Football's 'legacy fans' under threat as club owners look to the future

Premier League supporters face steeper ticket prices as wealthy proprietors try to make their money back

Fulham fans in the stands at Craven Cottage. Getty Images
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This could become a popular quiz question. In the season, 2023-24 which football club had the most expensive non-corporate seats in the world, was it a) Barcelona b) Manchester United c) PSG or d) Fulham?

The answer is d. That’s right, little old Fulham, the one known as the Whites for their strip, that plays at the quaintly-named Craven Cottage in south-west London, is to charge £3,000 for its top-priced seats. That works out at £157 a match.

As a Fulham supporter, who holds two season tickets in the Johnny Haynes stand – named after the club’s best player – which still has wooden seats and flooring, and was built in 1905, the new tariff is shocking. It’s not where I sit but opposite, in the gleaming, brand new Riverside stand.

That comes with padded seats, plenty of leg room (the fans in 1905 must have been shaped like jockeys, judging by the lack of leg space and width in the Johnny Haynes), and attendant bars and food outlets, including sushi counter. The whole complex, which towers over the Thames and comprises football seating, hospitality, hotel, five-star restaurant, members club and apartments, has cost £160 million and it must be paid for, hence the whopping charges.

Even elsewhere in the stadium, which definably has not been upgraded, the season ticket prices have gone up by 18 per cent. My seat will cost £845.

That may seem good value compared with the “Platinum” section in the Riverside, but I don’t have an unhindered view – I’ve got pillars in the way – and as I say, I don’t have the creature comforts. Even so, by any stretch, a near 20 per cent rise is hefty. And this is Fulham, don’t forget, not those teams cited above. Our players are good but across the piece they’re not the equal of theirs and those at the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool.

We’re in the same Premier League as those English teams, we compete with them but we’re not as big. Even with the addition of the new stand, our stadium will house 28,500, a fraction compared with the glamour clubs. Nor do we have their global reach, meaning we cannot command as much in sponsorship and advertising deals.

Fulham is owned by Shahid Khan, often described as the richest person of Pakistani origin outside Pakistan. Mr Khan, who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars in American football’s NFL, made his $12.1 billion fortune estimated by Forbes from dealing in car parts and inventing the one-piece truck bumper.

Just because he is the 94th richest American and 291st richest person in the world, does not mean he wants to splurge a large slice of his wealth on Fulham and besides, football’s Financial Fair Play rules dictate that he can’t.

Mr Khan has said he will cover £40 million of losses a year, after that he wants the club to be sustainable. He also wants what the fans desire, which is for Fulham to hold down a place in the Premier League, to be the match of the best teams. This season has seen Fulham secure a brilliant 10th position, comfortably mid-table. The talk is of aiming higher next year and winning a coveted European slot.

To have any hope of achieving that we must have decent players in all areas. We need to have the cash to buy them and to cover their wages. Therefore, we, the supporters, are obliged to pay more.

Khan is taking a gamble. He’s doing something that fellow proprietors have not done, and targeted the existing season ticket holders.

That’s the reasoning behind the pricing policy. Mr Khan is taking a gamble. He’s doing something that fellow proprietors have not done, and targeted the existing season ticket holders. The truth of modern top football finance is that people like me represent a problem. In the jargon we’re known as “legacy fans” – a description that has a similar connotation to “legacy retailers”. We’re a hangover from the past and possibly do not belong in the future.

That’s because clubs are stuck with us. They can only put up our prices by small percentage increases each year, based loosely on inflation, otherwise we will protest and cancel our tickets. We take up the majority of the seats. But the reality is that they can sell match-day tickets to “tourist fans” for far greater sums than the pro rata price we pay. They can also charge much greater amounts for those in corporate hospitality.

Add to that the fact most season ticket holders gather and eat and drink away from the ground, barely avail themselves of the bars and food stalls in the stadium, don’t visit the club shop so don’t buy merchandise, and disappear as soon as the match is over – so in other words, they offer little potential for extra revenue – and you can see why we’re regarded as hopeless.

Such is the demand for Premier League tickets that virtually all matches sell out. Clubs have realised they can make more from tourist fans and those on “loyalty” schemes who must collect points to qualify to buy the few floating tickets. They get the points from spending at the club shop and online on merchandise and other offers, then they get a chance to buy a ticket at a vastly higher price than the sum I am paying to watch the same match.

Mr Khan’s punt is that Fulham is in a prosperous part of London, its followers are wealthier relative to those at other clubs and therefore he can exploit that and charge them more. It’s a fine line he is treading. Make the season tickets too expensive and the loyalty and bank balances of even Fulham fans will be tested.

He appears to have called it right, just. Season tickets with the price increase and those in the new stand are selling well. Football, though, is a fickle affair. Nothing is guaranteed. Success one season can be followed by failure the next, even with a strengthened squad. It’s a sport, the results of which are determined by human endeavour, skill, brilliance and mistakes. Referees can influence the outcome and they’re human too, even with the addition of video-assistance, so their decisions can sometimes be wrong.

That’s why, to remove the uncertainty of not achieving the revenue they seek, the owners of the biggest clubs wanted to form a European Super League, which would not have relegation for the founder members. Their scheme was shouted down but they are bound to try again.

Will fans pay £3,000 should the worse occur and Fulham are relegated? That’s the chance Mr Khan is taking. For now, he is OK.

But let’s not dwell on the negatives, stick to the positives and Fulham continue their ascent and become a top four and Champions League fixture. Come on you Whites!

Published: May 23, 2023, 11:35 AM