How to make the money men sit up and listen: German tactics could help outpriced Premier League fans

Bundesliga fans came together to protest unpopular price hikes
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It is of some consolation that the issue of Premier League ticket prices refuses to go away. On Wednesday, the Evening Standard reported that Supporters Direct, a fan group, had petitioned Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore to include their plans for reduced away ticket pricing on the agenda of the shareholders' meeting on April 11.

Not so much dissent as a polite request, the call for a "standard discounted price" for away fans, free or reduced prices for kids and the covering of any eventual losses incurred by clubs by a commercial sponsor, suggest that supporters’ groups are finally beginning to organise a response to the astronomical hike in prices endured over the last twenty years.

Unfortunately, organised protest is something fans in this country are not particularly good at. In January, supporters of Manchester City tried to vote with their feet by returning a third of their away ticket allocation for a game against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in protest against the £62 minimum ticket price. Acting swiftly on what would have been a minor embarrassment for the governing body, the tickets were resold and any supporters who felt the need to air their grievances with banners quoting the mythical figure found them confiscated by stewards and the police.

With the sums of money now involved it’s no surprise that the Premier League is keen on retaining the appearance of a spotless brand and in response to the fiasco a Premier League spokesman issued this sterile statement: “The quality and safety of stadia is as a result of extensive and continued investment from the clubs. Fans clearly enjoy the environment in which they watch Premier League matches and the football on offer with occupancy rates at grounds tracking at 95 per cent for this season and having been 90 per cent+ for the last 15 seasons in a row.”

It is in this sentiment that the fundamental problem lies. As long as the powers that be continue to believe that ticket holders “enjoy the environment in which they watch Premier League matches” at this cost, then fans of all teams have a problem.

Paying for it

It may be backward to suggest that modern football has become too obsessed with winning at any cost. Is £62 a ticket value for money? The answer is no, for both sets of fans regardless of the final score.

Despite being on the raw end of the deal for some years now, supporters have struggled to articulate their grievances individually, let alone collectively. Arsenal’s unfashionable Black Scarf movement has struggled to galvanize even the club’s most disillusioned fans, while Manchester United’s Green and Gold equivalent didn’t outlast the 2010 spring collection. Sidelined as footballing extremists, these types of movements have tended to alienate fans unable to marry their unconditional support with legitimate protest. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive.

In the Bundesliga, consistently held to be the paragon of the ‘matchday experience’, the fans are quick to voice their opinions, their criticism constructive and the relationship with their clubs healthy. Once more, for all the blood and thunder visible on the terraces, the solidarity between fans of different German clubs on universal footballing matters is remarkable.

This was most evident in December of last year following the DFL’s (Deutsche Fußball Liga, German Football League) decision to pre-publish their proposed “Sicheres Stadionserlebnis” (Safe Stadium Experience) measures, which included the possibility of increased full-body searches at turnstiles, and more pertinently, expensive seat-only tickets for away fans at ‘high-risk’ fixtures.

Perceived as an infringement of fans rights with a direct impact on the quality of the atmosphere (12:12, the organisation set up to protest the measures, said the DFL wanted to make fans “sit down, shut up and pay”) the response from supporters’ organisations was swift and intelligent.

With the DFL proposals set for hearing on 12th December, the 12:12 movement responded by mobilising mass protests in stadia across the country’s three professional leagues. Fans of both home and away teams would sit in silence - or repress their anxiety as far as was possible - for the first 12 minutes and 12 seconds of the game. Dubbed “Ohne Stimme, Keine Stimmung”, or “Without Voice, No Atmosphere”, the protest was observed impeccably by the proverbial “twelfth men” for weeks leading up to the DFL’s decision. Furthermore, recognising that their fans had a grievance with the system, many Bundesliga clubs even helped facilitate these protests.

Us and them

In the Premier League however, the “us and them” relationship developing between clubs and their fans threatens not only the ‘matchday experience’ but the very fabric of the game, and change, if it is to come, needs to flow both ways. Clubs must begin to recognize that their responsibility to the fans goes beyond providing their ‘customers’ with a consummate product, and the fans need to remember that they have a responsibility to pressure the clubs and the Premier League into doing so.

Despite the decision by the DFL to push ahead with its “Safe Stadium Experience” plans, 12:12 have called their response “the most successful fan movement of all time”, watering down several of the proposals and gaining an invitation as the representative fan body to future DFL meetings. Furthermore, they promised to push forward with their own variation on the proposals, the “Fan-Friendly Stadium Experience”, and agreed that the nationwide solidarity between fans should be strengthened.

In the light of this call to arms perhaps the most disappointing statistic to emerge from the latest round of mumbling in England is the fact that the FSF only represents 12 of the 20 independent supporters’ trusts of clubs in the Premier League. For the FSF to have any hope of forcing a cap on away ticket prices, support needs to be unanimous.

While the opening of a dialogue with the Premier League is certainly a start, it should not be hailed as a breakthrough. Without more unified and creative forms of action, these incremental steps will seem like nothing more than a consolation.