Premier League footballers don’t tend to ask the cost of their indulgences. They inhabit a world in which facilitators effortlessly ensure bookings at the best restaurants, deals for the fastest cars, and opportunities generally unavailable to the great unwashed. The price is incidental.
Yet when Liverpool’s players were offered first refusal on “an executive hospitality experience” in a US-style “super box” capable of seating 25 people in Anfield’s new main stand, they baulked at the expense.
The sales pitch spoke of a “specially designed roof which will project a wall of noise from over 20,000 fans on to the pitch,” but the fee, “approximately” £13,000 per person, per season, affronted even the multi-millionaires who are supposed working-class heroes.
Allowing for wriggle room in the negotiating process – many first-team players currently share 10-seater executive boxes which retail at around £75,000 despite being officially priced at £100,000 – that meant finding in the region of £300,000 a year. No deal. No way. No how.
In the words of one source, who admitted he thought he was inured to the absurdities of football’s value system: “The game really is going mad.” His incredulity was shared by the owner of another executive box, who was offered an upgrade for £250,000 last July.
To put such figures into perspective, the most expensive box at Old Trafford is £175,000. Arsenal charge a top price of £150,000. Soaking the rich to assuage the poor may be an equitable economic principle, but in football the proceeds flow towards the shareholder rather than the spectator.
The episode signals an existential problem which eats away at the fabric of a club which promotes the passion of its fans as a “brand”, and the benevolent socialism of Bill Shankly as its defining principle. The contempt of the modern owner for those who have an emotional commitment to institutions they regard as investments is unconcealed.
There can be no greater indication of the greed on which the Premier League is founded than the rejection of a £30 cap on ticket prices for travelling supporters by clubs who had just been informed they will share £8.3 billion in TV revenue from next season.
The only dissenting voice was thought to be from Everton, whose self-styled status as “The People’s Club” irks their neighbours, whose followers also cherish their proactive role in the promotion of a sense of community.
Yesterday’s walkout by Liverpool supporters, in the 77th minute of the home game against Sunderland, was an unprecedented demonstration of anger, frustration and resentment at a newly unveiled ticket pricing scheme, which quickly degenerated into a PR car crash.
Ian Ayre, the chief executive, chose to speak down to fans on dress-down Friday, when he turned up at the Melwood training ground in jeans, trainers and a v-neck sweater over a plain white tee shirt. Blissfully unaware middle-aged chic and condescension usually betray a botched crisis-management strategy, he found protests “staggering”.
His argument that the club are seeking to engage younger, more local, fans was effortlessly undermined by his nonsensical insistence the TV windfall “goes into a completely different product on the pitch”.
More subtly, corporate camouflage in the US countered the perception that the pricing policy is being driven by a faction within the club’s hierarchy who favour “monetising the asset”, to use an increasingly familiar phrase at Anfield.
The website of Fenway Sports Management, the marketing arm of the Boston-based investment group which seized control at Liverpool in October 2010, suddenly changed its mission statement from “transforming fans into customers” to “transforming consumers into fans”.
It was a small but significant gesture, aimed at bridging a cultural chasm. Many Liverpool fans had taken understandable offence at the implication that, as customers, they are valued merely for their spending power, rather than their residual allegiance to a transitional team.
The North American business model, seen at its most grotesque at Manchester United, where the Glazer family is systematically siphoning income from the club, has built-in obsolescence, since it is dictated by the bloodless nature of a franchise system, which promotes the profit motive over such inconveniences as promotion and relegation.
Arsenal’s largest shareholder Stan Kroenke is in the process of uprooting his NFL franchise from St Louis to Los Angeles. The club might have grudgingly scrapped the proposed £30 ticket surcharge for the forthcoming Champions League tie against Barcelona, but sooner or later, such a cold-eyed businessman will cash in.
English football is different. It should cherish its underpinning pride, perversity and prejudice. We are rapidly approaching a tipping point, where the decent majority must make a choice between militancy, in the face of ruthless exploitation of their loyalty, and meek surrender to market forces.
Choose the latter, and your children will be denied the chance to fall in love, the way most of us did when we first walked into the wonderland of our first grown-up football match. The sights, smells and sounds which made the game a sensory experience will be memories, museum pieces.
Football is being remorselessly repackaged as homogenised, tourist- friendly mush. It is being pushed beyond the reach of its traditional audience. It is not as if the new breed of brazen entrepreneurs is very good at the core job of overseeing agreeable results and acceptable entertainment.
Manchester United are a case in point. Hugely successful financially, they are hamstrung by executive incompetence when it comes to sporting issues. Succession planning in the post-Ferguson era has been so badly conducted they are likely to have little alternative than to appoint an unsuitable new manager, Jose Mourinho, in the summer.
The language of the game is changing into a mangled version of powerpoint piffle. The marketing men tried to woo Liverpool players with a document which insisted the new stand “will be uniquely Anfield”, whatever that means. It is time to take the fight to these people.
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