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Big time soccer involves big time prices

Jan 9, 2013, 8:45 AM EDT

Emirates Stadium

There was a lot of talk on social media this morning about this weekend’s English Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City. While the pure talent the two sides will bring to the Emirates make the meeting compelling, the issue at hand had nothing to do with the particulars of the matchup. Instead, the point was one-third of Manchester City’s away allocation being returned to Arsenal unused. Many Citizens supporters who would normally make the trip to London elected not to fork over the £62 (just under $100) price.

High ticket prices at Arsenal aren’t news. Seats at the Emirates are notoriously pricey and a constant source of fan frustration. An index created by The Guardian earlier this year showed Arsenal’s season passes to be the most expensive in the Premier League, with Tottenham’s entry-level package (the second-most expensive in the league) over $400 cheaper than Arsenal’s lowest offering ($1,581).

Of course, the reason Arsenal can charge those rates is because people are willing to pay. Through nine home games this league season, Arsenal is averaging 60,094 attendees per match. Their stadium’s capacity is 60,361. If prices are prohibitive, they’re still not high enough to make an impact at the turnstile.

That’s why it makes it difficult to take Arsenal to task for their pricing. You may feel their prices are excessive and I may feel their prices are excessive, but if they’re able to consistently play before near-sellout crowds, we seem to be wrong. The club has tickets to sell. They sell. And that’s the point.

Not that such policies do Arsenal any favors with their fan base. With each price hike, a few more Gooners are pushed away from their team, financially unable to attend games (note: season ticket prices did not go up at the Emirates this season). While in the United States we’ve come to begrudgingly accept franchises as businesses, in England the most-diehard of fans still consider the club as an extension of the community. That may be a bit too naive for modern times, but it’s a view that resonates through clubs’ core support. It is — in terms of community relations — a fact, not a misconception. Arsenal should not only recognize this but also recognize it’s rarely good business to alienate your more ardent supporters.

That Arsenal is in focus on this issue also underscores the concerns fans have with the club’s spending policies. Though Arsenal is one of the biggest clubs in the world, their record transfer fee of £15 million (matched this summer in purchasing Santi Cazorla) is relatively low by elite team standards. The club’s also seen the likes of Robin van Persie, Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, and Samir Nasri leave over the last two years. Other talents like Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Adebayor left before. If the fans’ money isn’t going to buying or retaining players, then where’s it going?

These are all symptoms of England coming to terms with the Premier League’s unbridled capitalism, symptoms we have come to live with in the States. We’re used to our sports leagues not only raising prices but seeking more exorbitant sponsorships and kickbacks from governments. We don’t like it, we complain about it on Twitter and Facebook, but we aren’t surprised when ticket prices also go up despite most North American sports leagues capping spending on player wages.

Could we have the same discussions that are taking place in England? Yes, but to what end? This is the gambit we’ve bought into, literally. Unless you stop buying tickets, you’re contributing to the problem (to the extent you see it as a problem at all).

It’s easy for me to say these things because my job provides me access to Major League Soccer games (though my game day experience is much different from yours). Still, I can’t remember the last time I went to a professional sports event where I paid the full ticket price. I just don’t think it’s worth it. The last time I paid for a sports ticket was to a Portland Rain WPSL game in late summer (I believe it cost me $5 to see both the Rain and the Timbers’ U-23 team).

Of course, I’m not really a fan, either. I don’t have favorite teams. Even when I paid that $5 price this summer, I was there to work, not cheer. I don’t know what it’s like to feel an attachment to a club that’s so deep I’m compelled to buy season tickets, even if that means taking out a credit card just to do so. I’m not speaking from a point of empathy.

But at some point — if this is a real problem and not just an inconvenience — fans need to bite the bullet and (as they do in Germany and other countries) and stay away.

If Arsenal was only drawing 50,000 per match, their pricing policies would change.

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