Decoding The Premier League’s response to the Price of Football

The Premier League in particular has become very adept at shaping the message that it wants people to hear about its competition, and is very successful at it. For years at Supporters Direct, though I didn’t often like what they did – or even sometimes how they did it – I was always in some admiration of their ability to control the story and events.

Is it really?

Even when they had to concede ground – which they did regularly on issues such as financial regulation after the collapse of clubs like Portsmouth or Southampton, and more recently the treatment of away fans or ticket prices – it often didn’t look like they had. They remained serene floating graciously on top of the water, but I’m sure their legs paddled like mad below.

For now I wanted to just look at the statement issued by The Premier League on late Wednesday/yesterday, as this appears to be their main response to the annual BBC Price of Football survey.

A statement like this is the basis on which any good organisation positions itself on a big issue and is particularly important given that organisations can now control their own output through the web. There is of course the challenge of social media, which creates more potential for diversion from the agreed line, likewise where those reporting it are concerned, but the statement remains an important way to position yourself and your organisation on a big issue.

1. Timing is everything

The fact that the statement itself was issued the night before the survey results came out is significant; it would have been possible on the basis that I believe (based on previous experience) that The Premier League and others would have been given at least the outline survey results in advance, not uncommon practice when it comes to this sort of story.

2. The opening gambit

Premier League clubs working hard to keep grounds full

The headline isn’t boastful or defensive. It’s intended to position the issue as something that The Premier League cares about. As it says, they’re ‘working hard’: they’re ‘striving’, not ‘shirking’, in the popular terminology.

It’s really important for the Premier League to be playing this card, and it’s part of a difficult balancing act for them: on the one hand they need to defend their position, but on the other hand they need to be seen to be taking the issue seriously because the rising cost of football has been forefront in the game for several years now. In some small way I like to think they’re probably reading the mood of the country and of politics well here: “Everyone’s having to put an extra shift in at the moment, and we are too”

3. It’s all about the Judo

Research shows increasingly diverse cross-section of population going to BPL matches

Stadium occupancy has exceeded 95% for the last three BPL seasons
Stadium occupancy has exceeded 95% for the last three BPL seasons

Premier League clubs are working hard to keep grounds as full as possible, with the past two seasons showing they are doing a good job with record occupancy at 96%. This is borne out by the BBC’s research that shows 70% of tickets available are either the same price or cheaper than last season.

The sub-header and the final line at the end of the first two paragraphs is where they use the issue that effectively points out a problem (the Price of Football Survey) to benefit them instead. Someone once told me that using the weakness of your opponent to beat them is partly what Judo is based on. So the principal here is not for The Premier League to attack, but instead to try to find a weakness in the BBC’s argument to try to make their point. It’s something I often encouraged supporters’ trusts in particular to do when they were under attack from their clubs – which sadly happened all too often. The initial temptation was usually to issue a statement ‘condemning’, ‘criticising’ or an old favourite, ‘slamming’. Not clever. I’ll come back to that another time.

Although the circumstances are very different here (the BBC’s survey is a very legitimate critique of pricing policy in football, rather than a club attacking fans because it doesn’t like its authority being questioned) it’s a smart way of dealing with the issue. It isn’t an attack on what the BBC have done; it’s using the BBC’s data to get a different result…

4. Slow to chide….

However the BBC’s focus on single match tickets is misleading as the vast majority – two thirds – of Barclays Premier League match-attending fans are season ticket holders.

You can see here that even when they do criticise – as they must at some point – they do it gently. They clearly can’t be seen to be agreeing with one of the main findings (that the cost of a walk-up ticket is now £30.65 even though inflation has been no higher than 1.3% since last October and is now negative), but they can’t lay into what is legitimate research.

5. Shift the narrative in a flurry of statistics

Average adult ticket prices
The average price paid by adult season ticket holders, two thirds of fans attending matches in the 2015/16 Barclays Premier League, works out as £32.50 a match.

Our research shows that the average price paid by them is £32.50 for adults and £10 for juniors. Outside London the average drops to £29 and £9 respectively.

This helps to explain why an increasingly diverse cross-section of the population are going to Barclays Premier League matches, with 40% of match-attending fans aged 18-34 and a year-on-year increase in the number of junior season tickets sold.

The raft of away supporter offers has seen travelling attendance go up by 6%.

This helps to set the record straight, and to change a major part of the narrative – the story, as The Premier League would have it. Why? Because they’ve managed to establish a new ‘fact’: that their average is cheaper – at £29. Why? Because even though the average season ticket price overall at £32.50 for an adult is actually more than the average walk-up price for an adult ticket they’ve kind of made that figure look less important by accounting for what you might call ‘London inflation’ – the capital’s tendency to overprice. Therefore the average season ticket price outside of London is actually cheaper than the walk-up priceSort of.

6. We have experts too, you know

Premier League clubs carefully consider the range and accessibility of their ticket pricing as recently explained by the likes of Ivan Gazidis, Robert Elstone and Tony Scholes. Proof that clubs listen to their fans and try to meet their concerns while ensuring they are still competitive on the pitch.

For information about the Premier League’s comprehensive study of ticket pricing, please click here >>

They’ve finished it off with an offer: how about you speak to our experts instead, seeing as they actually run clubs and do this stuff? Even though the BBC’s survey was properly independently gathered data, and even proved that prices had even fallen in some areas, The Premier League are still determined to make you forget one of those major headlines: that walk-up tickets are rising year-after-year, despite seven years of recession and subsequent low inflation and wage rises.

Interesting stuff. Next time, The Football League’s statement.

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