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English Football and the Economic Crisis

The Virgin Money Football Fans’ Inflation Index, the quarterly survey of the cost of being a football fan in England, has released its first report for 2009. Black clouds hang heavy over the interpretation of the results, with the headline discovery being that nearly a quarter of season-ticket holders are thinking of giving up their tickets. The words “recession” and “credit crunch” come into this in roughly the same way that the villain comes into the western, saloon doors swinging.

Actually, though, considering the extent of the financial crisis and the gloominess of the last several of these surveys, the results don’t look that bad, at least not to the extent that the media is claiming. A quarter of supporters are thinking about giving up their season tickets, not planning to give it up or actually giving it up. If current conditions hold, the number of supporters who eventually decide to drop their tickets will presumably be much smaller. And since, without more access to the Virgin Money database, we have no way of knowing (a) how many people might always be “considering” giving up their ticket, even under normal, non-economic-crisis conditions or (b) whether the survey presented the question in a leading way to encourage people to say yes (I don’t know how neutral the survey is, but I can imagine them asking something like, “Given the worsening global economy and fears of a prolonged recession, would you consider giving up your season ticket?”), this finding can probably be paraphrased more accurately as “people are aware that they may have to adjust to a struggling economy” than as “droves of fans are on the point of abandoning football.”

Another major point in the survey is that the average cost of a matchday in the Premier League and the Football League is now £95.60. All of the reports I’ve read on the survey mention that this figure is 22.6% higher than it was three years ago. So far none of them has noted that it’s also 10% lower than it was in the previous Virgin survey, released in September 2008, when the average cost of attending a game was reportedly £106.21. If the survey is accurate, why isn’t this being reported as evidence that prices in football are falling? And if the survey isn’t accurate, why is it being reported at all?

I don’t at all mean to imply that football, in England or anywhere else, will be immune from a prolonged recession. Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, is in the news today for having declared that the worst-case scenario for top-flight teams is that their attendances will fall by 1%, and that’s obviously absurd. It could be much worse than that, much more quickly. But then, no one knows what long-term effect the economic decline might have on football, because no one can see the long-term future of the economy. And the Virgin Money survey, or at least the reporting surrounding it, seems sculpted to fit a media-ready narrative of anxiety and imminent collapse rather than to help us see what’s actually happening, or what will.

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English Football and the Economic Crisis

by Brian Phillips · January 13, 2009

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