Counting the cost of Football

How hard is it to establish the cost of supporting a football team? Well, it seems that it is more difficult than first appears. Just take the BBC price of football survey which has recently come in for some criticism from The Ball is Round blog.

To recap the price of football survey has been running for a few years. Clubs are contacted and asked to provide pricing information about some of their tickets – most notably the most expensive and cheapest match day tickets and season tickets they have on offer.

This focus on just the ends of the pricing spectrum can though be problematic according the critique offered by The Ball is Round who demonstrates, with the example of West Ham, that ticket pricing is rather more complex:

At West Ham United for instance, the cheapest ticket is apparently £25, which it is for the pre-Christmas game versus Stoke City. The game before, versus West Bromwich Albion the same seat would cost you £45 (for a ‘Category A’ game this would rise to £70). To therefore report the cheapest ticket is so low is simply misleading.

This is a valid point. Whilst the figures for the cheapest and most expensive tickets illustrate the maximum and minimum points of a clubs price range they are rather less revealing about the amount that most fans can actually be expected to part with to see their team.

This is perhaps a point the makers of the survey are acutely aware of as unlike the 2014 iteration in the 2015 survey the larger 13 page report available on the BBC website does actually provide a figure for the ‘most popular matchday ticket tier’ which at West Ham is £51-£60. Better, for sure, but still this is somewhat vague: What does ‘most popular mean’ and just how many tickets are priced outside this bracket?

From a methodological perspective one solution to the question: what do most fans pay to watch a team would be to calculate an average ticket price, but far from being easy this is actually a task of huge complexity. The reason for this is that ticket pricing has become hugely complex. Returning to West Ham there are three categories of matches and six pricing bands for each: Bands 1-4, Restricted View and Accessibility. Added to this there are also different prices for members for category A matches.

Calculating the average price of a West Ham ticket would involve using all this information. We would, for instance, need to know how many tickets were available at each price, for each match throughout the season. This would then give us an average ticket price, but just to add an extra layer of complexity this figure would not be the actual average paid in reality by fans. To calculate this we would need to take into account the number of seats which were sold at a discounted price to members, or other concessions (for simplicity the BBC survey focuses only on the price of an adult ticket available on the day of a match – in many cases there will be no available tickets). This information would not be available until after a season has finished. In many cases too this information may not be publically available, or clubs may not wish to disclose it.

Which moves us onto the other criticism levelled at the survey by The Ball is Round, notably that it is clubs themselves providing the information. This can in some cases bring in questions of how reliable the information is, but in their description of the methodology the BBC reveal that though the clubs were asked to provide the information this was then verified by journalists at the BBC. Once again to look at West Ham’s figures the information supplied tallies with what is available on their website. It also seems unlikely that clubs would set their ticket prices in an attempt to deliberately ‘game’ the survey as there is as of yet not a great deal of importance placed on the results. On the whole it appears too that clubs have been quite happy to cooperate, with only Swansea city declining to take part.

To be sure critiques like those offered by The Ball is Round are on to something. The BBC price of survey football survey does leave many unanswered questions – my own observation would be that it ignores concessionary prices for groups such as the U18s, over 65’s and people with a disability, something which is crucial when looking at clubs reaching out to the next generation and more disadvantaged groups. But before being too tough on the BBC survey what needs to be considered are the questions of resources, complexity and proportionality. Ticket pricing is a complex issue. To me this is a sign that – rightly or wrongly – clubs have a far more nuanced view of their target market and how to maximise this revenue stream.

This complexity, as we have seen, makes any attempt to compare a large number of clubs in a consistent manner difficult. Even something as simple as the price of a pie can be nuanced as the pies will vary in both size and quality, whilst the price of pies tell you nothing about the cost of sausage rolls, or other hot snacks. You do though have to start somewhere and in this endeavour the BBC survey, for my part, gets things broadly right by providing solid points of comparison and producing information which can be (unlike many matchday pies) easily digested.

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