Special report: Premier League match-going fans are treated worse than ever – PSR could be to blame

Collage of disgruntled-looking fans, a train board showing 'cancelled' and a Sky Sports microphone
Football fans increasingly feel they are at the bottom of the priority list in the sport they love

Shortly after 5pm on a Friday afternoon this month, Chelsea published an urgent travel update on their website. With around 24 hours to go until kick-off in their match at Manchester City, the club had been advised that a number of trains from Manchester to London were about to be cancelled.

Among those cancelled trains were the last two direct services of the day, which meant that any Chelsea supporters looking to return to London by train would have to leave the Etihad Stadium at half-time. At one day’s notice, the travel plans for thousands of fans had been ripped to pieces.

What followed was a desperate scramble to find alternative arrangements. Replacement buses were sourced, minibuses were hired. But for many supporters, drained by the grim predictability of yet another weekend of travel chaos, it was too much to sort and far too late to do so. The away end at City, inevitably, was pockmarked with empty seats.

For any match-going football fan in England, this tale of travel woe will not come as a surprise. Almost every supporter group is able to tell similar horror stories from recent years, when the simple act of attending a football match has seemingly become more difficult and challenging than at any point in decades.

Supporters in this country are being beaten down from three angles. First, by a rail network that has been described as “not fit for purpose” by the transport secretary. Second, by the rising costs of tickets at many clubs, raising fears that profitability and sustainability rules (PSR) are having a negative impact on supporters. And third, by a Premier League system in which the broadcasters wield almost complete power.

Fans arrive at Kew Bridge railway station prior to the Premier League match between Brentford and Burnley at Gtech Community Stadium on October 21, 2023
Travelling to football on the train is often a cause of stress and frustration for football fans - Getty Images/Tom Dulat

Those three factors have combined to make this arguably the worst time in years to be a match-going supporter. Just a few seasons after being repeatedly told, during the Covid pandemic, that loyal fans were the essence of football, those same supporters are now being marginalised, deprioritised and often priced out of following the team they love.

Of these issues, the power of the broadcasters is perhaps the most pressing. Much of the travel chaos starts with matches being moved to different slots and different days, often at short notice.

“We are always told that fans are the lifeblood of the game,” Thomas Concannon, Premier League network manager at the Football Supporters’ Association, says. “But there are so many other priorities that football puts first, because the assumption is that the supporters will be there anyway.

“It felt like we might turn a corner when we came out of Covid, because people had realised how important fans were. But ultimately the broadcasting money still wins.”

Sky Sports television presenter David Jones alongside pundits Izzy Christiansen, Micah Richards and Gary Neville before the Man City v West Ham match last May
The power of broadcasters to get matches moved is arguably the biggest issue for match-going football fans

The situation has become worse in recent weeks. In the first half of the season, the Premier League committed to giving supporters a minimum of six weeks’ notice on broadcast selections. From January, that time was reduced to five weeks.

It is not unusual for games to be moved at significantly shorter notice than five weeks. In January, for example, Luton Town’s trip to Burnley was rearranged just five days before it kicked off.

To be clear, fixture scheduling is a complicated task for the Premier League, which must consider factors such as other competitions (it was an FA Cup draw that forced Luton’s meeting with Burnley to change), policing requirements and travel when it makes its decisions. Most supporters will appreciate the complexities here, although the argument does little to appease those who feel marginalised and undervalued.

For Chelsea fans, there was a particularly grim fixture this season: their trip to Wolves was moved to Christmas Eve, making it the first Premier League match to take place on that day in 28 years. “A real gesture of disrespect,” Dominic Rosso, the vice-chair of the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust, says.

‘Fans are bottom of the priority list’

“The situation has got worse,” Concannon says. “We have made representations to say we believe it [the notice given to fans] should be a lot longer than six weeks. We would like to see more from the clubs, pushing back on some of the decisions that are being made around kick-off times. It feels broadcasters have far too much influence over the game at the moment. Fans are at the bottom of the priority list.”

