SBJ/January 21-27, 2013/Opinion

EPL ticket revolt; why MLSE moved on Burke

One of the most talked about issues by team and league executives is the elasticity of ticket pricing. Just how high can prices go before there is a tipping point? And just how does the revolt occur? We have seen some organizations misprice their buildings over the last few years, with teams in the New York market being the best example of overreaching across the board on pricing and facing fan criticism.

But rarely have we seen a fan uprising cause a league to respond. That’s why I watched closely when the Premier League got in the middle of a dispute over ticket prices after fans criticized high price points and called for a cap.

Here’s how the story got legs. Fans of Manchester City balked at the $99 (U.S.) price they were being asked to pay to attend an away game against Arsenal. Fans criticized the cost, which they thought was exorbitant, and the tickets were returned to Arsenal. Soon after, Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore may have irked a few teams when he backed the call for cheaper seats, going as far as saying, “I’m absolutely sure that will be dealt with and we’ll not see that again. There should be more affordable ticket prices at one end of the spectrum, and maybe the corporate seats and everything else get priced differently in order to afford that.”

But a day later, the league did a 180, issuing a statement that all but pushed the issue back to the teams and said all pricing was a local issue determined by the clubs. The story got wide pickup across the EPL, and the London Daily Mirror’s John Cross wrote that the pricing is “not just an Arsenal issue” but that it is “expensive being a football fan” and it is “getting out of hand.”

A couple of points on this: The EPL should have a stronger team business services division. Less than a year ago, the EPL set up an attendance and ticketing working group, and you wonder whether they will develop a more formalized, structured team services division, a la the NBA’s TMBO. I am sure the diverse ownership groups of the EPL that currently can’t agree on Financial Fair Play regulation and face more revenue demands than ever are not looking for any mechanisms capping their ticket revenue.

But I wanted some outside perspective, so I caught up with former MSG Sports President Scott O’Neil, who has analyzed ticketing for years, and his response didn’t surprise me. “$99 for Man City-Arsenal feels like a deal to me. Big game. Big ticket. High demand.” He agreed that ticketing is a local issue. “The league should not intervene,” O’Neil said. “Pricing is and should always stay local. Pricing simply cannot and should not be directed from the center. The league can certainly help provide best practices in research, analysis and data as the NBA and NFL do for their teams. That is an excellent use of league resources and has proven to drive revenue faster and more efficiently.”
 
Longtime ticketing consultant Bill Sutton agreed, telling me that the league should “stay above the fray. While they are concerned with image and perception, they obviously don’t want to interfere in a free-market scenario.”

Another interesting point was Scudamore’s response when asked if the “working class” fans have been priced out of the league. He fully acknowledged the EPL has changed. “I can’t argue with the fact there has been a shift in the demographic of the audience,” he told BBC Radio 5’s Sportsweek. “But at 95 percent occupancy, and when you look at the number of females in the grounds, something like 23 percent, black and ethnic minorities, 11 percent — that’s up from a much smaller number 10 years ago. When you look at the under-16s that are in the ground, it’s a myth the entire Premier League audience is aging and white and male, so we must be doing something right.”

A couple of things here stand out: Where pricing seems to be an issue at the EPL at this time, there is far more emphasis on improving the fan experience and premium engagement in the U.S. That issue seems to be less of a concern at the EPL. Scudamore seems pleased with the levels of capacity and the diverse makeup of the EPL’s audience, as he should based on those facts. I get his desire to offer a sound bite on the concern over ticket prices, but I don’t believe EPL team owners would support any call for a cap on ticketing.

Brian Burke’s dismissal from MLSE was likely about a clash of personalities with new corporate owners.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
> HOCKEY HITS:
If you read our cover story on Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment from last week, you shouldn’t have been surprised by the dismissal of president and general manager Brian Burke. Our story was full of undertones of a change in direction by corporate media giants, and I should have realized earlier they would chafe at Burke’s personality. Full disclosure: I like Brian. He’s always challenged me about our coverage of hockey in SBJ/SBD compared with other sports, but it was always with respect, and I always appreciated his passion. Burke’s departure was overwhelmingly panned by the Toronto media, who felt MLSE was acting out of image concerns rather than the best interest of hockey operations. I believe it was about personality. Burke’s demeanor did not fit with the new corporate ownership of Bell Canada and Rogers Communications. But don’t cry for Brian Burke. He has too much knowledge to offer not to be heard from again soon. … I’m keeping an eye on how NHL teams re-enter their markets after the 113-day lockout and have found a number of the teams refreshingly honest and contrite about the work stoppage. Sharks general manager Doug Wilson, Predators general manager David Poile, and the Penguins, Sabres and Hurricanes organizations stand out to me, for example, in their messaging. But the way teams in Canada have responded is unique because of the game’s place. Take the comments from Edmonton Oilers President and CEO Pat LaForge, a 12-year veteran of the organization. “Each club is planning something,” he told the Edmonton Journal. “It’s up to them [each club]. If they want to do something, great. They live in their own market, they deal with their own fans.” He added that Oilers fans only wanted a long-term CBA that would allow the club to be competitive. His take on special discounts and offerings for fans was noteworthy: “If you gave them everything, it would be not enough and if you gave them a little bit, it’s insulting. I think we’ve got to be careful to be looking forward through the windshield, not backward through the rearview mirror.” I admire the intention to look ahead, and that’s the tack the league seems to be taking. But I wonder if looking so far forward forgets what the fans dealt with and endured during the nearly four months where there were no games, only negotiating theater.

> T-BALL: Colleague Terry Lefton offers a smart analysis of the much talked-about deal between T-Mobile and MLB/MLBAM, that was valued by industry sources to be worth about $125 million over the three years. One agency veteran I talked to about the deal told me, “The big question is where is the exclusive content and how can it be used to drive business? Historically, MLB has been emphatic that they wanted to be carrier agnostic so they can have their content available to all fans. People will also be watching the collaborative relationship between BAM and MLB closely. If they can really execute, it may really work.” But he also noted the terms, “The three year term speaks to trepidation on both sides.” Sutton also noted the significance of the day to me by saying, “Don’t think T-Mobile would run the risk of a communication breakdown at a critical point in the game unless they were certain they could deliver, same for baseball in assuming the risk.”

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.


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