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Manchester City fans celebrate their win over Stoke City at the end of their English FA Cup Final soccer match at Wembley Stadium, London, Saturday, May 14, 2011. (Associated Press)

Manchester City fans celebrate their win over Stoke City at the end of their English FA Cup Final soccer match at Wembley Stadium, London, Saturday, May 14, 2011.

(Associated Press)

English Premier League

$100 for a Man City ticket … blimey Add to ...

British soccer fans are up in arms over something that’s all too familiar to Canadian sports fans: rising ticket prices.

Disgruntlement over the cost of attending English Premier League games has been simmering for a while, but it broke open this month when Manchester City couldn’t sell nearly 1,000 tickets to an away game at Arsenal in London because fans refused to pay the £62, or nearly $100, ticket price. Some Man City fans who did go carried banners that read: “£62!! Where will it stop??” and “Don’t price us out of our game.”

The discontent reveals a growing sense across Britain that professional soccer, and the Premiership in particular, is driving traditional fans away and straying from its working-class roots. Gleaming stadiums, luxury boxes and tickets going for as much as £245 ($387) have changed the atmosphere in many stadiums, fans say. And while $100 or $300 might not sound outrageous to a Canadian hockey fan, it is anathema in Britain, where soccer is supposed to be affordable for working people and tickets used to be priced in line with movie theatres.

“Football was always a working-class game and it’s not like that any more,” says Martin O’Hara of the Football Supporters’ Federation, which launched a national campaign this week to cap some tickets at £20. “The traditional support in English football has been priced out of it.”

Soccer writer and researcher Dave Boyle says the trend started in 1992, with the formation of the Premier League, a 20-team collection of some of the world’s best-known clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.

“There was a deliberate strategic move by the game which thought that essentially its core fan base in the stadium didn’t have enough disposable income and it wanted to move to a fan base which did have a greater disposable income,” says Boyle, who wrote a report on soccer finances for the High Pay Centre, a London-based think tank that studies compensation issues. “That’s exactly what’s happened.”

Toda,y the Premier League operates unlike any sports league in North America. There are no limits on player salaries, television revenue is not shared equally, and the bottom three teams are kicked out at the end of every season and replaced by three from a lower league. Team owners rarely co-operate, the players’ union is weak, and there has never been a strike or lockout. The structure makes for fierce competition and a league with a growing gap between the top and bottom teams.

Before the advent of the league, a ticket to a Liverpool game could be had for £4 ($6.40). Now it is hard to find many for less than £70 ($110). Meanwhile, salaries for the top players have climbed more than 1,500 per cent, while the average wage for everyone else in Britain has gone up by less than 200 per cent, according to Boyle’s report. Today the total payroll of Man City, owned by Abu Dhabi billionaire Sheik Mansour, is estimated at more than £200-million annually ($316-million). That’s a record for the Premier League and about $100-million more than the New York Yankees’ payroll. But it’s not far ahead of Chelsea at £171-million ($270-million) and Man United at £160-million ($253-million).

There are attempts afoot to bring more control over player salaries by limiting how much teams can spend. But these so-called Financial Fair Play rules, developed by the Union of European Football Associations, will actually push ticket prices higher, Boyle and others argue. That’s because the new rules will restrict clubs to spending only what they earn in revenue, which means no more borrowing or relying on contributions from rich owners (Man City lost $155-million last year). That leaves tickets as a prime source of revenue. “The fear is that while it might calm the market down in terms of salaries, it just means that all clubs will have to raise their ticket prices,” Boyle said.

By some measures the Premier League is drowning in cash. It recently signed domestic and international television rights deals that will boost revenue to £5-billion ($8-billion) over three years from £3.5-billion ($5.6-billion) in the last contracts. That alone should be enough to drop ticket prices by as much as £30 ($48), the Football Supporters’ Federation argues. But with several Premier League teams losing money and each frantically going after the top players, it is likely the extra cash will be spent. And all of the TV money is not divided equally. Teams that finish higher in standings get more along with popular teams that draw high ratings.

The Premier League has promised to look into ticket pricing in response to growing fan frustration. But the league points to packed stadiums and increasing interest among women and minorities as proof clubs are moving in the right direction.

Some clubs are worried about going too far on pricing. “I am really worried they are high for our supporters,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger told reporters before the Man City game that sparked the outrage. “We sell out our games, but ideally you want ticket prices to be affordable to everybody. It is a very delicate subject.”

Like many clubs, Arsenal has moved to a category system of pricing, charging more for big games such as against Chelsea and less for others. The club said the system makes more games affordable and that prices now range from £25.50 ($40) to £126 ($200).

But that hasn’t convinced fans like Richard Taylor. The 25-year old realtor is an avid Man City supporter and he attends every game, home and away. But it’s getting harder and harder, he says, since Man City games are always the highest priced. He was among those who carried a banner complaining about ticket prices at the Arsenal game. Just getting to that match cost him more than $300 in travel and tickets. Now, when he goes to some stadiums, particularly in London, the crowd isn’t the same.

“It’s totally different at the London games,” he said. “The atmosphere is nowhere near as good. It has changed.”

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