When Manchester United faced off against Midtjylland for the first leg of the 2015/16 UEFA Europa League, in many ways, the game was an important one. The Red Devils were looking to save face, after a disappointing season in the Premier League and an early exit from the Champions League; these troubles have left the once-dominant English heavyweights looking almost weak. The Europa League could prove to be United's last shot at a trophy for the 2015/16 campaign.
And yet, there was a least one thing missing from United's big round of 32 game: Manchester United fans.
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The Manchester United Boycott
Indeed, as has been reported in publications all throughout Europe, Manchester United supporters planned a boycott and protest of the game over lofty ticket prices. According to The Guardian, tickets to the event were selling for a face value of £71. Add hotel expenses and the travel costs of getting to Midtjylland's MCH Arena, and many Red Devils fans simply couldn't afford to be present for their football club's key Europa League match.
If United were still competing in the Champions League, a £71 ticket price probably wouldn't seem so outlandish. But the Europa League does not have the prestige of the UCL, and many fans feel that the premium ticket price simply isn't worth it for a lower-tier tournament.
To make matters worse, Midtjylland was pretty obviously trying to gouge prices for the United game-perhaps assuming that, since United is a wealthy club, its fans are wealthy, too. When Southampton played at Midtjylland in August, for a Europa League playoff game, the away ticket price was £22. Similarly, tickets to Man Utd's three away games in the Champions League group stage-at Wolfsburg, PSV Eindhoven, and CSKA Moscow, respectively-ran for a "combined cost" of £75, according to United We Stand fanzine editor Andy Mitten.
A Symptom of a Broader Problem
Reportedly, Manchester United complained to the UEFA about Midtjylland's ticket gouging practices, to no avail. While the Dutch football club can certainly be criticized for taking advantage of passionate soccer supporters, though, these ticket prices are merely a symptom of a broader problem.
Indeed, the core issue here is the standard ticket prices in the Premier League. Would Midtjylland ever have assumed they could get away with a £71 ticket price if there weren't years of evidence showing that Man Utd fans were willing to pay those prices in the first place?
To be fair, the Premier League is arguably the most competitive league in European soccer. In terms of sheer quantity, there are more good to great clubs playing in England than in any other country-even if the "best" teams are arguably elsewhere right now. More good teams in the Premier League in turn translates to more competitive and exciting matches, which leads to greater demand for tickets. And as economic rules dictate, when there is a lot of demand and not enough supply, prices increase.
But prices in England have increased to such a point where many fans are no longer able to afford to be in the stands, watching their favorite teams play. According to Quartz, England had the highest "average ticket price per match" in 2015, with the standard price sitting at $83 per ticket. Spain was second, with an average ticket price of $78. No other country comes even close. Switzerland, of all places, finished third, with a ticket price average of $53, while other favored soccer countries like the Netherlands ($45), France ($41), Portugal ($36), Germany ($35), and Italy ($31) all had an average price that was around half (if not much less) than what fans pay in England.
The Fans Fight Back
For years, England's ticket prices have been higher than other countries where soccer is a popular sport. This trend is nothing new, and it probably isn't going to change any time soon. The best chance of change is the hands of the fans, who would need to stop buying tickets in order to bring about a price drop. Again, the laws of economics need to be considered here. If prices reach such a height that there is more supply than demand, clubs will be forced to reduce those prices to start filling seats and bringing in revenues again.
It appears that, finally, English football supporters could be at the point where they stop blindly buying tickets. The clearest evidence that fans are ready to fight back came in the 77th minute of a February 6th match between Liverpool and Sunderland. Heading into the game, most soccer pundits expected the Reds to grab an easy victory. Sunderland were the second from the bottom on the Premier League table, and Liverpool would be playing on their home pitch, with tens of thousands of adoring fans filling the Anfield stands and cheering them on.
But then Liverpool's own fans ripped the rug out from under them.
There, at minute 77, 10,000 Liverpool fans simply walked out of Anfield. With 15-some minutes remaining in the game, and with their team leading 2-0, Reds supporters opted to leave the stadium in protest.
The timing of the departure wasn't random, either. Rather, it was a pointed critique of Liverpool's recently announced 2016/17 ticket pricing structure, which will introduce a £77 ticket into the mix. Granted, that price won't be applied stadium-wide. Fans will only have to pay £77 to sit in one of 200 premium seats in the new "Main Stand." Still, £77 is a 25% uptick in Liverpool's highest ticket price, compared to this season. And considering the fact that the Reds have been nothing to write home about during the 2015/16 campaign, it's tough to justify a pricing increase of that magnitude.
So, why did fans walk out of that Liverpool-Sunderland match, instead of simply boycotting and choosing not to buy the tickets? Undoubtedly, part of it had to do with the statement that a walkout makes, but the other part is definitely related to what a 77-minute walkout can do to the soccer team down on the field. Liverpool were headed toward a win until their fans deserted them. Then, in the last 10 minutes of the match, Sunderland made a comeback, scoring two goals to draw the game. The message from the fans was simple: "You need us to win."
Premier League Riches
It's not difficult to see where the fans are coming from here. Premier League clubs have started earning huge fortunes in TV broadcasting deals in the past decade or two-revenues that should, theoretically, allow them to charge less for tickets. Indeed, at this point, match day tickets are a fairly small chunk of the revenues for most EPL teams. According to Quartz, just 20% of club earnings came from ticket sales in 2015. That percentage is likely to dip even further with the start of the 2016/17 season, as the Premier League begins its new £5.14 billion broadcasting contract.
The problem is that soccer clubs don't want to pass any of this extra money on to fans. They want to use it to buy more famous players; to hire better coaches; to improve their facilities; to make themselves more competitive. Undoubtedly, the forthcoming broadcasting deal windfall could stand to make the Premier League greater and more exciting than ever before.
The question is this: what's the point of it all-the famous players, the world-class coaches, the beautiful stadiums, and the competitive atmosphere-if the fans are gone? The Premier League has always been known for the dedication and passion of its supporters. If those supporters stop coming to games, what happens? Sure, the Premier League could survive financially without full stadiums, but can it survive without the soul of the game?
At Soccer Box, we want to hear your thoughts on the ticket pricing argument currently playing out in the Premier League-and indeed, throughout the entire professional football world. Are clubs just following the laws of economics and raising ticket prices as demand for those tickets continues to increase? Or are they taking advantage of their fans when they could very easily offer a more affordable experience? Find us on social media to let us know what you think! We are active on multiple social platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.