Travelling fans are the beating heart of football supporting culture.
I do not make that statement lightly. On the pitch, the triangular interaction of the players, managers and referees mainly determines the result. Hence, these factors are all crucial in deciding whether the spectator will enjoy the game. But a large part of the wider live football experience is the chanting, celebration and despair of the fans: the ‘atmosphere’ if you will. As well as that, I think most of us can agree that the noise in a stadium exponentially improves if there are fans of each team, reacting off the game and off each other. Therefore, if you remove the away fan from the recipe, you take away a crucial ingredient in the gourmet meal of live football. A bland soup will be all that is left.
Nearly all of us involved in football accept that. Yet the clubs seem to take travelling fans for granted. Specifically, they are making no moves towards easing ticket prices in our age of spiralling living costs – if anything they are increasing.
That is not to say ticket prices are not too high more generally – they are! Take the Premier League. Considering how much money accumulatively the clubs have made recently, for instance they just netted a massive increase in revenues from media rights, very little of this is passed onto fans. Home ticket prices overall have been steadily increasing. However there is greater awareness of this problem, and clubs recently have been making gestures towards alleviating this burden for the home fans. For instance, Arsenal froze ticket prices recently. Closer to home, Reading have engaged in bargain ticket prices for children over recent years. It was one of those ‘Kids for a fiver’ games that got me into supporting Reading. I would argue this is not enough by far, but it is a start.
Yet these concessions are almost universally withheld from the away contingent. A possible reason may be the club feeling less responsible for other teams’ fans. Another factor might be because, as away fans are generally the most ‘hardcore’, they are easier to exploit financially (not being ‘rational consumers’). Regardless, the effect of this has been a substantial rise in the cost of supporting a football team away in the last few years. This is especially true if increasing ticket prices are considered in conjunction with factors outside the control of the clubs – for example rising travel costs. Our recent Premier League adventure brought the issue into sharp focus for travelling Reading fans. Anecdotally, Chelsea away last year cost me approximately £50 for the ticket, £20 for the Train and £10 for food. I think it is safe to say that over £80 blown in a few hours is a substantial financial hit for most of us. Even in the Championship, ticket prices are still high. The upcoming Leicester Boxing day away game will cost £28 for the ticket alone. More widely, the large increase in the costs of away support has been highlighted by the Football Supporters' Federation and the national media.
If this inexorable price rise continues, I fear the consequences will be profoundly negative on the match day experience for all clubs, including Reading. Generally, away attendance will fall – which will reduce the noise and colour of those indispensable travelling fans. Home fans will have less of a spur to support their own team, and will probably become quieter themselves as a result. It will also harm diversity. Yes this has been improving since the 1980s, particularly on the gender front, although we still have a way to go. But young people, poorer pensioners and lower income workers will be effectively priced out of most away games. The result will be a travelling contingent largely made up of 40-something Dads with stable jobs trying to escape the wife and kids. These people are, of course, indispensable in our fan-base, but they should not be the only away fan representatives.
In summary, if the clubs price away fans out, people will be excluded (which is bad in itself), and the atmosphere will be seriously harmed. When that happens, something will be lost about football that makes it special to watch live. This potential development may even be a negative for the armchair fan. A good atmosphere makes a game more compelling to see on TV: they always seem more thrilling when the viewer can hear impassioned fans bellowing encouragement at their respective players. A more sedate atmosphere would also harm the football clubs themselves. They benefit financially from high attendance, which is dependent on an exciting match day experience. That partially relies on a buzzing atmosphere. Therefore, it is in their interests to preserve that special appeal of live football, of which away fans are an integral part.
Can they be trusted to save it themselves though? I would argue they cannot. The myopic, obsessed state of mind that drives for short-term profit alone has spread itself perniciously throughout English football. This force prevents most clubs from recognising the long-term folly of squeezing the away contingent for profit. Therefore, if the clubs won’t fix the problem on their own, then Reading fans must encourage them to do so. How can they do this? Well, there are a number of possibilities. Right now, signing the FSF’s petition for a cap of £20 on away tickets might be a start. Looking further ahead, some recent examples of protest may also be a way forward, such as the coordinated banner between Manchester City and Liverpool fans last season. Regardless, it is probably the time to start acting. Otherwise, we may all be sitting in a half-empty, silent stadium in a few years, looking back and wondering where it all went wrong.