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Tim Rolls | September 19, 2014

From Fish Paste Sandwiches to Prawn

The changing cost of football at Stamford Bridge

When Prime Minister Harold MacMillan notoriously (nearly) said “You’ve Never Had It So Good” in July 1957, he almost certainly wasn’t referring to the price of admission at Stamford Bridge, preferring a weekend grouse shooting with his chums to watching Bentley, Blunstone and Co. What is clear though, after doing a bit of historic research and price comparison, is that in the late 1950’s watching top flight football was fantastic value, and remained so well into the 1970’s. Since then, as readers will know, the top flight game has been priced out of the reach of so many people, including people who rarely missed a game for decades.

In 1959 the average gross (i.e. before tax) weekly wage was about £10.6/- (£10.30 in modern money). An adult could stand on the terraces at Chelsea for 2/- (10p). So an adult could get into Stamford Bridge for under one percent of the average gross weekly wage. Accepting many people earned under this figure (obviously, that’s how averages work) it still means that for many in the late 1950’s going to football was an entirely affordable activity, the cost relatively insignificant. Even after food, housing costs, domestic bills and travel the disposable income of many adults would run to a fortnightly trip to the football, often taking the kids along. Attending football matches in the thirty years after World War Two was seen as a leisure activity affordable for, and enjoyed by, a mass of working people. ‘The people’s game’. It is still highly popular, of course, but the type of people who attend, or can afford to attend, is very different.

I first watched Chelsea, it cost 25p for adults to stand on the terraces

Historians often say that teenagers were ‘invented’ in the late 1950’s. What this actually means is that 15-19-year-olds had increasing amounts of cash to spend, were usually living at home so domestic outgoings were low and therefore had money to spend. Going to football with your mates was an affordable activity and this remained the case for years. Even school kids with a decent amount of pocket money or a part-time job could often afford to go to football regularly, especially if they lived fairly locally.

Players were on a maximum wage until 1961 (around £20 a week, less in the summer), so clubs costs were comparatively low and players wages was less than twice that of the national average. As an aside, some players (hello, Wayne Rooney) are now on over 600 times the average wage, an absurd and unjustifiable figure. As wages increased so costs went up (Johnny Haynes of Fulham famously got an immediate 500 percent rise to £100 a week), but even so, admission prices were still relatively low.

When I first watched Chelsea against Stoke in September 1967 it cost five bob (25p) for adults to stand on the terraces, with half price for kids (though that discount was on occasion temporarily withdrawn after pitch invasions). The terracing was never all ticket so as long as you got there early, you got in. The only league sell out at Stamford Bridge that season was against Manchester United. The crowd was 54,712 – incidentally a strangely low figure for a lock-out when two years later the crowd for the same game was 60,436. As an aside the previous, and next, home league crowds at Stamford Bridge in 1967/68 were both under 30,000, meaning United drew in an extra 25,000 spectators.

My dad took my brother and I to that game and getting the three of us in therefore cost him ten shillings. Even with programmes, tube and train fares from Camberley it wouldn’t have cost him more than thirty bob (£1.50) in total for the three of us, affordable as a special treat.

The point is that in those days league games were affordable to many people on modest incomes, and that if you wanted to go to a game, you could. There was no categorisation, it cost the same to see United, Liverpool or Leeds at Stamford Bridge as it did Burnley, Southampton or Stoke. Because going to football was relatively cheap and required little advance planning, a lot of kids were taken by their mum or dad and had become loyal supporters by the time they were old enough to go on their own. It is clear that that happens far less these days.

In those days, admission prices rose roughly in line with inflation so throughout the sixties and early seventies football remained a pastime affordable for the masses. The cost of standing in The Shed went up 220 percent in the five years from 1974-79, twice the inflation increase, but that was largely due to the parlous state of club finances post-East Stand construction, as opposed to some ‘fleece the masses’ Mears masterplan. Even in 1989, after seven years of Ken Bates attempting to put the club on a sound footing, the cheapest ticket price at Stamford Bridge (£5) was only 2.7 percent of the average gross weekly wage, so top level football was still affordable to many, many people.

Fast forward to now. The average gross weekly wage is £483. The cheapest Premier League ticket at Chelsea (middle category game for members) is £52, 10.8 percent of the average gross weekly wage. A sizeable proportion, especially given the cost of London housing and travel.

For most people on or around the minimum wage of £6.31 p.h. (£252.40 for a 40 hour week) going to games with any regularity is clearly not a realistic option, to be honest even living on that amount in London as an independent person must be almost impossible. Taking children regularly has become very difficult financially for an even greater proportion of the potential fan base, especially as the availability of discounted children’s tickets is limited to one part of the ground.

