Fans of English Premier League (EPL) soccer are welcoming Wednesday’s decision to put a 30-pound, or about $43, maximum-price cap on away tickets for the next three seasons. And while the plan could be seen as counterintuitive from a business standpoint, supporters have grown weary of rising prices, and the league apparently took notice. But if fans of professional sports in the U.S. are expecting something similar, they probably shouldn't hold their collective breath.
The price cap could certainly ease the financial burden for away-game attendees, but it was also a savvy marketing move toward quelling growing unrest among fans and a potential boost to the stadium atmosphere that is a selling point for soccer broadcasts, where the real money is made, experts said. But for a bevy of reasons, including travel logistics and fan culture, a similar move doesn't appear to be practical or foreseeable for U.S. sports and is especially unlikely for America's favorite league, the NFL.
"The idea is [Premier League teams are] subsidizing the game for these fans that you think bring atmosphere to the game," said Victor Matheson, an economics professor who focuses on sports at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. "You do want to build the next generation of fans, if you're priced out of the stadium – you want to make sure the next generation can come."
Fans of the Premier League have grown increasingly frustrated with ticket prices. Supporters at league-leading underdog Leicester City and legacy club Liverpool F.C., owned by the U.S. Fenway Sports Group, have staged walkouts from matches for what they felt were unreasonable ticket prices. The average cheapest match-day ticket rose to cost more than 30 pounds for the first time ever in 2015, according to a BBC study. Still, two-thirds of tickets in England's top division had either remained frozen in price or dropped.
The average NFL ticket price, on the other hand, has risen nearly 38 percent over the past 10 seasons to about $86. And that's not factoring the secondary market that typically features inflated prices. The NFL is incredibly popular, and despite perhaps a slight overall dip in attendance, comfortably makes billions of dollars off massive television deals made possible by television's best ratings.
The Premier League's ticket-pricing decision isn't based on a lack of demand or television dollars — at least 95 percent of all tickets have been sold for three consecutive years, and the league signed a massive TV deal worth 5 billion pounds. But having away fans, typically in 3,000 reserved seats, has become a part of broadcasts, as have the back-and-forth, singing chants of average fans. The league's statement Wednesday said the clubs "know that away fans have a unique status" and are "essential for match atmosphere and stimulate the response from home fans that distinguishes" their product from other sports leagues.
"What the league is thinking is having a packed stadium and particularly packed stadiums with a vibrant away audience makes for a better broadcast," Matheson said. "It at least has something to do with the fact that soccer, unlike sports in the U.S., maintained their identity as a working-class activity."
Despite the fact that such a tradition doesn't exist in the U.S. (at least to the same extent), it would be entirely impractical for U.S. sports to even attempt to allow away fans in the door with cheaper tickets. England is a much smaller country with an overflow of soccer clubs, which makes travel relatively easy and affordable. Lowering the price of an NFL ticket does not remove the barrier of high travel costs. What good does a $40 ticket do if a flight to the host city costs $300, not to mention lodging and food?
There's also the matter of promotion and relegation, the system that moves soccer teams up and down in divisions depending on performance. The Premier League is where the real money lies in English soccer, as opposed to lower divisions, but teams do not have a guaranteed spot in the top league. One year they're playing alongside some of the richest teams in the world, the next year they're gone. That means teams are less likely to spend on massive stadiums to draw in big-spending fans, instead relying on more middle-class supporters, Matheson noted.
U.S. stadiums, meanwhile, are adding in new amenities by the handful, including massive screens and restaurants. To wit: One of the deciding factors in the NFL Rams' move to Los Angeles was the sprawling, multibillion-dollar planned stadium complex in Inglewood, California, which is aimed at being an entertainment destination. Premier League stalwarts like Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United can afford to upgrade stadiums into sports cathedrals; most others cannot. It's perhaps in the league's best business interest to keep traveling fans coming and to keep prices reasonable.
"It’s a totally different culture, it’s a different business model," said Joe Favorito, a sports media consultant and sports marketing professor at Columbia University in New York City, comparing the Premier League to American sports leagues.
— AS English (@English_AS) March 9, 2016
But perhaps the main reason a similar price cap wouldn't work in the U.S. is that there is no force at work to make it happen. The front offices of EPL teams care about profits as much as NFL owners do, but NFL fans have shown they are willing to pay high prices for tickets. Or, if they cannot afford to attend a game, they'll buy a jersey, pay for football TV packages, or, at the very least, tune into a game on Sundays. In essence, there's no leverage to effect change.
But in England the sporting culture is different. "The fans really feel they have a say," said Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports management and economics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The local fans feel they have a moral right to be a part of the club. Soccer is a part of the country's social fabric, and fans are "quite powerful in European football" and successfully lobby politicians, Szymanski added.
Because of this, the clubs looked at growing anger over ticket prices and reacted. Many of the lower clubs already priced tickets lower than 30 pounds, and the bigger clubs don't really need to worry about the few pounds lost from 3,000 seats every game. Setting the public price cap was politically expedient and not a massive threat to anyone's bottom line. Szymanski said the clubs' move was a step toward easing a headache that would never really present itself in a league like the NFL that essentially holds all the bargaining power.
"What they're doing this out of is a political gesture which is something you wouldn’t see in the United States … you wouldn’t see the NFL doing this because they don’t have to," Szymanski said.