In defence of football ticket prices

Everyone’s in agreement: something must be done about the price of football. As someone who regularly spends up to £90 to watch my beloved Arsenal, I’m instinctively sympathetic with those who want football to be more affordable. 

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Photo via Guardian Witness

The argument is well-rehearsed so I don’t need to repeat it at length: hard-pressed fans who make English football what it is are being asked to fork out increasingly ridiculous sums to watch their team play. Meanwhile, clubs are charging ever higher prices whilst seeing their incomes balloon from new TV deals.

The consensus is that things need to change, and cutting ticket prices for fans seems like a much worthier way of using extra TV money than inflating agents’ fees or players’ wages further.

While the frustration is understandable, it’s not just ticket prices that have increased in the last few years – attendances have too. If ticket prices are too high, why are Premier League grounds around the country full – or nearly full – every week?

Admittedly, a Gooner unhappy with £90 tickets won’t go to watch Brentford for £27 instead: you can’t watch Arsenal at Griffin Park. But most Premier League games are available in some form or another on the internet. Despite this, each week the 60,000 seats at the Emirates are all sold.

In this context, it’s unclear to me what the correct pricing level should be, but if tickets are too expensive fans should stop buying them – clubs would soon respond by reducing prices.

Otherwise, a cap on prices is needed – imposed by the FA or the Government. There are some issues with doing that.

Although I’d like to pay less to see Arsenal, I’m also grateful for the opportunity to get tickets at all, such is the size of the club’s fanbase. Those wanting a season ticket must join a decade-long queue. A meaningful cut in prices would only increase the wait.

I’ve often tried to get tickets for away games, but it’s virtually impossible to get tickets unless you have been to every single game since Arsene Wenger took over. You could also travel without a ticket and take your chances with a tout. Many do it but, call me fairweather, I just don’t fancy taking a week off work to travel to Istanbul and haggle in three different languages with someone to pay 350 Lira for a bit of paper that may or may not get me into a Champions League qualifier that we’ll probably lose. That’s not the fault of ticket prices, and I would be concerned that a dramatic reduction in ticket prices would make it even harder to get a ticket.

Anyone who has been to the Emirates will have noticed the 60,000 seats aren’t filled with 60,000 people. Demand for season tickets is so high people are unwilling to relent theirs even if they can’t actually attend games. It’s weird that people are willing to pay some of the highest ticket prices in the country for the privilege of not actually going to a match, but it happens and it would happen even more if ticket prices were lower.

Of course, Arsenal are a well supported club. For my other team Colchester United, struggling down in League One, it’s hard to imagine such overwhelming demand in response to lower ticket prices. But if the U’s were forced to cut their prices, they would be forgoing income they can ill-afford to lose out on. Would that really be good for the game as a whole? And how would we sign players like Kenny McEvoy if we took £3 off matchday prices?

Ultimately, lower ticket prices aren’t a panacea. The biggest winners would be clubs that don’t have to rely on ticket income – clubs with an owner willing to pour their life’s immense earnings into them. Premier League clubs with their bumper TV deal would also be less affected than those in the Football League.

My other concern is that focussing on ticket prices comes at the expense of other genuine – and easier to solve – problems. Things like safe-standing and game times have a significant impact on the match-going experience. If the Government removed the ban on standing, we could increase capacity at Premier League grounds, reducing prices and improving atmosphere in the process. And if TV executives and the FA cared a bit more about away fans, we wouldn’t have to deal with Arsenal travelling to Manchester on a Monday night when the last train departs during the game.

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Responding to Simon Griffiths: What can the left learn from Friedrich Hayek?

Simon Griffiths, author of Engaging Enemies: Hayek and the left, has written a post on the LSE Politics and Policy blog asking what the left can learn from Hayek.

Motivated by an article by a group of Occupy activists in the FT, which argues that Hayek can inform a left-wing critique of capitalism, Griffiths outlines three lessons for the left. His points are interesting, and in my view he correctly identifies a key flaw in Hayek’s thought. Ultimately, however, any attempt to appropriate Hayek’s thought in this way quickly runs into problems.

