England's home games sell out well in advance but there is a growing feeling that prices are a bit too high for some fans
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Nostalgia can be a sun-kissed trap, a haze of warmer, simpler days that never were - but do
not those of us who ambled into Test matches in the 1980s, 70s or earlier correctly recall a cheaper day out than today's pricey, book-ahead corporate feasts?
Not according to the England Cricket Board (ECB). Point their commercial director, John Perera, to classic footage of delirious teenagers slapping Ian Botham's back at Headingley in 1981, or the massed black youngsters hailing Viv Richards' 1976 exploits and he concedes that the former West Indian support has dwindled but not that today's higher prices have produced an ageing crowd. Instead Perera offers a reminder that Tests in the past were often half empty.
"We feel that today's sold-out grounds represent a real success, evidence of the game's popularity," he says. He points to a healthy mix of fans: corporates alongside the Barmy Army-ish thirty-and fortysomethings, middle-aged and older enthusiasts, schoolchildren on some genuinely cheap deals, and a growing number of women.
"We recognise we have to refresh our audience and we must address the loss of support from
fans of Caribbean origin," Perera says. "But Test match prices, for a full day's entertainment, compare very well with other events like 90 minutes of football."
Look closely, though, and the Lord's and Oval Test matches do seem overstocked with corporate
jollies, and around the grounds there does appear a marked gap between the children on special concessions and the 30-plus-year-olds who can afford the full price. With junior prices stopping at 16, fans in their late teens and 20s had to pay, this year, £45-£80 at The Oval, £32 at Old Trafford, £20-£50 at Trent Bridge, £37-£60 at Headingley and £30-£60 at Chester-le-Street.
No thorough research appears to have been done into the demographic make-up of Test match crowds but in football, official Premier League surveys show that after prices went up steeply in the early 1990s, fans aged 16-24 struggled to afford it. Their presence has fallen to 7% of modern football crowds, compared to around 25% in the 1980s. The age profile of Test-match crowds - until fifth days, when prices drop and tickets can be bought on the gate - looks very similar.
Was it cheaper years ago? The answer is yes - quite staggeringly cheaper. Colin Maynard, the MCC assistant secretary responsible for ticketing policy, says that while fans paid £65 for a Mound Stand ticket for this summer's main Test against India, in 1977 the price was £3.20. The Office of National Statistics can tell you that £3.20 then is worth £14.75 now. So, in real terms, the Lord's ticket price is 500% more expensive.
Maynard explains this steepling increase by arguing today's Test match is a different experience, £50m having been spent improving Lord's. It is important, too, to understand the game's financial structure: prices are set by the MCC at Lord's, by the host clubs at the other grounds, which pay the ECB for the right to stage matches. At Lord's, the MCC retains 12.5% of ticket sales income; after match costs, the ECB keeps the rest. The ECB's income from Test matches, and TV rights and sponsorship, pays England players' central contracts and supports cricket nationally, including the first-class counties.
Was it cheaper years ago? The answer is yes - quite staggeringly cheaper
"The MCC Committee is acutely aware of its obligation to reach the right balance between the interests of spectators and the need to help maximise the income generated for the good of the game," Maynard says. "It is not an easy balance to strike but, in the club's judgement, the prices are set at the right level."
Surrey's chief executive, Paul Sheldon, argues that at The Oval too, prices are not excessive, given
the ground's catchment area of the City and wealthy South East. "Tickets were certainly cheaper
years ago," he says, "but the demand was not there nor the excellent facilities. Now we could
sell tickets for much more; we sell out by Christmas. I accept some people can't afford it but we do try
not to exploit our position. Our income goes to the ECB and to maintain the ground."
Harriet Monkhouse, deputy editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack and a Lancashire life
member, found that the prices for an Old Trafford Test in 1980 were £2 to £3.50. Other members of the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians recalled £1 to watch the 1973 New Zealand Test at Headingley, £4 at Edgbaston to see Australia in 1985.
Jim Cumbes, chief executive of Lancashire, where this year's prices were more moderate, is concerned people are being priced out. He partly blames the bidding process - in which Lancashire have lost to Glamorgan for a 2009 Ashes Test - for pushing prices up. "Cricket has to be careful," he says. "The cost does stand up against other sports but we must not lose the next generation of fans."
Andy Clark agrees. A steadfast England fan and editor of the Corridor of Uncertainty fanzine, he fell in love with live Test cricket aged 13. "As a single bloke (37) with a fair amount of disposable
income, today's prices are generally pretty good value. But I feel sorry for teenagers who are simply priced out. If the kids can't get in, what is the future for the game?"
Financially the future is very healthy indeed, as Test matches are now a corporate fixture and
lads' day out. But if the ECB and Test venues want to re-connect with young adults and those with
thinner wallets, they will have to cut prices, remembering the game was more accessible not long ago.
David Conn is a sports columnist for The Guardian