Among the worst-affected fans this season have been those who follow Newcastle United. The club’s supporters’ trust said this month that the loyalty of fans “is taken for granted time and time again” after an extraordinary run of brutal kick-off times, including an 8pm start at Liverpool on New Year’s Day and an 8.15pm start at Villa Park on a Tuesday.

In the Premier League, there is at least a £30 price cap on away tickets for these travelling supporters. Fans in the Championship are not so fortunate. They generally have less fixture disruption to manage but, in many cases, away supporters in the second tier are now paying more for tickets than fans of top-flight clubs.

For home supporters in the Premier League, meanwhile, the cost of attending matches is becoming increasingly hard to stomach. This season, 17 of the 20 Premier League clubs raised their prices, some of them in double-digit percentages. At Fulham, as one example, the cost of a season ticket rose by 10 per cent in 2022, and then another 18 per cent in 2023.

Fulham supporters protest about ticket prices prior to the Premier League match between Fulham FC and Manchester United at Craven Cottage on November 4, 2023
A Manchester City fan makes his feelings clear about high season ticket prices before their match with Aston Villa on 25 April 2015
A Manchester City fan makes his feelings clear about high season ticket prices - BPI/REX Shutterstock

This month, Arsenal communicated to their fans that ticket prices would be rising again next season, by four or six per cent on a match-by-match basis. The expectation within the game is that many other Premier League clubs will soon follow suit.

For clubs, the defence of these rises is that they must try to maximise every source of revenue in this era of PSR. Matchday operating costs are also on the rise (the costs of operating Stamford Bridge, for example, are up 31 per cent since 2018 – although in the specific case of Chelsea, general admission ticket prices have been frozen since 2011).

In a division as competitive as the Premier League, after all, every penny counts. And, it should be said, the demand for tickets remains extraordinarily high.

But these arguments rarely sit well with match-going supporters, especially when so much money is pouring into the clubs in the form of sponsorship and broadcast revenue. Analysis by Deloitte showed that matchday revenues now made up just 17 per cent of total revenues for the so-called ‘big six’ clubs.

In other words, increases to ticket prices make a minor difference to clubs but a huge difference to fans, especially in a cost-of-living crisis.

Is this really what the financial rules were designed for? To further squeeze loyal fans?

“The inadvertent consequence of PSR is that it puts ever-increasing pressure on supporters to keep up,” Tim Payton, of the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust, says. The counter-argument here is that, while PSR is currently a major talking point, it has been in place for a decade.

For some clubs, such as Arsenal, these financial sums pose some difficult questions. “Mikel Arteta has understandably placed great emphasis on the bond between club and fans, and the atmosphere we have created at the Emirates,” Payton says. “Sometimes it looks like that message has not reached those who set the prices.”

Pricing is one issue, and access to tickets is another. “At the big-six clubs the demand for tickets is through the roof but the problem is made worse by the fact they are turning more and more areas of Stamford Bridge into corporate hospitality areas,” Rosso says.

“Those seats are being taken out of the general admission allocation. I know members who have been going to Chelsea for a long time and have been able to attend 10 or so games a season, and now they are saying they can’t even get to one or two.”

Tourists snapping up tickets ahead of local fans

At many clubs, especially in London, there is a fear among long-serving fans that tourists are snapping up tickets ahead of local supporters. Perhaps clubs do not care about this – no one fan is more entitled to a seat than any other, executives would argue – but if they care about atmosphere and performance, maybe they should.

It should not be forgotten that the 2020-21 Premier League campaign, played largely behind closed doors, was the first season in English football league history to see more away wins than home wins. Atmosphere matters.

“The football clubs will suffer in the long-term,” Rosso says. “Yes, you are able to sell that seat. But are you selling it to someone who loves the club or just wants a day out?”

For many supporters, all of these problems combine to create a feeling of powerlessness. If their absence during the pandemic did not bring about lasting change, then what will? They can continue to campaign and shout but money talks loudest, and life for match-going fans is unlikely to become any easier any time soon.

“More and more fans are being made to feel like a customer instead of a supporter,” Rosso says. “This is a sport that was forged by the working classes and has been taken over by the elite. It feels that football is being stripped of its soul.”