FST response to Times article
In response to a recent article published by The Times newspaper (read here only if you subscribe), Tom Greatrex breaks down the points made and offers some alternative thoughts on how sustainability is made possible within football.
When he bought Fulham Football Club in 2013, Shahid Khan noted that he did “not view myself so much as the owner of Fulham, but a custodian of the club on behalf of its fans.” As he went on to recognise, that custodianship is a “responsibility and privilege” to ensure the sustainability of the club for the long term – on behalf of the community, the supporters and the game itself.
Custodianship, it seems, has not extended to the courtesy of responding directly to the open letter sent by the Trust on behalf of Fulham supporters on the club’s decision to increase the price of all season tickets by at least 18%. What it does seem to have provoked instead is an interview, behind a paywall, with a journalist seemingly unaware of or unwilling to raise the impact on thousands of loyal, long-standing supporters of price rises at double the rate of inflation during a time when cost of living pressures are acute. Perhaps it was pressure of space that only enabled Alyson Rudd to ask about the pricing of the new capacity in the Riverside Stand, or perhaps Shahid Khan was only willing to answer some (pretty softball) questions. Although we were grateful to learn that he buys groceries too.
In the interview, Shahid Khan talks a lot about sustainability – how important it is to put the club on a sustainable footing. Indeed, that is the stated rationale for, and planning permission included the ability to operate, a new stand with seven day a week facilities and attractions. Matchdays are important, and there are hospitality linked seats for the main section of the stand not yet able to be sold (the fit out of the long overdue facilities remains to be completed), but not the full picture. On that, there is no disagreement. If those seven day a week revenue streams benefit the club, and reduce the level of reliance on a benefactor, then that is the definition of becoming a more sustainable football club.
Of course, the point which seems to have evaded him, or perhaps his interviewer, is that (in his words) operating with “prudence and care” would include an understanding that sustaining a committed fanbase is also a part of custodianship. Loyal fans are the lifeblood of the club – particularly when, as is inevitable at some point, on-pitch performances decline to a level below that of the last couple of years. Those who have come with their families for generations are amongst those who have told us they will struggle to renew their season tickets when prices are increased by an unprecedented 18% in one go. The prices for new season tickets are even higher, and given the Club’s recent habit of making that the basis of the renewal price the following season, those who may just be able to stretch to renewing this year could find next year a step too far.
So why the surge in prices in the three older stands ? According to Fulham, season tickets there were underpriced in comparison to other Premier League clubs – so, it stands to reason, that as a responsible custodian operating with prudence and care, that inequality must be corrected. Although I somehow doubt that we will see those clubs increase their match day tickets to levels similar to those set by Fulham.
So, unlike those other clubs, why apply the increase in a single step that is double the rate of inflation and telegraph further above-inflation increases for the following year? While his interviewer declined to ask that fairly obvious question, Shahid Khan did talk about Financial Fair Play limits and the pressure that creates in maintaining a competitive Premier League club. The familiar refrain is that FFP restrictions leave clubs with little choice but to increase season ticket prices.
Except that justification doesn’t really stack up. Aside from the Riverside Stand, our analysis has shown that the incremental revenue from increased prices charged to existing season ticket holders equates to approximately £1.1m. Were the prices pegged to inflation, as the Trust had suggested, it would be around £550,000 more income from season ticket sales across the three stands. Broadcast revenue per club in the Premier League last season ranged from £93m to £146m – depending on how many times a club’s
matches were broadcast, and how high they finished in the table. Finishing 15th (the lowest mathematical finishing place Fulham could occupy at the time of writing) is worth £2.2m more than finishing 16th. Finishing 10th rather than 15th – £11m more. Or, put another way, 20 times the amount raised by increasing all existing season ticket holders prices by 18% rather than in line with inflation.
Or to put it even more starkly still, £550,000 is about one third of what Fulham will have received for their share of gate receipts for the FA Cup game at Old Trafford in March.
Shahid Khan did additionally suggest that a justification for the highest prices was that, some seasons ago, seats in the old Riverside stand were occupied by different people each match. They therefore must have been sold on by third party ticketing providers – with agencies, not Fulham, getting the benefit of that additional revenue. He might find that the proud occupiers of the £3000 seats in the new stand are not the same each week either.
Of course, we know – as he knows – that for many of us football is the most important of the unimportant things in our lives. We make all sorts of sacrifices and compromises in other aspects of our lives to be able to watch our club; it is part of our identity and where lifelong friendships are made and nurtured. Many of us will make financial sacrifices to continue to do so next year. Nobody forces us to do it – and if we decide we can’t afford to any longer then there is a waiting list of those who will, at least in the short term.
So why should this matter to Shahid Khan – why does he care who buys a season ticket as long as they are sold? Go back to his own words from almost ten years ago when he bought the club – “a custodian of the club on behalf of its fans”; look at the marketing material in his name extolling the virtues of Fulham as London’s oldest club with a famous old ground and a longstanding loyal fanbase that got the Club through some very tough times in the not too distant past. Custodianship is about protecting – not sacrificing – those facets of our club. Custodianship is about understanding supporters are not merely passive customers but an integral part of the character of a football club. Custodianship is an instinctive awareness that the club is stronger, happier, better when it is united and not divided. All custodians eventually pass the “responsibility and privilege” on to another – it is the good custodians who are regarded with fondness and reverence.