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Friday Night (No) Lights

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FloodLights

The aftermath of the abandonment of the Highland derby has led to a series of hilarious jokes. Well, one joke, really. The power went off at the Global Energy Stadium. County need to start paying their bills. And oh how we laughed. It’s not good that it happened, but it did. The general reaction has rather missed the point, however. Kevin McCarra, the estimable former Guardian
sports writer, took to Twitter, calling it a “preposterous” situation. He was far from alone in adopting such a hyperbolic stance.

“[I] don’t expect floodlight failures at a senior level stadium,” he raged. Well, quite, Kevin. Nobody expects floodlight failures. Because they are so rare. But they do happen. It is hardly the first of such incidents. Actually games are abandoned more regularly than McCarra would like to think. A floodlight failure at Motherwell springs to mind. As do a whole spate of abandonments in the early years of the English Premier League. Should we really be surprised that games are called off?

This argument, while somewhat valid, misses the point. To make it clear, this isn’t some kind of justification for Friday… the club looks ridiculous in front of a national audience and both sets of fans were seriously put out. But blaming Ross County’s electrician is beating around the bush. Has anyone ever looked at what Scottish Premiership fans actually get for their £25?

To be blunt, as unpopular as all seated stadia are, cheap plastic seats are a fact of supporting a top flight club in Scotland (unless Ajax fans come visiting, in which case they are optional extras). For all the talk of safe standing, the truth is that if you wish to watch high level football in this country, you are going to have to do it on your arse. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But in terms of customer experience, it is sadly lacking.

Victoria Park may not be the best example to take. Prices have risen some 400% since joining the third division, but the stadium now has four stands, reasonable viewing from almost all seats, a football academy with indoor facilities and, most useful of all, neon advertising hoardings. Yet we still go along for a pie and “beefy drink” – with little change from a fiver. We get a match day programme (£2 and full colour as to the £1 and black and white print it used to be). Essentially there’s no change in the match day experience. Ross County are far from the worst, yet even the best is hardly magnificent. It seems strange that, for some reason, football fans put up with the same match day routine they’ve been subjected to for decades.

The price of football is already becoming prohibitive. Most teams in Scotland cannot actually rely on a sustainable fan base – even Celtic play before half empty stadiums now. And the cost of entry is never going to go back down.

Fans who have left the game because of the cost are never coming back. (How’s that for a Jim Traynor one-sentence paragraph?)

Desperate attempts to encourage kids to attend by slashing prices are futile. Once those kids progress to an adult fare, they’re going to refuse to exorbitant amounts for the same soulless experience. And rightly so. Furthermore, it’s not even simply about the prices. Football is a middle class sport, and if you depend on a middle class audience, you must literally cater to middle
class tastes.

Music gigs have experienced the same inflation in even very recent years. Admittance for top live acts is very rarely under £50, whereas once it would set you back a tenner, twenty at the very most and this not without complaints. But what has accompanied this has been a correlative raise in the quality of the product. Music is music is music and always will be, but merchandise, facilities, food, comfort levels, sound quality and general atmosphere has all greatly improved to match the rising of the prices.

It is useful for looking at match day experiences in other countries. Take baseball, in the United States, which as we speak is in the midsts of the World Series. An average ticket at the San Francisco Giants will cost between forty and sixty dollars, which is comparable to the prices being charged in the SPFL. For that, even at the lower end, you will have a comfortable chair with arm rests, plenty of leg room, a beer cup holder (and therein lies another point) and your choice of the finest cuisine in town. Okay, so the last part is an exaggeration, but it is possible to eat a full course meal in the confines of your own chair. A soggy macaroni pie this is not. Instead of cheap programmes you get glossy magazines for roughly the same price.

For a like-for-like experience, let’s go to Istanbul, and Fenerbahce’s magnificent (if very cramped) new stadium. Tickets there range the full gamut, from €15 in the insane ultras end where the football is at best a mere sideshow, to €125 in the seats around the halfway line, where plump middle-aged chain-smokers start fights with each other on the merits of a single substitution. And there are radiators in the ceilings. The front wall of the stadium is, in fact, an enormous plasma television screen. Oh, and you get to the ground by boat.

Ultimately in this country football fans get a pretty shoddy deal. We pay inflated prices for the same experience we had fifteen years ago. Which in itself is no bad thing, but it is certainly no way to run a business. Until clubs actually realise that a day at the football should be an occasion, and that fans’ attendance can not be taken for granted, we’re going to get farces like Friday night. That’s how our loyalty is rewarded.

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