Justin Madders MP (above) this week launched a Private Members’ Bill which called on clubs to cut young adult prices, give more consideration to fans over TV kick-offs, and increase spending on grassroots football. Read Justin’s full speech to the House of Commons below…
Football is our national sport. We invented the modern game and we have the most popular league in the world, viewed by millions around the globe. I grew up playing and watching the game, and loved every minute of doing so. Although I still play and watch when I can, I have less time to do so now, and when I play I do not move quite so quickly around the pitch, but I still enjoy it and score the odd goal. As a supporter, however, I find that the difference between the game I grew up watching and the game now is incredible. I remember being able to turn up just before kick-off and pay on the gate. If I did not manage to see the match in person, that usually meant that I would not see it at all, because at that time televised games were the exception rather than the rule.
While there were plenty of good players then, nowadays we have many of the best players from all over the world. There are fantastic modem stadiums, there is huge media coverage of every millisecond of every Premier League game, and of course there is more cash in the sport than it has ever seen before. Despite all that glamour and cash, however, there are things we could be doing better. Our teams, by and large, still flatter to deceive on the international stage, and the proportion of young home-grown talent breaking through each year appears to be less and less.
Not only are there fewer youngsters out on the pitch, but there appear to be fewer in the stands as well. During the 1980s, a much higher proportion of match-going fans were younger. Surveys undertaken at the time suggested that about 20% of match-day fans were in the 16-to-20 age group. I suspect it is no coincidence that the average age of a match-going supporter now is in the 40s: those same fans have grown up with the match-day experience being a part of their life that they have retained. However, the proportion of young people going to games now is much lower, and some surveys even suggest that it is considerably less than 10%. Cost plays a huge part in that, with ticket prices far outstripping inflation at most clubs. If we do not make more provision for younger supporters, we shall risk empty stadiums in 20 or 30 years’ time, because the fans of the future will have been driven away by sky-high prices.
I believe that it is time to make provision for our younger fans. The first element of my Bill will require all football clubs to provide 10% of their tickets at discounted prices for young people under the age of 22. We have a lower minimum wage for people under 22, and many of them are in full-time education or apprenticeships. The price of a match-day ticket is beyond the reach of many young people, and when our prices are compared with others around Europe, we know that there is an awfully long way to go. That criticism is not levelled solely at Premier League clubs; far too many Football League prices are too high as well. The match-going ritual was part of growing up for my generation, and I do not want to see the next generation miss out on that.
A second measure in the Bill would require local authorities to consider the needs of match-going supporters when approving kick-off times. They are currently required to take account of safety and police advice, but I believe that the needs of the supporter should be considered as well. A number of high-profile games have been moved to times that make it impossible for travelling supporters to attend via public transport. There are countless examples of matches being moved at short notice, in particular to accommodate the demands of television companies. The money that television coverage has brought into the game is of course welcome, but that should not mean that the interests of the match-going fan are entirely subservient to the needs of the TV scheduler.
One high-profile example was the occasion on which Everton and Manchester United played in the FA Cup semi-final in April this year. A late 5.15 pm start meant that fans risked being left with no train back home to the north-west from Wembley after the match, particularly if there was extra time or penalties. However, that does not just apply to the big games. At the other end of the scale, at the start of the season in the non-league, Eastleigh football club’s game against Barrow was moved to a 12.30 pm kick-off to accommodate television broadcasting, which left fans with a 10-hour, 600-mile round trip. How could anyone seriously expect supporters to travel sensibly to and from that game on public transport?
The Bill requires councils to make an assessment of the availability of transport links before a final kick-off time can be approved, so that travelling fans have a realistic chance of being able to get to the game. That is particularly relevant as we approach the traditional Christmas fixture list, when public transport options are more limited. Games are currently scheduled to kick off at midday on Boxing Day and 5.30 pm on New Year’s Eve. How can either of those times be remotely sensible on those days?
There are also the fans who have gone to considerable trouble and expense to make travel arrangements well in advance of the game, only for the time and, on some occasions, the day of the game to be changed at the last minute. What about the shift worker who has made arrangements with his employer, possibly swapping shifts with a colleague for time off, only to find that the game has been moved at a few days’ notice? How many people have to make complicated arrangements to juggle their various commitments when the fixture list is released at the start of the season, only to find that the original fixture list becomes increasingly worthless as the season progresses?
The third part of the Bill would require football clubs to set aside a proportion of transfer fees for the development of football facilities for local clubs and young people. That would apply only to fees paid by Premier League clubs, which, during the last transfer window alone, spent £1.2 billion on players. A levy of just 0.1% could raise an extra £1.2 million for grassroots football. I know that money does go to support grassroots football, but it is not enough. Given the cash washing around the Premier League at the moment, I believe we could take further steps to ensure that a little of that unprecedented wealth helps to secure the future for our players and to improve facilities for all.
A study of the amount paid in agents’ fees by Premier League clubs showed that £46.5 million was paid in agents’ and intermediaries’ fees in the four months from October 2015 to January 2016. That is money leaving the game. Much as I would like to, I am not suggesting we outlaw agents’ fees all together; I am merely using these figures to demonstrate that huge sums are going through the game that are not benefiting players or clubs, and certainly not the fans.
We should be concerned about the declining number of home-grown players coming through the leagues. Last season, 35% of Premier League players were English—a huge decrease since the opening 1992-93 campaign of the Premier League, when 69% of the players were English. A survey last month showed that just four Premier League teams had given more than half their game time to home-country players, compared with 11 teams in Spain and 17 in France.
There are huge questions about how professional clubs operate and how our younger players can hope to get a chance against the imported superstars, but one thing we can do is improve the standard of facilities for younger players of all abilities, and indeed everyone involved in grassroots football. We know the pressure that local authorities are under to balance the books, and there is little left for discretionary spending on improving sporting facilities. Often pitches are in poor condition, with poor drainage—there are areas where there is more mud than grass—and many pitches have few or no changing facilities connected to them.
That really hit home with me recently, when I saw for myself a local pitch used for kids’ football, where the goal at one end of the pitch was smaller than the other because of vandalism. We cannot expect the superstars of tomorrow to emerge if we do not invest in them, and we should not tolerate second-rate facilities for our national sport. There are plenty of distractions and reasons why kids might find something to do other than play football. We should do what we can and make sure that at least a little of the wealth flowing through the game trickles down to support the grassroots.
Football is more than just a game. It is certainly more than just a business. It is an integral part of our culture and it needs to be nurtured and protected. The fruits of this golden age in the sport should be used to help secure its future for everyone. I believe that this Bill will achieve that aim.
- The “Football Supporters (Access): Ten Minute Rule Motion” reads: That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require football clubs to provide tickets to matches at a discount for persons under a specified age; to require local authorities to consider the needs of match going supporters when approving kick off times; to require football clubs to set aside a proportion of transfer fees paid for the development of football facilities for local clubs and young people; and for connected purposes.
- Justin Madders, Alan Brown, Carolyn Harris, Stephen Kinnock, Ian C. Lucas, Christian Matheson, Jason McCartney, Karl MᶜCartney, Ian Mearns, Paula Sherriff and Jo Stevens presented the Bill.
- Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24th February 2017.
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