Stretched to breaking point: The Football League’s response to the Price of Football

Last week I took a look at the response from The Premier League to the BBC Price of Football survey, which was as you’d expect a pretty sophisticated attempt to debunk the negatives and position the issue in their favour.

Statistics aren’t as stretchy as elastic bands

I thought it worth doing the same with the response from The Football League, but it’s thrown up what to me what looks like a statistic the use of which might be described as ‘stretching credulity’.

The League are in an interesting, some might say difficult position, being far less well off, with a division (the Championship) that is squeezed by the Premier League, and another (League Two) with the fear of relegation into non-league.

This means that the response to an issue like the Price of Football always needs to be extra carefully calibrated to ensure it talks to both those different constituencies – and plenty in between. However I don’t think that this statement, the focus being a quote from CEO Shaun Harvey, does them any favours.

1. The opening gambit

Football League Chief Executive, Shaun Harvey said: “Football League clubs continue to offer compelling football at a price that is affordable, particularly for those buying season tickets who are rewarded for their loyalty and financial commitment with the best value ticket offerings.”

Fairly textbook stuff to start with. A straightforward opener with a nod to all the important things we’d expect these days: ‘affordable’, ‘loyalty’, ‘value’. It helps to ensure that every club in the 72 will feel like they can be part of the story here, and that the fans (not referenced directly) are being thought of too.

2. The killer statistic

“The significant numbers of season ticket holders at matches, along with ever-greater numbers of young fans, has resulted in the average price paid per paying spectator being as low as £14 across the League’s 72 clubs.”

Here’s where it gets interesting. That’s a pretty low figure – lower than I suspect most people will pay on the gate for a match. At my own AFC Wimbledon, it costs £17 for an adult matchday terrace ticket in the home end, and we’re around mid-table price-wise. So what’s the basis for this statistic then? It doesn’t say. The Premier League’s ‘average’ price was calculated using only season tickets, then they divided it up into Adult and Child rates. Although I think it was a little disingenuous to avoid walk-up prices as they did, they did make that abundantly clear, and further provided different figures for an adult and a child.

3. Killed stone dead

It includes those paying adult and concessionary prices.

To even know what their figure is based on you have to look right at the bottom of their statement, at the very last and final sentence. This suggests to me that they they know that the statistic is at the very least questionable and that they might not really want you to know the workings out behind their original ‘£14 a spectator’ claim. Whether you leave the workings-out completely, or hide them in the release like this appears to be, the affect is the same. Either way I think it harms the whole presentation of the issue, and from a reputational perspective doesn’t help at all.

4. The smoking gun

You only have to search very quickly to find out at least one of the probable reasons for the use of this statistic. Here’s part of the report about Football League prices on the BBC Website:

In the Football League, the average cost of the cheapest match-day ticket increased 31.7% in League One and 19% in League Two. In the Championship, the average price fell 3.2%.

I think that probably explains it, don’t you?

Lessons learned?
In my experience of dealing with press statements on potentially contentious issues I would always seek to try to be straight when it came to trickier parts of the story. It’s vitally important to your reputation as a company or organisation that what you say stacks up. If you’re dealing with a tricky issue like the fact that your tickets are more expensive this year than last – by some margin in this case – don’t avoid it. Don’t come up with a ‘fact’ to distract everyone that stretches people’s belief to breaking point. Fess up, deal the outcome, don’t shy away from it. You’ll only get found out.

I would also generally follow this guidance on using statistics:

1. Pick credible statistics that stack up
As a researcher in a previous life who used a lot of statistics, I was always aware of how far you could bend numbers without bending credulity. Except that’s why it’s always a good idea to make sure that the people responsible for the words always understand what the numbers mean, and how you can interpret them. We’ve all pushed at the limits of what might be true for a statistic, but there is such a thing as going too far. If you’re not sure, ask the people who did the research in the first place!

2. Show your workings-out – properly
You don’t have to put the entire calculation in the middle of a statement, as it would probably take people’s attention away from the story or response you’re pushing. In the case of The Football League’s statement, there is no reason I can see that you wouldn’t immediately explain the workings-out next to the figure. If you don’t, as I said, people will draw their own conclusions. That’s what makes me believe that in the case of Shaun Harvey’s ‘£14 average price’, that even they know that the statistic is at best a bit odd.

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