Albion's CEO discusses ticket upgrades, being Premier League ready and TV coverage.
Brighton & Hove Albion chief executive Paul Barber met with official supporter groups on Thursday night at the Amex for a lively and wide-ranging Q&A session.
Fans from Mid Sussex Seagulls, Northwest Sussex Seagulls and Seagulls over Burwash joined Barber in the Heineken Lounge, and topics covered ranged from Sky Sports’ television coverage to the travel subsidy.
Here’s a summary of some of the main talking points:
Why are ticket upgrades limited to only six per season?
The first point here is that, as far as our terms and conditions are concerned, our season tickets are non-transferable – and any upgrades are subject to the club’s discretion. There is no automatic right for fans to upgrade season tickets. However, if fans are unable to attend matches, then we’d obviously rather generate some revenue from that seat than none at all, so we allow a level of flexibility to give supporters the opportunity to upgrade the seats on a certain number of occasions. This adds value to the season ticket and is particularly useful for those supporters who hold season tickets for their children. If you have a child’s ticket, there are normally around six times a season games occur on a school night, so the limit we imposed on upgrades (six) represents a fair compromise, particularly when you consider some clubs don’t offer any flexibility, and those that do usually limit upgrades to a maximum of four games in any one season. Depending on the time of the season, we also allow people to upgrade beyond the six games, but this involves upgrading a concession ticket for the remainder of the season.
Why have things only changed this season?
The same policy has been in place since the Amex opened. We have simply made the details more explicit. Unfortunately, despite having what we thought was a very fair system in place, we noticed a growing trend for a very small, but still significant, minority of supporters abusing the flexibility we offered. In some cases, we found that some fans were using a child’s season ticket as a ‘placeholder’ for their adult friends for when they want to attend bigger matches during the season or, in some cases, we saw adults had been regularly attempting to gain entry to the stadium using a concession-priced ticket. This led us to carry out some more detailed analysis and investigation in to how the upgrade system was being used, and all of us, including Tony Bloom, were shocked to see some people abusing the situation to effectively get a £400 ticket for £130. The club is losing in excess of £1m per month – a substantial cost that Tony personally funds – so the discovery of this abuse was and is totally unacceptable to us. We have taken very strong action against those found to be de-frauding the club - and we will continue to do so. So far, we have recovered many thousands of pounds from supporters who were found to be abusing the system.
Is the club ‘Premier League ready’ in the event that we are promoted?
Largely, yes, but we would still have a lot of work to do to satisfy all the requirements set by The Premier League. This involves upgrading a whole list of areas, including media facilities and our floodlights, to name just two items from a long list that changes, and becomes more demanding in the pursuit of even higher standards and better facilities, season after season!
Does the club have the right to turn down TV games?
We are part of a contractual agreement with The Football League and Sky Sports. As in any contract, we, along with all other clubs, have obligations. Frankly, it is incredibly naïve to think we can simply ignore our obligations in a multi-million pound legally binding agreement. You therefore have to have a very defined, logical, and clear argument to say no to being selected for a live TV game. Usually, it will be because the police or local authority have raised an objection. Occasionally, there may be a footballing reason, such as the timing of other fixtures around the game selected for live TV coverage. Typically, we will be given 31 days' or five weeks' notice that one of our games will be broadcast. For the Derby match we have been given nearly seven weeks. TV companies make selection decisions based on how topical games are in order to increase TV audience interest and to help them generate their own subscriber and advertising revenues, which ultimately determine how much they pay The Football League for their TV rights. TV and other central revenues from the Football League are worth around £5m to us each season. In addition, TV coverage helps us to generate a further £5m per year from sponsorship and other commercial deals. Therefore without TV revenue we would need to find up to £10m each season through another means. This would certainly mean amending our budgets somehow to make up the gap. There are three obvious ways to do this; cut the playing budget (and become less competitive), scrap our academy (and sacrifice our ability to grow our own players for the future), or look at a significant rise in season and match ticket prices (which is placing an even higher burden on fans than the inconvenience caused by changes to fixtures). I think fans would agree that we wouldn’t want to look at any of these options!
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Is there an issue with travel for the home game with Derby?
