Pitchside Europe

Spanish clubs pricing own fans out of market

Pitchside Europe

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Like a surprised garage owner who's just been told that his petrol is the priciest in Europe, many in Spain were taken aback when they realised that tickets to see La Liga matches were the most expensive on the continent.

Not just in the league, either. Athletic Bilbao were stunned when told that their £77 tickets for Manchester United fans for March's Europa league game were the most expensive for their supporters in the English club's history. The Basque club's justification was limp and sullied the name of a club who are hugely respected in football.

It's not as if Spain is a rich by European standards. GDP per head last year was £20,737, significantly less than Germany's £27,337 and Britain's £24,856. So why do Spanish clubs charge so much to see football in stadiums which are seldom full?

A ticket to see Barcelona against lowly Granada later this month will cost between £38 and £111, with the majority of tickets around the £65 mark. They are tickets bought by fans who want to see a single game. Season ticket holders get huge discounts and a season ticket behind the goal at Camp Nou can work out at £16 per match, far cheaper than in the Premier League. Supporter-owned Spanish clubs are reluctant to increase season ticket prices too much because the fans who sit in the seats are also the fans who vote the club presidents into power. No president is prepared to annoy the very people he needs to vote for him.

Season ticket prices are not the problem, ridiculous ticket prices for on- off matches are. Not every fan wants a season ticket and those who want to attend just a game or two a season are put off by the damage to their wallets. It is killing the casual trade and adversely affecting attendances across Spain.

A tourist in Barcelona this weekend might want to see a game. Barca are away at Getafe, a club who could only attract 8,000 for their capital derby against Real Madrid in the second game of the season, but Espanyol are at home to Athletic Bilbao. Espanyol's smart ground holds 40,000 and the estimated crowd will be 25,000. Espanyol could market the game, but charging between £33 and £66 for normal seats as they are doing isn't the best way of doing it. Barca can get away with those prices, Espanyol can't.

There are reasons for falling attendances that go beyond the two-team duopoly in the league and led several club presidents to make pessimistic remarks about the future of the league.

The start of the La Liga season has been marked by unpopular late kick-off times. Some games have kicked off so late that they span two days — and the fans have voted with their feet by staying away.

The average crowd across the league in 2010-11 was 29,128, a figure which fell to 28,403 last season. The average crowd in the Premier League last season was 34,601, while it was an astonishing 45,116 in Germany's Bundesliga, where a season ticket behind the goal at champions Borussia Dortmund costs just £7.54 per game.

Spain's average has fallen still further so far this season to 27,061, a figure made more alarming by the fact that both Barcelona and Real have played two of their three games at home. The big two, with average league home crowds of 75,078 (Barca) and 70,789 last season, significantly boost and distort the averages. Yet both Barca and Madrid have had suffered low opening crowds, with Barca's 57,000 crowd against Real Sociedad the lowest for four years — and that was for the opening game of the season.

With nearly five million unemployed, Spain's economy is suffering. August is still the holiday season and Barca played three home games in five days. The late kick-offs are a factor, but the club really don't help themselves by setting tickets prices so high; 32 per cent of seats inside Spanish grounds have been empty so far this season.

Lower crowds mean lower revenues and this is being reflected in the caution of Spanish clubs in the transfer market. Just £96 million was spent by La Liga clubs on new players this summer, a big drop from £300m last year and a huge fall from the £451m high in 2007 before the financial crisis kicked in.

Authorities are also cracking down on Spanish clubs who don't have their financial affairs in order. And plenty don't. UEFA have this week withheld prize money from both Malaga and Atletico Madrid because of their failure to pay other clubs or tax bills. The idea of spending money you don't have in the hope of Champions League riches will be less appealing if those riches are withheld.

There's so much that should be celebrated in Spanish football, from the technical excellence of the football to the proud clubs with wonderful stadia, but the authorities and the clubs really need to get a grip because, as it stands, it's a world-beating league in terms of the talent on show, but firmly second class when it comes to organisation.

Andy Mitten will be blogging for us on all matters in La Liga throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

Follow @AndyMitten

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