To many football fans, being viewed as a 'consumer' embodies all that is wrong with the modern game. It is true that they are not consumers in the 'normal' sense of the word. Fans can't (or at least won't) switch to another club if they think their team does not represent value for money. They won't "shop elsewhere" if their club is relegated.
But, as far as the law is concerned, season ticket purchasers have the same rights and protections as all other consumers. With the final part of the season now cancelled or being played behind closed doors, season ticket holders may welcome this after all.
In March, the Competition and Markets Authority ("CMA") launched a COVID-19 taskforce to help protect consumers and address complaints relating to cancellations and refunds. While the taskforce has so far focused on sectors such as holiday accommodation and childcare, there is nothing to prevent it from turning its attention to season tickets where fans have been prevented from attending matches.
In relation to consumers' rights to refunds, the CMA has made its position clear, publishing guidance in April on its general views about how the law operates in this area. The following statement is most relevant in the context of the suspended football season:
"Sometimes, a consumer will already have received some of the services they have paid for in advance. In those cases, the CMA considers that the consumer would normally be entitled to at least a refund for the services that are not provided."
Although a simplified take on the relevant legislation, the CMA's view appears to be that as far as it is concerned, football fans have a right to a pro rata refund for the matches they have been prevented from attending. It would therefore be a bold stance for a club to completely ignore the signals coming from the CMA.
Indeed, while the guidance makes clear that it simply sets out the CMA’s views on the law and that "only the courts can decide what the law is", it has already begun to take enforcement action based on its interpretation. In June, the CMA secured undertakings from a major holiday lets company to refund customers based on the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.
The authority is also not afraid to wade into the realm of sports. Its predecessor, the Office of Fair Trading, previously compelled Manchester United to change its season ticket terms and conditions after finding them to be in breach of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 (since replaced by the Consumer Rights Act 2015).
What options are available to clubs?
At a time when some clubs may be struggling with their own cash flow issues, the CMA's stance on credits and vouchers will be welcome. Such options are legitimate alternatives to refunds (i.e. permitting clubs to offer credits to be redeemed against future ticket purchases). However, the key thing is that season ticket holders should not be misled or pressured into accepting these alternatives and, crucially, a refund should still be an option that is just as clearly and easily available.
The picture is murkier where clubs offer fans the option to stream the rest of the team's matches online. The CMA has not considered this point explicitly, but you can certainly imagine them arguing that this should at least be accompanied with a refund for the difference of cost between the pro rata value of the season ticket and streaming passes offered by clubs more generally.
The key thing for clubs to bear in mind is that season ticket holders have the same rights as everyone else under consumer protection law, and these rights should be respected. However, provided that they have their rights properly and fairly explained to them, they may be willing to accept vouchers or forgo their rights completely. Of course, not all season ticket holders will be in a position to do so, but for those that can 'support' their teams at this time may be more likely to do so when they feel that they have been treated fairly.