The gradual exclusion of large swathes of the working population from being able to afford the opportunity to regularly watch top class football is not exclusively a Chelsea phenomenon, of course. It is the same at every top club in England. I am using Chelsea as an example because they are close to my heart and, pertinently, because I have readier access to our historic ticket prices from old programmes. I will send this piece to contacts at a few Premier League Supporters Trusts and see if anyone can slot their historic price figures in so a pan-club comparison can be made.

I suspect a similar picture would emerge in an analysis at any top English club. Even those rival clubs that used, 10-15 years ago, to be considerably cheaper than London clubs (e.g. the Manchester clubs, Liverpool) have hiked prices up so that much of the higher end of the Premier League is the same in terms of price. The pernicious introduction of categorisation at many top flight grounds makes the visits of the top five or six teams an opportunity to further empty the wallets of those loyal supporters who can still afford to go.

The above chart (click to expand) is an attempt to map ticket price increases at Chelsea over a sixty year period and compare them with inflation, wage rises and other leisure activities. I have taken every five years to limit the amount of data I needed to collate and analyse, but hopefully the trends shown are still both indicative and valid. It isn’t necessarily that easy on the eye (!) but does indicate a number of salient points with regard to price increases above inflation :-

  • Ticket prices as a proportion of average wages quadrupled between 1989 and 2004. This eye-popping 800 percent increase in the cheapest ticket price effectively priced out large elements of potential support and alienated many who continued to go.
  • The advent of the Premier League and Sky TV money corresponded with massive ticket price increases, whereas logic might dictate the opposite was true. Any link to wage or price inflation disappeared.
  • If ticket prices had risen by inflation since 1954, the cheapest admission to Stamford Bridge would be £2.31. It is actually £52.

Things changed dramatically in terms of affordability, unsurprisingly, with the advent of the Premier League. By 1994/95 the cheapest Chelsea ticket price was £10, a 100 percent increase in five years. Far worse was to come in the next ten years. Five years later it had gone up to £24 and by 2004/05 to £40. This was a 400 percent increase in ten years, an utterly absurd and totally indefensible figure, especially when the average gross weekly wage rose by only 50 percent in that time and inflation by 30 percent.

The current Chelsea board get flak but they have actually stabilised prices

Football’s cost base has changed irrevocably, players’ wages are now out of control, TV pump in billions but control the fixture list and match going supporters pick up the bill, or simply stop going. Premier League TV money has not reduced prices, all it has done is introduce what Alan Sugar called ‘the prune juice effect’ whereby the money goes in at one end (to the clubs) and straight out the other (to the players and their agents).

In terms of pricing people out of the game the damage was largely done between 1989 and 2004, price increases over that period clearly causing a major shift in football crowd demographics. By 2004, many long-time supporters were priced out and most kids could not afford to go. Others were put off by football’s sanitisation - all seater stadiums, more monied but arguably less passionate supporters, rampant commercialisation, the bombastic promotion of our game by TV and Premier League money men, the happy-clappy half-and-half scarf mentality etc.

Some older supporters identify this as the period of the Chelsea ‘lost generation’ where rapidly increasing prices meant that most children and young adults could not afford to attend matches by 2000, creating a reduction of matchday support amongst those born in the late 1970’s and 1980’s that remains until this day.

It is worth bearing in mind that since 2004/05 the price of the cheapest adult league ticket at Chelsea has ‘only’ risen by 30 percent, with inflation rising 32 percent and average gross weekly wages by 30 percent. The current Chelsea board get flak but in reality they have actually stabilised prices in line with the wider economy. The challenge, as pointed out below, is to use any capacity extension to try and reduce prices either across the board or, more pertinently, targeting specific groups like young supporters.

A historic comparison of Chelsea ticket prices against two leisure activities historically enjoyed by a large proportion of the population, going to the cinema and drinking beer, certainly does not make happy reading. The cinema ticket price data is taken from published information, the average London beer prices is a mix of published information, lengthy web searches and a little bit of personal knowledge.

1959 1969 1979 1989 1999 2009
Ave London Pint of Beer 7p 10p 45p £1.05 £1.70 £2.90
Ave Cinema Ticket 12p 27p £1.13 £2.35 £4.40 £5.44
Cheapest Adult Chelsea Ticket 10p 25p £1.60 £5.00 £24.00 £44.00
1959 ticket (inflation adjusted) 10p 14p 46p 94p £1.34 £1.74

Until 1974 it was cheaper to go to Chelsea than to go the pictures. By 2009 it was eight times more expensive.

Beer went up 41 times in price over 50 years, which is quite bad enough. The cost of the cheapest entry at Chelsea went up 440 times over that same period, which is unbelievable.

