When you settle down to watch a televised midweek fixture this week, spare a thought for the away fans at the game. Not one fixture offers away fans the chance to return home by train, and not one involves a round trip of less than 260 miles. Those traveling back by car will arrive home well after midnight. Merry Christmas one and all.
Analysis of fixtures rearranged for the 2016/17 season to the end of January, (most for TV, some because of European fixtures) revealed that;
In 21 of 99 games rescheduled, away supporters cannot get home by scheduled train;
In only 31 cases do drivers have a return trip of under 200 miles;
Away fans can get scheduled trains home for just three of the 10 Monday and Friday night games announced until the end of January;
Scheduled train services home for away fans are available in just six out of the 30 planned midweek fixtures – with TV selections for the second two midweek slots yet to be announced.
Those findings relate just to this season’s fixtures. But the two Trusts carried out longer-term analysis of the effect of fixture rescheduling on their own club’s fixtures. Between the 2011/12 and 2015/16 seasons, 41.5% of Tottenham Hotspur’s games were rescheduled for TV, with a further 26% rearranged due to cup commitments. Just 32.5% of the club’s games were played as scheduled at the start of the season.
For Chelsea, over the seasons 2012/13 – 2015/16, just 31.6% of games kicked off on Saturday at 3pm, with only 20 of 76 away games (26.3%) starting at that time.
But, it will be said, if TV companies are willing to put so much money into the game, then they have every right to schedule games when they want. The counter is that if away fans are recognised as a key part of the atmosphere that makes Premier League football such an attractive TV spectacle, should more be done to make getting to and from the match less of a struggle? The contribution of away fans to atmosphere was one of the key arguments that persuaded Premier League clubs to implement an away price cap of £30 a ticket. Yet price is just one factor affecting away attendance, welcome as that cap is.
In the end-of-season survey carried out by the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust this summer, price was only fifth on the list of factors said to influence the decision to buy an away ticket. The time and date of the game were by far the biggest influences, cited by 82% of those responding as the main influence. Fixture changes had inconvenienced 80% of that survey’s respondents, and 77% called for better alignment of ticket on-sale dates, application announcements and TV picks.
These issues and more were raised when Trusts from Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool met senior Sky TV executives last month – a meeting organised after an initial request from the Football Supporters Federation, which was also present. Fan reps said the discussion was constructive, with their research and perspective helping Sky understand the full impact of fixture rescheduling.
Next steps are to find ways of working together to reduce the impact of rearranged fixtures on travelling fans. What fans often find frustrating is that clubs, the police and TV companies all pass the buck over decisions on fixture timing, leaving fan reps attempting to find even a reason for a late change going around in circles.
With each club earning £1.1m for every televised game, it is also possible to break down costings game by game and look at allocating some of the broadcast fee to help travelling fans.
The fan reps also stressed the importance of sticking to agreed deadlines for announcing fixture changes. The last few announcements have been made between two and three days later than scheduled, further inconveniencing fans who already have to accept TV picks coming out a minimum of six weeks in advance when optimum booking time for trains is 13 weeks in advance.
As we prepared to publish, February’s TV picks were announced. The announcement was made one day late, and contained the following fixtures.
Arsenal v Hull at 12.30pm Saturday – fans will be leaving Hull at 06:40;
Liverpool v Spurs at 5.30pm Saturday – the last train leaves at 19:48 so there are no train options back to London;
Bournemouth v Man City at 8pm Monday – the last train leaves at 18:45 so there are no train options back to Manchester;
Spurs v Stoke at midday Sunday – there’s only one train option that morning that arrives in Euston 58 minutes before kick off, allowing no time for delays and a rush up to White Hart Lane. Kick-off time also not confirmed yet meaning fans still can’t book travel;
Leicester v Liverpool 8pm Monday – the last train leaves at 21:16 so no train options back to Liverpool.
A cynic would say Sky and the Premier League (BT was not present) took absolutely no notice whatsoever of the points raised in the recent meeting. A pragmatist would say there’s room for improvement with that dialogue.