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Deciphering Wenger’s Public Relations Snafu

The palpable outrage over the Arsenal ticket hike, which sees holders being forced to pay an additional fee of around £30 to attend the upcoming Champion’s League match against Barcelona, has dominated the social media airwaves the since it became. Right on top of that came that Premier League clubs will not cap costs for away fans at £30 a ticket despite the record profits they are raking in.

First, let me say that I am squarely against the hike. Even if it is within a club’s right to issue it, the club should know better. The team is stuttering and if there was ever a game that they needed the fans to be squarely behind them, it was against Barcelona. Instead, they’ve taken the attention off getting behind the team and put it on a negative, external element. In short, for a club that thinks of itself as PR savvy, it’s an absolute disaster.

Following those comments, Arsene Wenger was asked about the hike at his   pre-match presser for Bournermouth. The reporter who asked was told this isn’t a question for Le Boss and it was rephrased as a general question about Premier League ticket prices. Wenger had this to say:

“We are a company who, on one side [the fans], want you to buy more players. What will happen is the prices of the players will go up and you will need this supplement of money coming in to buy new players. I believe that the pressure on spending the money will become bigger and you cannot necessarily distribute the money to other people.”

In another PR disaster its’ Wenger’s use of the “we are a company” line that is dominating Arsenal social media chatter, especially with those who would like nothing more than an additional stick to beat the manager with. Does it show him as a ruthless businessman and expose his lack sympathy and affinity for fans – as some would want you to believe?

Frankly that’s a bit of stretch. Wenger is simply speaking on a reality of the modern game. It’s a business; there is no getting around it. This is the modern era of football that all clubs, not just Arsenal live in. Gone are the old days when football was a local phenomenon. From the glory days of pristine stadia that weren’t cluttered with advertising, where you could take your family to a match for less than it takes to pay for one person.

In its place is a global game that’s been successfully taken over by corporate interests. This isn’t isolated to the Premier League, we’ve seen it for years in the NFL and other American sports. In the 90’s American sports were rife with teams that were building new stadiums. Longtime season ticket holders were jettisoned for corporate boxes. Our own editor, Michael Price, had family season tickets to the Philadephia Flyers along the ice – even witnessed the team’s two Stanley Cup wins. When the new stadium was built in Philadelphia a team he had supported since he was essentially born told his family – you can’t have your old season tickets and if you want a season ticket you have to pay a personal seating license – otherwise known as paying for the privilege of buying a season ticket.

When Wenger spoke he was simply stating a truth: sports is a business, clubs are the companies, and what matters to companies is profit. Is it right? Of course it isn’t, but it’s the reality of the situation.

The second part of Wenger’s statement, where he insists that increased revenue will be put toward transfers is being equally and unjustifiably chided. Arsenal fans sarcastically remark “what transfers?” and point to Wenger’s lack of spending in the market (which is somewhat of a myth in and of itself). But, again, Wenger spoke a simple truth. The transfer comment in reference to revenues was with the future in mind, a future that includes the spending power of China.

“China looks to have the financial power to move the whole European league to China. We know it is a consequence of economic power. Will they sustain their interest? I don’t know how deep the desire is. If the political desire is there we should worry.”

Wenger wasn’t necessarily speaking about a short-term future, where he himself will use the increased revenue to purchase players. He was talking about a time when he likely will no longer be in charge of the club, and Arsenal will need increased spending power due to inflated markets. Is Wenger wrong about China?

Just this window they spent a fortune on the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, and Alex Teixeira among others. The crazy prices will undoubtedly raise the value of other players in forthcoming windows. Some fans and pundits alike may be skeptical and scoff at the idea that top quality players will want to play in China, but if the money is there some will surely go.

The issue with some fans and media twist on Wenger’s quotes is they mistake his comments as an endorsement, that he wants the sport to be this way. Clubs, as companies, know that they can raise the price of tickets because the demand is there. Most people will find the extra cash and if there are a few that cant then so be it, new ones will take their place. It’s not right but that is how all clubs think now-a-days. You only have to look at the news earlier this week that Liverpool are hiking up prices. As more and more money comes into the Premier League, more and more clubs will do things that their fans and supporters don’t like. It’s foolish to zero this in as an Arsenal only phenomenon.

The list to become an Arsenal season ticket holder is continues to grow. Anyone that’s followed Wenger for a significant amount of time and is familiar with his economic views can’t truly believe this is how he wants the sport and game he loves to operate, but at the end of the day it’s how it will operate.

Even though this is a reality of the modern game, I’m an optimist and I still hold out hope that Arsenal will take this negative PR from the ticket hike as a valuable lesson. Small showcases of loyalty to the fans can go a long way and those are always doable while not majorly affecting the overall bottom line.

Does the club have any desire to learn this lesson? Probably not because it isn’t particularly in their interest to. Additionally, the whole Barcelona fixture hike proves that the PR department has no foresight or ability to control and design a narrative. Hopefully the outcry from fans leads the Arsenal hierarchy to realize that these matters, seemingly small from the viewpoint of the club, mean an awful lot to the fans. At the end of the day, when Wenger spoke, he spoke simple truths, these are rules of the modern game, but lets not pretend they are his rules.

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