Looking behind the data in a misleading cost-of-football survey

Paying up. Can Derby County fans really get in for a tenner? REUTERS/Action Images / Paul Redding

The BBC released its Cost of Football Study on Thursday and the headlines look positive for fans. But there are holes in the research which leave us wondering if there really is an improving picture in a country where even the cheapest season ticket in the fifth tier of football – at Eastleigh – is more expensive than comparable tickets for European heavyweights Bayern Munich.

The BBC’s upbeat conclusion has its problems, and for (at least) the second year running the study is methodologically weak.

One immediate flaw apparent in the data is that the assessment of the cheapest adult price includes promotional prices and only covers tickets for home games. The study mentions that Derby County offers the cheapest at £10. A quick glance on their website to check this reveals that the cheapest ticket price for the next ten home games (up to January 2016) is advertised as £19 (games against Bristol City and Reading).

That’s a useful starting point to push us to view the article with a healthy scepticism, and look more carefully at the actual cost of attending the 72 football league clubs’ next home games.

Mixed up

One of the headline figures is that in the Championship, Derby, Huddersfield and Reading have the cheapest match day price in the top five leagues in England. The problem here is that the BBC is not comparing like for like. Instead, the calculations are based on a mixture of student and discounted, one-off promotional tickets alongside standard adult tickets.

The page in the BBC report specifically devoted to Derby emphasises this point and is where that claim over a £10 ticket appears, alongside a stated cheapest season ticket at £319. Based on a season comprising 23 home games this appears immediately wrong – why would anyone buy a season ticket for £319 when they can save £89 by buying tickets separately at a tenner a pop?

By conflating ticket prices the BBC study makes it hard to draw conclusions and thus the assertions about the cost of attending a football match are weakened. Based upon a quick sample of tickets for football teams’ next home games (scheduled for the period 17 October – 24 October) I have recalculated the cost of match ticket prices.

This methodological flaw underestimates the cost of going to a Championship game by 15% overall, or by an average of £3. I used a slightly different methodology and have used an internet search to buy a match ticket for the next home fixture of all 72 league clubs. We have to exclude the Premier League here; tickets are often sold out or only available to registered supporters.

Of the championship clubs, eight of them (including the three mentioned as being the cheapest by the BBC study) had ticket prices higher than those quoted by the BBC’s football study. Huddersfield’s cheapest tickets rose from £10 to £27.50.

Down the divisions

In League 1 and League 2, the overall average price matches up more closely with the BBC study findings. But still there will be some surprises for ticket buyers. Five clubs in League 1 were more expensive than stated as was Exeter in League 2. Some clubs do come up as cheaper but we have to consider the exclusion of booking fees or increases in prices for those paying on the day. There are also one-off events to factor in here – Doncaster is a prime example which has gone for an ad hoc reduction in ticket prices for the next home game against Bradford.

In any case, the headline figures on the price of football are misleading even in my recalculations above. And it is worth reminding ourselves of the true costs involved in supporting your club. Other costs include those admin fees for booking tickets online, money spent travelling to home and away games, and the additional costs from food and drink at the ground as well as any merchandise or programmes. Factor in the inflated costs of away tickets and it starts to stack up: Leeds, who are quoted as offering home ticket prices of £26 are charging visiting fans in a few weeks’ time £41 to attend a game. Such scenarios and ticketing discrimination are common. Clubs have varying policies on student and concessionary tickets in particular as well as restricting one-off price reductions to home fans too.

And let’s not forget how it appears in absolute terms. We might be quibbling over a 15% difference here, but in absolute terms the costs are still high. Football match ticket prices in the UK are often described as expensive relative to those offered in the top European leagues. Cheap season tickets in Germany and Spain in particular have been contrasted to the high prices paid by those who watch Premier and league football on a weekly basis. Season tickets at both the Spanish and German champions are cheaper than any league team in England or Scotland.

The BBC’s study therefore should be treated with caution – without the explanatory notes it appears that football is becoming more accessible, however normative views from terraces suggest this is not the case. Better studies would explore the discrimination of certain groups of fans and wider concerns over exclusionary ticketing, both in terms of who is able to afford to attend games and in terms of discrimination between home and away supporters.