Overall, I believe Griffiths makes a dubious contribution to post-Hayekian thought. The lessons Griffiths think the left can learn from Hayek require a ‘pick and choose’ approach that does little to further our understanding of Hayek. Nor can much be learnt from the fragments of Hayek’s thought Griffiths isolates to support his position.

The problem for the authors of the Occupy article is that there is nothing in Hayek’s work to justify the kind of statism they imagine it does. Either social-democrats and social-liberals must pick out pieces of Hayek’s thought so isolated from it in its entirety that they are not at all useful, or we adjust what we mean by social-democracy and social-liberalism to such an extent that they become indistinct from Hayek’s liberalism.

Despite his references to Hayek’s social theory and concern with knowledge, Griffiths also runs into problems in framing Hayek’s concern as solely with the market, and trying to extrapolate from this lessons for those who see a much bigger role for the state than Hayek ever did.

Griffiths’ first point is that the market is not the sole institutional mechanism we have to solve the dispersal of knowledge:

Understood socially, knowledge can be shared by people taking action to overcome the limits of their individual perspectives. [Founding editor of Red Pepper magazine Hilary] Wainwright’s work is full of examples of organisations – trade unions, women’s groups and co-ops – that have come together to pool knowledge in order to solve collective problems that cannot be solved by the market or by remote bureaucrats.

This is a straw man – Hayek may have viewed price signals rather than central state planning as the basis of spontaneous economic order, but his conception of spontaneous order encompassed the economy and society as whole. He therefore places value on other institutions and third sector groups within the social catallaxy. Another problem is that Wainwright’s concern – the pursuit of social justice – is for Hayek at best misguided and intellectually incoherent, and at worst a serious threat to spontaneous social order.

Griffiths’ second point is that the state has a role to play in guiding and shaping spontaneous orders. There are three possibilities here, all of which are problematic.

First, the left could see a role for the state in directing spontaneous orders towards particular goals. But Hayek’s philosophy is firmly not teleological – moreover, Hayek’s is an argument against the ability of the state to set particular end goals in advance. So it would be inconsistent to accept Hayek’s social theory but hold that the state is able to direct spontaneous orders. Second, the direction the left would go in – towards a socially-just order – undermines the notion of spontaneous orders entirely. Third, the “framework” Griffiths refers to could simply require state institutions to uphold the rule of law, within which spontaneous orders can develop and flourish. But it’s not clear why this offers any support to the left. Hayek’s repeatedly argues that social order is not designed by one mind of group of minds, which rules out it being much more substantial and prescriptive than that.

The most useful point – and one that Hayek accepted – was that the state can act where it is subject to competition, such as in the provision of public services. But in referencing Gamble’s focus on trial and error processes, the left may be able to learn more from Karl Popper than Hayek.

Griffiths’ third point, which relates to Hayek’s views on freedom, is the one I find most interesting:

For some on the left, however, while Hayek was right about the importance of these freedoms, his views are incomplete because he never explained why freedom is valuable to us. This must be because of our desire to act autonomously. In order to do this, we need certain resources – food, shelter, and education, for example. The state is crucial in providing these. Market freedoms are important, but so is the autonomy needed to pursue them. Hayek’s argument for freedom can end, not simply with a case for the free market, but with an account of those resources needed to make freedom valuable to us.

This has long been my problem with Hayek’s thought – the answer is that freedom’s value is probably limited to its role in supporting and sustaining social order, but he doesn’t offer a cogent and clear account of it. One consequence of this is that Hayek gives no explanation for why individuals should follow the social rules and inherited social traditions upon which his ‘catallaxy’ is based.

But while Griffiths’ point here is at first persuasive, he inserts into a gap in Hayek’s thought something that simply isn’t there. Asserting that Hayek must have viewed “our desire to act autonomously” as the reason to value liberty, he extrapolates an argument for the state to provide housing, education and welfare. The lack of a basis for this means there is little the left can learn from Hayek in this regard.

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