As the Toronto Maple Leafs announce another price hike and the gap between rich fans and poor fans widens, sports teams on both sides of the Atlantic are exploiting the devotion of their followers with no end in sight
Anyone who hasn’t followed the Premier League in recent years may not be familiar with the phrase ‘prawn sandwich brigade’. It was a phrase adapted from an infamous quote from former Manchester United captain Roy Keane, who was asked why he thought the atmosphere had been so poor at Old Trafford following a game in 2000.
“Away from home our fans are fantastic, I’d call them the hardcore fans,” he said. “But at home they have a few drinks and probably their prawn sandwiches, and they don’t realise what’s going on out on the pitch.”
Since that moment, the term has come to describe the wealthy supporter, who wraps a club scarf around his starched collar and enjoys a beer from behind the glass of an executive box. Emotionally and physically detached from the spectacle in front of him, he returns home after the game before handing a season ticket back to the concierge of the local Hilton.
Meanwhile, at another Premiership ground with similar prices but a smaller fanbase, footballers play in front of large swathes of empty seats, as working-class families decide against paying £30 to see their club play when the increased TV coverage mean they can watch it from their living room.
3,423 miles away, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a prawn sandwich problem of their own. Platinum seat holders miss the start of the second and third periods because they haven’t quite finished their champagne. The resulting flat atmosphere at the Air Canada Centre is a far more infectious disease than the mythical “blue and white” one dreamt up by former GM Brian Burke.
It enrages the average hockey fan and rightly so. Simply because, as they sit in front of the TV for a Saturday night Battle of Ontario, they are forced to stare at the seats that the beneficiaries of corporate hospitality can’t be bothered sit in – the same seats that they, the average fan, could only dream of affording.
No wonder they can’t afford it. The figures are eye watering. In the spring, as the Leafs approached their first playoff berth since
the Renaissance 2004, MLSE put ticket prices up by 75%, taking the average ticket price from $124.69 to $218.20. Beginning next season the Leafs will begin a “dynamic” ticket pricing scheme, whereby big games, for instance against the Senators or Canadiens, will be priced higher. “Super-premium”. Even the name seems to designed to send a clear message to lower-income fans: these aren’t for you.
In England and in Canada, there seems to be little fans can do to stem the tidal wave of greed, but discontent is growing. In January, there was uproar among Manchester City supporters after Arsenal charged them £62 ($96) for an away ticket. As 25-year-old estate agent Richard Taylor unfurled a bedsheet with the slogan, “£62!! Where will it stop?” it was quickly confiscated by ground stewards. Clubs do not take kindly to bad press. In Toronto, a paving slab stencil displaying the clubs logo and the phrase ‘Leafs Nation – Spirit Is Everything’ was defaced to read “Your Cash Is The Only Thing”.
But in Toronto at least, the fans keep showing up. They kept showing up after the lockout, where they were treated with contempt as face consumers by the NHLPA and the NHL and they’ll keep showing up now. Fans bombarded by a cynical ‘we’re all in this together’ mentality with slogans like ‘Leafs Nation’ and ‘The Passion That Unites Us All’ will soak it up because the suits know, in their heart of hearts, that a father won’t be able to resist taking his son to his first NHL game even though it might cost him an arm and a leg.
In the end, it comes down to business and the inevitable greed that goes with it. MLSE may act as if they want more kids with hockey jerseys down to their knees at games, waving at a giant polar bear mascot. Sadly for the average fan, though, it’s the prawn sandwich brigade that brings the bucks in and the corporate suites, featuring ‘luxurious interiors with a cherry wood finish’, aren’t going to be empty anytime soon.