All the world’s an armchair

On Wednesday afternoon, the BBC announced their decision to televise Arsenal’s F.A. Cup quarter-final tie at Manchester United on a Monday evening. Given that Arsenal fans are entitled to a sizeable allocation of 9,000 for the tie, this tinkering affected more people than television’s indifference to the away fan usually does. Not many Arsenal away matches are available to supporters without away credits nowadays.

Champions League and League Cup away matches are usually a precious source of away credits. Reduced capacities at Anderlecht and Monaco and Arsenal’s early exit from the league cup have resulted in very few away matches being available to infrequent travellers. Unusually, the Gunners have not been scheduled to play any domestic weekday matches outside of London this season. The opportunity of an increased allocation at Old Trafford for a mouth-watering tie saw many formulating plans to attend.

BBC’s decision to move the game to a weeknight curtailed those ambitions for many. It’s a decision that has been made with ratings as its cold, black heart. The hyper-inflation of Premier League television deals means that we have recently moved to hitherto uncharted territory. For the first time, the income of Premier League clubs is more contingent on those in armchairs than it is turnstile clicks. He who pays the piper calls the tune and television is increasingly dominating the administration of football. Consequently, football is becoming less compassionate towards the match going fan. I touched on this last May.

The BBC is interested solely in UK television ratings. They will argue (behind closed doors) that a solo slot on a Monday evening will garner them more viewers than sharing the bill with another tie on a Sunday or Saturday. A Monday evening kick-off is not exactly conducive to supporters outside of Greenwich Meridian Time, most of whom will be marooned at work on a Monday afternoon, or else well into a deep sleep preparing for another Tuesday at the grindstone. But the BBC do not have to worry about a global audience.

Strictly speaking, they don’t have to worry about ratings per se. If you own a television in England or if you wish to peruse the BBC’s website, you are compelled, by law, to fund them via a levy. They do not advertise, so ratings don’t directly affect their income. However, they use ratings to justify the price of a fee enshrined in legislation. The BBC does not have the opportunity to offend at fixture tinkering as much as Sky and BT Sport do. In fact, the challenge to Sky’s monopoly has been a very bad thing for the match going fan.

Rescheduling decisions are taken incredibly late in the day as a result of the joust between these broadcasting behemoths, which means planning for away games has become an exercise in project management. It increases costs too. The price of public transport rises the closer to the departure date that you book. The dissolution of Sky’s monopoly costs me a few hundred pounds extra every season transport wise. I understand fully that television is the paymaster now, but the match going fan is still contributing to 35-40% of a club’s overall income (it will differ from club to club of course).

So even if you accept the strictly capitalistic rule of thumb that television is the king of the castle, the match going fan is still kicking in a sizeable chunk of the rent. 35-40% contribution for 0% consideration and representation does not strike me as a fair deal. I find it impossible to believe that a fairer compromise between the two cannot be sought. This is even to leave aside the huge overlap between match going fans and subscribers to satellite packages.

It is also very much in television’s interest to pay more mind to the match going fan, not least the away fan. Even if supporters are merely a studio audience to give the ‘product’ noise and colour- like canned laughter, then it makes sense to try and preserve it. Arsenal’s 3rd round tie with Hull was moved to a Sunday evening and the vibrancy of the fixture was totally lacking as a result. Hull were only able to take a few hundred fans, which robs the F.A. Cup of one of its unique selling points.

Increased away allocations create a more vital atmosphere. Instead, this game seemed to take place in a weird vacuum. I think you could construct an argument that it partially informed Hull’s limp performance. This is why the FSF is targeting away pricing as a starting point with the ’Twenty is plenty’ campaign. For a start, it’s a more realistic building block in the battle against rising ticket prices. Across the Premier League (not at Arsenal, admittedly) the numbers of fans attending away matches is dropping.

Away fans bring noise and colour, they are essential to the backdrop. Occasionally, they may even provoke more cumbersome home supporters into song. The Premier League is aware that they cannot afford to lose a vital component of its mise-en-scene. Which set of fans does the camera pan to the most during live matches? The BBC’s decision to move the United v Arsenal game to a Monday evening grates because it seems so unnecessary. When I have written about my distaste for ticket prices in the past, many have, not unreasonably, offered that I should just stop going.

I confess that, in the case of rising prices, I, dear reader, am more complicit in this mutually assured destruction than you are. But how does one usefully object to the state broadcaster rescheduling a match in this fashion? If I boycott the match, I end up contributing to the Beeb’s ample TV ratings. By going, I take an active part in their ‘product’, which goes some small way to helping them sell it. That said, I am becoming increasingly apathetic to such incidences. Or rather, I have grown too weary for anger. Pretty soon, competitive games will be taking place in far flung territories. It won’t be possible to attend every match anyway.

It’s only just about possible for a fairly select group of people now. Accessibility for people like me is not part of the strategy and I recognised that quite a long time ago. Many have fallen from the horse long before me. I have something of a ‘record’ for being in the stadium for Arsenal matches which is well into a second decade. Were I not clinging to this lengthy ‘run’, I would probably have eased off by now in submission. Once this prolonged stint is interrupted, as it inevitably will be, I imagine I will be forced into wind down.

As a (very) regular match going fan, I have come to terms with the fact that I am being hurled headlong from endangered species to outright extinction. In many ways, I am willing this transition to conclusion already. I recognise that I don’t have a divine right to attend every match, but it’s hard not to feel that the opportunity to do so is not being wrenched from my grip by forces beyond my control.

If I didn’t feel a little ennui, I doubt I would have mustered up the effort to attend all of those games in the first place. Rightly or wrongly, it is obviously the product of a deeply rooted emotional connection. I read a fascinating article last week by Jonathan Freedland. He compared the Premier League to the London property market. The Disneyfication of the Premier League means it is increasingly catering to tourists at the cost of all others.

It’s important in the footballing context to understand that ‘tourist’ is not a synonym for ‘overseas fan.’ There are plenty of local ‘tourists’ and plenty of overseas fans for whom Arsenal represents a great deal more than an occasional leisure pursuit. Having recently been thrust to the outskirts of my city of birth by rising rent, Freedland’s property paradigm struck a chord.

Soon I will undergo a similar transition in my footballing existence. Soon I will move from inner city resident to suburban onlooker to the Premier League’s traveling circus. But first, I’ve travel and annual leave to cobble together for a Monday night cup tie in Manchester.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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