Manchester United have been reported to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) by a group of their fans. The Manchester United Supporters' Trust (MUST), the organisation formerly known as Shareholders United that vehemently opposed Malcolm Glazer's takeover of the club in 2005, has lodged official papers with the OFT claiming that the club have "breached its statutory and legal obligations to season ticket-holders".
MUST's argument centres on the hotly disputed compulsory cup scheme, which forces season ticket-holders to agree in advance to buy tickets for cup games even though they do not know how many they will have to pay for and who the opposition will be.
At one point all season ticket-holders had to pay for all cup matches but this has now been relaxed to exclude Carling Cup games. However, MUST still claims that United are acting unlawfully because, the group believes, the club have a dominant position in the market and, they argue, fans do not transfer their allegiance just because the club acts in a way they do not like.
Specifically, MUST's complaints are that United's season-ticket terms and conditions are in breach of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contract Regulations 1999 and their compulsory automatic cup ticket scheme is in breach of The Competition Act 1998, as is their pricing policy.
In addition, they argue that massive ticket price rises in recent years – highlighted by the Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe – contravene a pledge given by Glazer in the build-up to his takeover attempt.
"Over recent years we have seen unfair terms and huge ticket price rises imposed on supporters by club owners taking advantage of their loyalty," said Duncan Drasdo, the MUST chief executive. MPs from all political parties have raised concerns and even the Minister for Sport felt it necessary to launch an outspoken attack on the huge price rises at Old Trafford in recent years.
"For a long time Manchester United was by no means the worst offender having previously had an admirable policy of keeping prices relatively low despite the success of the club. All that changed when the Glazers took over.
"However now, with the help of a team of eminent competition lawyers, economists and experts in sports law, we have been able to compile a comprehensive complaint based on Competition and Contract Law, which could have welcome consequences for supporters at clubs throughout the country."
While United are making no official comment, they are likely to mount a robust defence of their position. In particular, they are likely to point out that they have axed Carling Cup games from the automatic cup scheme and made under-16 season tickets exempt from the scheme altogether.
In addition, senior citizens have been given permission to upgrade their tickets to adult prices for individual games to make them easier to sell through the official club website.
Even so, MUST believe they have a strong case, although the OFT may take some time to decide whether to take it, let alone hear it, which may take in excess of a year.
The record attendance for a Manchester Utd game at Old Trafford (v Blackburn, Premier League, 31/3/07).Reuse content