Twenty eight people died at the 30 June Stadium in Cairo last year, suffocating in a crush that began when police fired tear gas at away fans entering without tickets. It was another in a long line of stadium tragedies. But like the 2006 PhilSports Arena disaster in the Philippines, and the disasters in Johannesburg in 2001 and Harare in 2000 and 2001, the stadium in question was all-seated. In modern stadia, it is organisation and policing that drive safety, not the presence of seats – and we ought to recognise this by allowing standing once more in the top two tiers of English football.
In the past, standing was different: we had vast undifferentiated terraces and people were deliberately penned in. Now, the state-of-the-art rail seats used in standing areas have barriers separating every row, making a crush even more difficult than in seated areas. Worse, authorities used to have oppositional attitudes toward fans – and it was primarily these problems that the recent Hillsborough inquest blamed for the unlawful killing of 96 people in 1989, rather than standing per se.
If standing is safe, why don’t we allow it? Well we do. Regulatory standards accept standing as a safe alternative to seats in horse racing, rugby, and even in football grounds outside the Premier League and the Championship. Scotland, which has devolved powers over the area, has given the go-ahead for Celtic to install standing room for 3,000 this season. The real reason is that, although times have moved on, English politicians have not.
Every poll of fans I could find – and there were dozens – found large majorities in favour of allowing standing sections; often over 90 per cent of respondents favour having a choice between sitting and standing. Their biggest reason is atmosphere: they believe standing generates more noise and buzz and feeling. And it’s hard to disagree if you see the 25,000 strong standing section at the Südtribüne in Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion in action.
Clubs – 19 out of the 20 in the 2015-16 Premier League and 70 per cent of the Football League’s 72 – favour allowing standing. One reason is it could bring in yet more money from TV deals with an improved atmosphere. Another reason might be price discrimination. Firms want to charge the rich eye-watering prices, but they don’t want to miss out on custom from regular fans, so they need to offer them different products.
Standing massively increases the possibility of price discrimination, and it seems to work in practice too, according to research in my paper Safe Standing. In European clubs surveyed in the BBC Price of Football 2015, where there are standing sections, the average most expensive season ticket is four times as expensive as the average cheapest offer. In Premier League clubs the ratio is just 1.72. Clubs cannot go any cheaper to get more of those with modest means in the gate because they’d have to cut the prices for their wealthier customers too.
Since you can fit more people into standing areas, it’s possible the average ticket price would fall too. But even if it doesn’t, adding a wider gap between the top and bottom ticket price could cut over £300 off Southampton’s cheapest season ticket and just under £200 off Leicester’s.
Changing the rules would be surprisingly easy: it doesn’t require an Act of Parliament or passing any laws. The 1989 Football Spectators Act gave the Department for Culture, Media and Sport the discretion to decide: sports minister Tracey Crouch could, and should, simply decide to no longer prohibit the top 44 clubs from opening up standing areas.
It might have made sense to restrict standing in 1989, when its safety was unproven, but it doesn’t now. Sweden, Austria, Germany and other sports show it can be safe. Inquests show us it was not to blame for past tragedies. It could cut ticket prices and improve the atmosphere at games. And politically it’s an easy step. Crouch: it’s an open goal.