This simple analysis clearly shows that football prices have shot ahead of a couple of once-comparable competitors for leisure money, though all have gone up by more than inflation. Football now seems to benchmark itself against the theatre and expensive concerts when talking about comparable prices, which seems to clearly indicate their target demographic. Many teenagers still treat the cinema as a regular social and recreational activity, something they certainly cannot do for top flight football. Forty or fifty years ago it was very different.

Pricing large sections of the population permanently out of attending top price football may make the Richard Scudamore's of this world salivate at the extra spending power 'new' supporters have, but this piece of unconscious social engineering has undoubtedly severed the links that clubs have with their traditional supporter base. Fulham's evident gentrification has changed the make-up of the local population massively over a generation, but there are certainly still pockets of local people earning below the national average wage. It would be nice if some way could be found to enable them to attend games, maybe with a number of tickets for selected games made available to hard-pressed local residents at a discount, building on the community work the club already carries out.

Chelsea started out with strong local roots and until the advent of the Premier League retained them. The fanbase was always drawn from wider than just the immediate area around the ground but was primarily a ‘London and suburbs’ entity. Entirely unscientifically, if you look at the letters in 1960’s Chelsea programmes most correspondents lived in Central, West or South West London, or suburbs further out in those directions.

Things have clearly changed there, too. Chelsea, like it or not, are a global entity nowadays, one of a group of about ten powerful clubs competing for support across the world. Most of those global supporters will never see the club play in a meaningful game, of course, following the club on television and online.

TV money has changed top flight football. Permanently. There is clearly an argument that the torrent of TV money should be used to heavily subsidise ticket prices. I have a lot of sympathy with that view but it is entirely unrealistic to expect Chelsea to do that on their own. It would need pan-Premier League approval and action, and there frankly very little chance of that while Scudamore and Co rule the roost. Pressure from supporters is growing, and the Premier League are at least starting to talk to supporters organisations (Chelsea Supporters Trust have attended recent meetings with the Premier League and FA, dialogue that will hopefully become more regular) but it would be naïve to think that across-the-board price cuts at all twenty Premier League clubs will happen any time soon.

Even the annual £200k each Premier League club has allocated for away supporter initiatives hasn’t been utilised properly in all cases, tales of the money being used to paint away ends and install new catering equipment abound. Chelsea, to their credit, have utilised all that money, and more, subsidizing travel and tickets. The £200k is a drop in the ocean compared with the enormous extra revenue generated by the latest TV deal, of course, though it is a start.

Chelsea clearly cannot act in isolation on ticket prices in an increasingly competitive market, especially when their capacity is 36,000 less that that at Manchester United and 18,000 less than Arsenal.

TV money has permanently changed top-flight football

Current capacity constraints present an massive ongoing challenge to the club in terms of remaining competitive now Financial Fair Play is in operation, so Chelsea significantly reducing match-day prices across the board is not a realistic option unless there is a wider price reduction initiative. Even so, the introduction of reduced price season tickets for students and/or under 21’s would seem something that could be introduced by the club now as an initial step. An online petition organised by young Chelsea supporter Jack Cox is seeking to address that very issue – more information here.

If Chelsea do redevelop Stamford Bridge with a significantly bigger capacity (as many, many supporters, including me, wish), or even if the club move, it is to be fervently hoped that a pricing structure will be introduced that recognises the pressures on supporters on lower incomes. Sadly, the lesson to be drawn from Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City is that increased stadium capacity, or a stadium move, does not inexorably lead to reduced ticket prices. Far from it.

Chelsea would win a significant amount of credit from supporters, and more widely across football, if they developed a pricing strategy in a redeveloped or new ground that recognised the need to attract young supporters, and those on lower incomes, and priced designated parts of the ground accordingly. Revenue may be lower than the potentially optimum level but a new generation of supporters would be encouraged, reaping long term dividends. Chelsea have the highest average age of match-going supporters in the Premier League and that is clearly not sustainable.

In sixty years football has changed massively, especially at the top level. Sadly, so has the demographic of those who can afford to watch it. It is critical for the future of the game that this is not an irreversible situation, and that younger and less well-off supporters are not permanently priced out of the game they love.

-Tim Rolls.

If there any errors in the analysis, I apologise. It is almost 40 years since I last studied statistics, though I have tried to check the figures as best I can. If any errors are pointed out, I am very happy to correct and credit them.

A condensed version of this piece appears in cfcuk fanzine, available from the stall on Fulham Broadway before Chelsea home games and at all away games. Cfcuk started some 15 years ago, costing £1. It still does and it is the stated intention of the editor is that this should remain the case. Taking inflation into account the price should be £1.50. It is probably the only inflation busting example in any aspect of modern football.

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