United allowed to keep captive audience for cup ties

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Manchester United can force season-ticket holders to buy tickets for cup games regardless of whether they want them or not, the Office of Fair Trading ruled yesterday.

Responding to a complaint from the Manchester United Supporters' Trust, the OFT said yesterday that the Premier League champions could continue their cup policy next season, provided fans were warned of the extra cost. The trust had sought a legal opinion about the policy, claiming that it was a further blow to fans who have faced large increases in ticket prices since the American tycoon Malcolm Glazer took charge of the club in 2005.

The OFT said that, although United had the right to demand automatic payment for cup games, there were a "number of potentially unfair terms" in their season-ticket policy.

After the announcement, the club agreed to guarantee season-ticket holders tickets for all cup games next year, regardless of allocations for officials and opposing fans.

At present, an adult season ticket costing between £394 and £912 for 2008-09 gives access to all 19 Premier League home games but also compels holders to buy tickets for every League Cup, FA Cup and Champions League match. In November, citing support from a law professor at Essex University, the trust complained to the OFT that United were abusing their position by insisting on the purchase of cup tickets. It also complained that the previous year a "significant" number of season-ticket holders had been unable to purchase tickets to the best cup matches, such as the FA Cup tie with Arsenal and a Champions League tie against Barcelona.

"On both occasions, the club informed a significant number of holders they would not be billed for a ticket for the match," the trust complained. "In other words, the holders were forced to pay for the earlier, less important matches but for two of the biggest home cup games of the season they were not allowed access."

The OFT said it had not assessed the club under the Competition Act, under which the trust had made its complaint, but had identified a number of problems with United's policy under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contract Regulations. "The club has responded positively and agreed to amend its terms," the OFT said.

United welcomed the announcement. "We are very pleased that a season ticket will continue to include cup matches," said their chief operating officer, Michael Bolingbroke. "That is central to our strategy and we have made the necessary changes for next season to avoid the situation where holders of one-year season tickets were not guaranteed tickets for some cup games. While the number potentially affected was small, we accept that all season tickets should come with that guarantee in future."

The trust was unavailable for comment yesterday. At the time of launching the complaint, its chief executive, Duncan Drasdo, accused United under Glazer of inflating ticket prices and treating fans poorly. "Over recent years we've seen unfair terms and huge ticket price rises imposed on supporters by club owners taking advantage of their loyalty," Drasdo said.