Watchword that is just not the ticket

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The Independent Online
SO MUCH has been made of the Football Association's ticket-pricing policy for last Sunday's FA Cup semi-final at Old Trafford, between Liverpool and Aston Villa, that it has opened up a debate about what we are expected to pay for sporting events, and what we think they might actually be worth.

Indeed, the showbiz side of me instantly sees the opportunity for a new version of the antiques valuation game-show Going For A Song in which two teams of sports fans try to guess the worth of, say, a ticket for the final day of the Open golf, a ringside seat for a Tyson fight, or even a Huddersfield Town reserve game. The FA chief Graham Kelly could chair the show in the absence of the late Arthur Negus. No, maybe this isn't such a good idea after all.

Nevertheless, as a part-time sports writer who still has to pay to go to those events this paper doesn't require me to write about, perhaps there is some contribution I can make to the discussion based on my recent outings.

A week last Friday I paid pounds 15 for an admission badge at Aintree which allowed me access to the ground floor of both the County Stand and the Queen Mother Stand. This sounds like a bargain, but regular attenders of Aintree's few, but none the less important, meetings will know that a badge that does not allow you into the elevated positions so necessary for a view of the racing on this flat-as-a-pancake course is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.

We of the pounds 15 set were therefore left with two alternatives in order to watch the afternoon's racing. You could strain whatever neck muscles were still functioning and try to see out across the phalanx of bookmakers to where the giant "diamond screen" was relaying television pictures of the races, or you could adjourn to the bars on the ground floor of the stands and watch the horses on a smaller television screen.

This, in fact, proved to be no option at all, because the rooms were simply swamped by people who had decided that they had come to Aintree neither to bet nor to watch horses, but simply to achieve an alcoholic oblivion throughout the afternoon. Getting into the Lawn Bar, buying a drink, finding a perch to view the telly and reaching a Tote terminal were objectives which would have required the personal services of the SAS to achieve.

So when racing pals phoned that night to enthuse about Viking Flagship's fantastic victory in the Mumm Melling Chase, I had to confess that yes I had been there, but had seen only the last two fences of the race. So 15 quid gets you admission but not much else - pay more and you can go higher up, both literally and socially, an equation that isn't mine but which is enshrined in the architecture of the stands and how the Aintree management prices them.

The race-goer, like any other sports fan, therefore has to make a judgement not just on how much he can afford, but how much he has to pay in order to make attendance a meaningful experience. I took an educated guess at what pounds 15 could buy me and basically found that I had been conned.

The second outing of the week was not sporting, but involved the same sort of occasion between expense and value. A pounds 14 ticket for the dress circle at the Bristol Old Vic to see Twelve Angry Men - not a play about Joe Kinnear and Wimbledon - bought me a seat with a Victorian pillar obscuring my view of the stage and the sort of leg-room which makes a vasectomy redundant. An incidental discomfort was provided by a wooden partition that forced my arm to be raised in a Hitler salute.

Against that, however, I did see a great play, and excellent performances by those actors who played the nine angry men I could see either side of the pillar. And if my legs hadn't gone to sleep I could probably have got a drink at the bar. So the balance between what I paid, what I could see and the comfort involved, seemed to be fair. Two nights later, it was, at last, easy to get a drink, because I was in a pub watching Liverpool v Newcastle United on Sky. For the price of two and a half pints I saw probably the most pulsating game of football in years, and there could be no complaints about value for money, especially as none of mine was going to Rupert Murdoch, the chief instigator of the inflationary world of sports pricing.

And yet, you could not help but regret not being at Anfield for the genuine sense of communal passion. Did any of the fans who were lucky enough to be there complain about their ticket prices in relation to the entertainment they had witnessed?

In any transaction involving a sporting event there is an element of doubt over how much it is worth paying. The anticipated pleasures are offset by the costs, not just in relation to our ability to pay, but also in our individual sense of value-for-money, which owes nothing to our personal wealth. I know people on low wages who save up all year just to go to the Cheltenham Festival because they think it is worth it. Equally, I know rich gits who won't pay over the odds for anything.

Yet the FA plainly miscalculated the enthusiasm of several hundred angry Villa and Liverpool fans who refused to pay pounds 38 for a seat last Sunday, and duly got a well- deserved mailbag of complaints from those who had voted to keep their hands in their pockets.

This is the last recourse for anyone who finds themself baulking at prices, but it is the only action to which the market, whether it is Graham Kelly or Stan Flashman who is running it, will ever respond. Sure, you hurt yourself in the act of denial, but the consolation is in knowing that there is nothing that those in charge of a venue, be it sporting, theatrical or musical, hate more than an empty seat.

The news that Ian Botham has been nominated for election as an England cricket selector has divided the nation almost as easily as the row over ticket prices. The A C Smiths of this world see him as a threat to the established order. Others, of the non-blazered type, see Botham as just the sort of elemental force which is needed to apply a toe-cap to the complacent backside of English cricket, a man who can reverse the trend of those who have previously sorted the wheat from the chaff, and then sent the chaff out to bat and bowl.

Based on his many answers to "home questions" on A Question of Sport, Botham would probably need to brush up his knowledge of the contemporary English cricket circuit, but there is plainly some merit in involving him now before he ascends to the generation of "old fartism".

What seems certain is that he would fail or succeed in spectacular fashion - which suggests that his detractors cannot lose either way.

A last word on sporting prices: those who are going to White Hart Lane next weekend to watch American Football, featuring Gavin Hastings and the 24-stoneWilliam "The Refrigerator" Perry, had better hope that they are not going to be charged by the ounce.