Friday, June 2, 2023

And they go up and up

Last week, Arsenal announced a ticket price rise of 3% for next season. Shortly after Ivan Gazidis and some of Arsenal’s directors met supporters’ clubs for Christmas drinks. Shortly before games against Manchester City and Chelsea, when there was an excellent chance that our lead at the summit of the Premier League table was to be slashed. The announcement was made at 4pm on a Friday afternoon, to coincide with the quietest evening of the week on social networking sites and fans forums.

You almost have to admire the precision of the announcement. By the time Saturday morning has rolled around, hangovers are being wearily dismissed and people are logging back onto the internet again, well, there’s a big game away at Manchester City to talk about. Alastair Campbell has much to answer for. The club will argue that announcing a small price rise in December gives supporters fair warning and a chance to put the extra cash aside when renewals open in May (or March for Club Level). In isolation, that’s perfectly fair enough.

‘Information management’ is not a new phenomenon. In 2001, when Arsenal put season ticket prices up 23.5%, renewals dropped on doormats on Cup Final morning, when the majority of season ticket holders were off to Cardiff before the first post. You feel Arsenal have perhaps learned their lesson in the murky world of spin after 2011’s 6.5% rise, which was announced towards the end of a season that self destructed, causing a crescendo of supporter protest at the final home game.

As a result of this level of ‘information management’, the question as to how the latest rise is justified hasn’t been asked as much as it ought to have been. Back in June, Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis told the press, “This year we are beginning to see something which we have been planning for some time, which is the escalation of our financial firepower. We have a certain amount of money that we’ve held in reserve, we also have new revenue streams coming on board.” He went onto claim that our renewed commercial deals will soon bring us on par with Bayern Munich’s spending power.

If I were being kind, I would describe raising ticket prices less than 6 months after boasting publicly about how much money sponsors are giving you as “a mixed message.” With Puma, Fly Emirates, BT Sport and other TV companies pumping moolah into Arsenal like it’s going out of fashion in the summers of 2013 and 2014, it’s difficult to understand why supporters need to be squeezed for any more cash. It kind of just looks like this price rise is about naked greed.

To an extent, price rises are nearly always about greed. However, personally, I convinced myself that Arsenal have always caveated it. Nobody likes paying higher prices for anything. Nobody. Everybody’s breaking point when it comes to what they’re willing to pay is personal and subjective. I suppose I had always disliked but tolerated previous price rises. Besides, we’re competing with clubs with endless resources. In 2011? Well, we hadn’t had a price rise for a few years. In 2002 and 2003 and 2004 and 2005? We had a stadium to pay for. On this occasion, I can’t even delude myself that there’s any kind of justification.

The club have cited this as an inflationary rise. Leaving aside the fact that the current rate of inflation is actually at 2.2%, I find this metric for price rises difficult to accept. Arsenal often use the first season at the Emirates as a benchmark when talking about ticket prices, much in the same way that the inaugural season of the Premier League has been reinvented as the birth of football itself. It seems like a selective time to suddenly start citing inflation that airbrushes recent history.

In the years building up to the stadium move, ticket prices underwent a hyper-inflationary transformation. Between 2001 and 2006, my family’s season tickets in the Clock End went from £455 to £885. That’s close to a 100% rise in 5 years. Now, I understand that Arsenal were financing a stadium move and in itself, that’s an important point. The club buzzword ‘self-sustained’ is a fluffy way of saying ‘fan funded.’ But ticket prices left inflation as a wheezing, doubled over figure on the horizon some years ago.

If we’re using inflation as a justification, then as supporters, we have quite a lot of credit left in that particular account. The signing of Mesut Özil is not a justification either. That was not a mortgaged or leveraged signing. The money was already there, with enough money left over for another Mesut Özil. We already paid for him. You and I. Whether you bought a shirt, a TV subscription or a season ticket, you’ve paid for Özil already. Season ticket holders bore the brunt of the stadium cost too.

So now the stadium debt has a less feverish grip on the club and the commercial revenue has expanded notably, it’s difficult to understand why the fans are being squeezed again. Even if it is “only” by 3%. If you’re already struggling, 3% is enough. It doesn’t bode well for the future either if betwixt two summers of commercial love for the club, they are still raising prices.I find some of the attitudes over this, admittedly thorny, issue quite frustrating too.

A club raising its prices out of greed is shrugged off. “Hey, they’re a company, what do you expect them to do? It’s the free market baby.” When players agitate for salary increases, we’re told, “They bring in lots of cash, why shouldn’t they?” Yet when supporters, who finance this, attempt to complain or represent their issues, eyes roll and tongues are clacked. Sit down, shut up, don’t complain or don’t go.

You can’t help but have a tacit admiration for this perfect slave-master relationship top flight football has built. Player and club excess is expected and accepted and fans end up just attacking one another in the fallout. The perfect civil war for the beneficiaries of this covetousness. Toss the peasants a bone and watch them tear one another part. As the cost of watching football spirals, I find my attitude towards certain things changing.

I used to be militantly anti booing inside the stadium. I have always hated the concept of turning against your own players simply because, on a rational level, it doesn’t help anybody. Football is a team sport and one of the most seductive things about it is that anything can happen in any one game. Any player can score and any team can win. Hell, a beach ball can bounce into your goalkeeper’s six yard box and lose you a match.

The trouble is, the game isn’t being sold to us in this way anymore. It is an arm of the entertainment industry now. We’re often told that it is comparable to the theatre. In that climate, it’s difficult to chide the paying public if they boo when it’s 0-0 at half time and the team is playing badly. I’ve never believed in having a sense of entitlement and I still don’t agree with the idea of booing ‘philosophically’, but surely it comes to a point where a sense of entitlement comes with the price tag?

Those that simultaneously defend price hikes and deride the level of support for home games would do well to remember that. We are consumers now, by yours and the club’s definition. Why wouldn’t people behave like consumers in that case? Our attendance isn’t being sold to us as a matter of our support for the team any longer. It’s being sold to us as entertainment provided by demi-god athletes worth six figure weekly salaries. I think that’s a shame.

Booing doesn’t help the players it’s true, but if my salary increases in my job, I don’t complain if my job becomes more pressured and difficult. This is the free market baby, we’re just customers. Shut up and entertain us, that’s what we’re paying for. In what other industry are the people that bankroll its excesses told to shut up, sit down and support unilaterally without question? We didn’t start the fire here.

I admit that this issue is a raw one for me, as the pithy tone of the article suggests. From my own parochial, shoe gazing perspective, the day when I am priced out is coming. Prices are going up at a much faster rate than my salary. (Hands up whose wages have gone up 9.5% since 2011?) Arsenal will struggle to justify this latest rise beyond simple greed, so the next question becomes ‘How much longer do I justify it to myself?’ It’s a lugubrious, emotive issue and that’s why you can’t reasonably ask that it is hushed up. I certainly can’t sit down and be quiet about it and, if I am a customer, nobody can tell me I should either. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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