No, this seems to be something of a social media storm stirred up immediately after the change of date for this game was announced! I understand the rumours included various engineering works on the railways meaning no trains at all to Falmer, and no park and ride services from Brighton racecourse and other sites. In fact, travel services on the Bank Holiday Monday will be only marginally different to those that were in place for the Saturday. As such, around 90/95% of all our usual travel methods will be available for supporters. In fact, the most significant rail engineering works on that day will be taking place north of Croydon - and they were in place for the Saturday too. We will have a slightly reduced bus service from Brighton & Hove buses on the Monday but, other than that, everything else is in place as normal, including park and ride services. We do of course appreciate that any change to our fixtures, home or away, can be frustrating for supporters, particularly if people have booked travel or made other plans around the timing of a game. However, we are noticing different trends when it comes to match attendances. Interestingly, some of the highest no–show rates from season ticket holders this season have been for Saturday 3pm games.
Is there too much TV coverage?
Yes, maybe, there is. Striking a balance between vital income from TV and allowing the broadcasters enough games to make the fees they pay viable for them is a delicate one. Perhaps, one of the mistakes we might have made as a Football League is that we’ve sold too many games – but clubs across our league do enjoy live TV coverage and, as I explained earlier, it’s vital for the clubs’ sponsors too. Another issue is that Sky are subject to strict rules as to when they can schedule games, most notably that they cannot televise games on Saturdays at 3pm or on UEFA game nights, which in turn limits their options, causes bunching of fixtures on occasions or even late changes as gaps in the schedule suddenly occur. I’m sometimes asked why I defend Sky, but I must see things pragmatically. I think Sky’s coverage is good for our club – and good for our game overall. And, quite frankly, I really don’t know how we would replace the revenue we receive as a result of Sky’s support for football. I understand that the level of interest in our club is unprecedented and therefore the movement of fixtures is a new phenomenon for our fans, but we should keep in mind that the current situation in terms of games moving is nothing compared with what will happen if we go into the Premier League.
Will frisking outside the ground be permanent?
We’re in a high state of security alert across the country generally, and also as a sporting venue. Our costs have increased significantly this year because of all the added measures we have introduced for our fans’ safety, most of which fans won't see at all. Frisking is part of those measures, as we have to take various actions, some overt, others far less so, to reduce any threat we might face, but we’re doing it in a way to keep the hassle to a minimum. The safety of our supporters is paramount to the club.
Will the travel subsidy be withdrawn in the coming years?
The contribution the club makes to the cost of travel has grown meaning we have a large seven-figure transport bill that other clubs don’t have. When we tell other clubs about our travel subsidy, they think we’re absolutely mad! I don’t really care what they think though; we do it for the right reasons and it has helped us to grow our support for the club since the Amex opened. However, with a seven-figure bill to consider every season, it has to be something that we keep constantly under review and it’s not something we can promise or guarantee forever. If we’re still in the Championship next season and we’re faced with clubs that have the biggest parachute payments ever, the transport levy would effectively be a minimum of £1m off our playing budget versus our competitors who will have significantly more money at their disposal. We had to pay for the transport infrastructure to get the stadium open and we’re still paying for it. We extended the travel zone because so many fans living on the edge of the county weren’t benefitting from the subsidy. We have been deliberately targeting supporters from Hastings along and to make it as fair as we can for as many people we can.
Sometimes the shelf doesn’t appear very busy? Can the club do more?
Group sales have actually been higher than ever before this season, and we will continue to work hard to attract schools and groups to our home matches.
If we do go up, will we still have the shelf for kids?
I hope so. If we are in the Premier League those 380 seats on the shelf would of course be extremely valuable, but in my opinion we do need to still look to the future. I would be surprised if the chairman wouldn’t want to keep the shelf, or another area like it, specifically for children and groups. It may not be the very same seats but I’m sure we will look to create an area for groups of kids somewhere. For the future of our club, it is essential that we continue to grow the fan base – and this largely means encouraging more younger people to our games.
Have the rugby matches done any damage to the pitch?
No. Overall, we’ve had three or four more games (football or rugby) on the pitch this season than we did last year – and we’ve trained on it a lot less. Therefore, over a 12-month period, the only real difference has been the weather. We’ve had a lot of heavy rain before, during and after matches this season. This makes it very hard for Steve Winterburn and his grounds staff to get on to the pitch after games to start the remedial processes. And, given the heavy rainfalls, I know that some people therefore wonder why we still water the pitch when it has been raining! In simple terms, our pitch is designed for rainfall to pass straight through the pitch infrastructure and drain away without sticking to the leaf; the sprinklers deliver water horizontally, with the water designed to stick to the leaf, and therefore help the movement of the ball across the playing surface. The pitch is therefore watered to the manager and players’ specifications – even when we have suffered rainfall before the game.
Part two will be published on seagulls.co.uk tomorrow and includes questions on the loan transfer deadline, hotel development at the Amex and capping away ticket prices in the Championship.
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