Another weekend, another outburst from the owner of a football club. This time it was David Sullivan, who criticised his supporters for their absence from St Andrews of late, and wondered aloud whether Birmingham City deserved to be a Premiership football club at all. Now, Sullivan has been involved at Birmingham for a long time, but statements like this make me wonder whether he’s learnt anything at all from his time on charge there.
First, the case for the defence (I try to be even-handed where possible). Getting back into the Premiership was always going to be an expensive business for Birmingham City. They were not expected to go down last season, and were left with a lot of players who would be playing Championship football on Premiership contracts. The Premiership’s “parachute payments” only last a couple of years, and they certainly don’t come anywhere near the cost of relegation. Sullivan only has to look at Ipswich, Bradford, Leicester, Nottingham Forest or Coventry to see cautionary tales for what can go wrong if you don’t go straight back up. His arse will be on the line, financially and in view of his popularity, if they don’t go back up. Expectations at Birmingham, as a result of their performance over the last four or five years or so, are sky-high.
However… God. What a stupid thing to say. Firstly, there’s the small matter of the fact that he made his pronouncement in the match programme – so his criticism would have been read primarily by the people that had bothered to turn up. So, that’s really going to encourage them to turn up again next week, isn’t it? Secondly, there’s the small point that it is massively, hideously expensive to watch football in this country at any level, and the Championship is as bad as anywhere else. Let’s take Sunday’s match between Birmingham City and Stoke City as an example – it’s quite an extreme example, but it serves to illustrate the sort of thing that I’m talking about. The match was, either on police advice or for the benefit of Sky Sports, and 11.30am kick-off. The average ticket price was… £29. Quite how they can justify this sort of price for something that isn’t even a premium product is beyond me – and compare it with the fact that you can get a ticket to most major clubs in continental Europe for a tenner or less and it seems even less defensible. These sorts of prices don’t just price out the low waged. They price out anybody on less than £25,000 per year, which is well above the national average wage. The crowd at St Andrews on Sunday morning was 15,854. Around half of its capacity. I’m not surprised in the slightest.
It’s ludicrous, and it’s starting to come back to haunt the clubs. As I have reported on here before, when Ken Bates took over at Leeds, he upped the minimum ticket price to £25. Their crowds have plummeted accordingly. Why would anybody spend a minimum of £25 to watch the worst team in the second tier of English football? It doesn’t make any sense at all. One can only assume that this sort of policy, combined with the multiple changes in ownership of Elland Road (it now resides with a holding company based in, gulp, the British Virgin Isles) mean that Bates is trying to run the club into the ground.
There will come a breaking point. Prices simply cannot continue to rise at 10-15% per season. It’s unsustainable. The Premiership is seeing the beginnings of the end of this folly already – crowds are down and the days of capacity crowds appear to be long gone. Football League clubs will be foolish to go down the same route. They have less pulling power than Premiership clubs, and should be taking advantage of the bigger clubs’ folly by getting as many people in as possible and getting them involved as supporters, rather than chasing them down the same route of small short term gains at the expense of the broader picture. Sadly, you don’t even need me to tell you that this has never been football’s strong point.