: “Record profits but record prices. Stop exploiting our loyalty.” Clubs justify the hikes with the need to stay afloat in an ever-competitive top-flight landscape and remain in line with financial rules.

The bottom line, though, is that ticket sales account for a relatively small percentage of top clubs’ revenues; Spurs stand to make an extra £2.5 million to £3 million a year from next season, while Arsenal will make roughly £2 million extra from season-ticket hikes of four to six per cent, having recorded revenues of £464.6 million last term.

Clubs do not really need the extra money while many supporters, stung by a cost-of-living crisis, do.

Increasingly, more expensive match-day tickets appear part of a drive to attract a different type of supporter to games, and turn match-days from a sporting occasion into a full-blown entertainment experience — of the type I experienced at Spurs.

The balance for clubs is in continuing to accommodate established supporters — who typically generate the ferocious atmosphere which makes the top-flight such an appealing broadcast product — and day-trippers, who will typically stay longer and spend more.

Ange Postecoglou, the Spurs manager, has said it is unfair to describe newer supporters as “plastic or tourists”, which is true enough.

The Australian, though, knows as well as anyone the roles football clubs can play in communities, having described his own boyhood team South Melbourne as a “sanctuary” for his family after they emigrated to Melbourne from Greece.

There are supporters who feel the same way about Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea, Fulham and City, who are increasingly in danger of being forgotten.

The obvious risk for clubs is that they will eventually pay a price for soaring revenues by losing the identity and community spirit which have been so crucial to their success.