As a result of the recent international break and a whirlwind trip to New York City with my Dad to watch the New York Yankees take on their long-standing rivals the Boston Red Sox on consecutive evenings, I have been slightly disengaged from all things football over the last couple of weeks. Our baseball experience did however spark some reflections on the continued evolution of modern football.
Those who have read these pages over the last couple of years will know that I am far from enamoured with many aspects of the over-commercialisation of modern football and the dilution of the very spirit and essence of the sport that made us all fall in love with it in the first place.
Too often these days it feels as if the traditional supporter is ignored in favour of the modern day fan based on income generation potential. Increasingly it feels that those of us who still turn up to the matches are, in the words of Arsenal blogger Tim Stillman, “merely a studio audience to give the ‘product’ noise and colour”. It therefore provided an interesting comparison to spend a couple of evenings at a stadium that was built with the barely disguised desire to fleece the fans generate as much game-day revenue as possible.
For anyone unfamiliar with baseball, the Yankees are the most decorated and storied franchise in the history of the game: a record 27 World Series Championships and luminary players from their past such as: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, to name but three, that are not only renowned by followers across the pond but are also vaguely familiar to sports fans worldwide. Even those who have no knowledge of baseball at all would recognise the navy blue cap with the interlocking white NY insignia that we see everywhere across the globe.
With an estimated worth of $4 billion, the Yankees rank fifth amongst sporting clubs on the Forbes Sports Money Index, ahead of Manchester United for all their commercial might; with only La Liga’s financial uber-powers of Real Madrid and Barcelona ranking higher from Europe.
When the Yankees opened their new home in 2009 controversy surrounded the move as the cost of entry and refreshment concessions (so important to American sports fans!) were viewed as being so hideously expensive that they were not only pricing out former season ticket holders and semi-regular attenders but almost actively alienating the common fan in favour of the pursuit of corporate income. Sound familiar?
Such a strategy was based on the team being perennial play-off and championship contenders, but as performances on the field have not met the standards of the past, game-day revenues have fallen year on year. The decline has been to such an extent that according to a report in the New York Times in 2017: “ticket and suite revenues had fallen by a staggering $166 million (42%)” over the first seven seasons of the new stadium. Certainly it was previously unheard of for two visitors from the UK to be able to easily pick up tickets for a potentially crunch September series, even if it did cost us $184 (£140) per seat per game for the privilege.
As a season ticket holder at Arsenal I have seen first-hand the impact of exorbitant ticket prices combined with below par performances on the pitch; the vast swathes of empty seats that were evident throughout Arsène Wenger’s final campaign were very real testimony to the disenchantment of fans called upon to shell out a small fortune to watch their team.
It isn’t just Arsenal, nor is it just match attendance that is costing more and more, the news that Amazon have bought the rights to screen twenty Premier League matches per season from 2019/20, albeit in the form of two days of ten matches each, now essentially means that in order to watch all live matches home-based followers will need to fork out for at least three subscriptions at a cost approaching what it would cost for an average-priced season ticket for their club. Surely there has to come a point when people simply won’t bother anymore, or will simply hope their local pub/ club can continue to justify the exorbitant subscription fees that they are forced to pay.
The success of the Premier League, at least in terms of revenue generation, has been based on the guaranteed demand, both at home and internationally, combined with a lack of any real competitor. It takes for granted the fact that more and more people want to watch the games and while they may not be happy, they are at least willing and able to pay the associated cost.
Increasingly it feels as if the traditional football fanbase is being priced out of the market, no longer willing or able to justify the expense involved in watching their team live as generations before them have been able to do. As long as they can be replaced by tourist fans and those after a ‘leisure experience’, then the moneymen will hardly notice. However the substitute market is potentially way more fickle and may start to seek alternate experiences if they start to view the product as dropping in standard or if something else more attractive in the short term comes along.
Perhaps the Premier League and its clubs should be mindful of the famous fable that warns of the dangers of greed leading them to kill the very thing that made them rich in the first place and kill not the goose that lays the golden eggs.