Empty seats are price of greed: THE TICKET DEBATE

David Aaronovitch argues that the spiv mentality is depriving the game of passion and spectacle - and threatening its future
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For some years after the war life in Britain seemed to be run either by the jobsworths or the spivs. Typified by the conductor who would not let your Mum on the bus with a pram; the jobsworths were dedicated to the business of the Circumlocution Office in Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit, of how not get things done. Their relatives, the spivs, were children of austerity, amoral maximisers of profit from the sale of scarce resources.

For all the change of the past three decades there remain, here and there, little pockets of jobsworths - stony, ill-tempered and obdurate men of the Fifties, convinced of their own rectitude, their sights set firmly on the past. And the largest extant collection of jobsworths in Britain today are to be found running British sport. Unremittingly male, old and conservative they meet each other in clubs, committees and board-rooms, reinforcing their archaic values over and over again.

But with the coming of big money into sport they seem to have imbibed something of the spiv too, trading their past public (if mean) spiritedness for the quick buck. How else can one possibly explain the fat-headedness of the way in which the Football Association has responded to criticism of its ticketing policy at Cup matches and international games?

The facts are pretty simple. Thousands of tickets for the FA Cup semi- finals in Birmingham and Manchester last Sunday went unsold. Fans told the clubs involved that they could not afford the sums required. Most of the Manchester tickets had been priced at pounds 38 a throw, and for Liverpool supporters in particular this was too much: 6,600 of the tickets allocated to Anfield went unsold. TV viewers like me were incredulous that the impossible had been accomplished, and that some method had actually been found to deter some of the most dedicated fans in the country. Had the FA not priced the tickets far too high?

Oh no, you don't understand, replied the FA. The prices were fine, it was the ticketing structure that was the problem. There were too many tickets costing pounds 38 and not enough costing, say, pounds 18. (Seriously, this is their argument). Furthermore too many seats at Old Trafford had very good views, and thus had to be highly priced. So there you are.

Well, here is a solution that should attract the FA: using a small proportion of the revenue potentially lost from unsold tickets, the FA could construct obstacles (sheets on long poles, perhaps) all over Old Trafford, obstructing the view and justifying lower-priced tickets. Then more fans could afford to go - not because of lower prices, of course, but because of a changed ticketing structure.

The real problem, of course, is slightly different. The FA thought that it could screw more money out of supporters than in fact it managed. In the balance between the desirability of filling grounds with vocal, happy supporters and maximising revenues they tilted too far towards the latter. Exactly the same mentality was on view in the way that tickets were priced for the England versus Bulgaria game last week. Fewer than 30,000 turned up, with cheaper children's seats situated only in the restricted-view area below the Royal Box.

I am a Spurs season ticket holder and not exactly poor, but the pounds 500 for the season is a substantial slice of my family's budget for luxuries. A few weeks ago the Tottenham chairman, Alan Sugar, volunteered that he was uneasy about the cost of seats at White Hart Lane. It gave him little pleasure, he said, that many ordinary working families were now priced out of regular football attendance.

Sugar's admission was significant. After all, White Hart Lane is practically full at most home matches and three planeloads of well-heeled Lilywhites paid pounds 199 each for an all-in package at Old Trafford just a week before the semis, so why should he worry?

Because he is shrewd, that's why. And unlike the FA he recognises that football stands at the parting of the ways; that an absolutely essential element in making English football big box-office is the atmosphere of passion and excitement that loyal, often low-income and young fans bring to the matches. They are the ones that yell, sing, weep and laugh, putting sedate oldies like me to shame. Lose them, oh jobsworths, and you jeopardise the future of the game. Wise up.