Fans' Forum: The main talking points

Supporters got to ask their questions last night.

By BHAFC • 26 January 2022

By Paul Hazlewood
Albion chief executive and deputy chairman Paul Barber.

Deputy chairman and chief executive Paul Barber and head of supporter services Jenny Gower answered a range of questions at last night’s Fans’ Forum.

Here’s a selection of the main talking points from the evening.

Can the Premier League announce the TV picks earlier? Supporters are due to travel to Newcastle in just over five weeks, but we haven’t had a confirmed date.

Paul Barber: It’s a good question and a fair one. It’s a minimum of a month notice of live TV games, and from experience it’s a balancing act, and I don’t know if TV companies or clubs would necessarily want them to be earlier. The reason being, TV companies want to try wherever possible to reflect the status of the league, so they don’t want to be picking live games too far in advance in case a particular fixture isn’t as attractive (for a wider audience) by the time the game is played. The broadcasters therefore try to strike a balance between games that are going to be attractive but at the same time recognise fans need to make travel plans. And it’s not just fans that need to do this, it’s teams as well. If the notice of a change is too short, we have a challenge securing a team hotel, with the right amount of rooms and facilities we need. It’s a much bigger challenge for fans though and we recognise that. We are expecting the March TV fixtures to be announced in the next 24-48 hours, so 4-5 weeks ahead of when they’re due to be played and that’s a lot better than what it used to be. It’s never perfect, but I think at the moment it’s the compromise we have to accept.

There’s been a worrying trend of violence and people running onto the pitch. What is the reasoning behind that? Is it related to late kick-off times? It is an issue that has emerged again, having not been a problem for a long time.

PB: I don’t know exactly why, but I would imagine it’s a number of things. I suspect there’s an element of frustration that has come with being couped up for a long time because of covid; people now being able to get out and have a few drinks, to socialise a bit more, and so it could be a case of people not controlling themselves in that situation, and emotions boiling over more than usual. It’s not just happening here, it’s happening up and down the country. Thankfully at the Amex, it’s happening at a low rate compared to some incidents across the country – bottles and coins being thrown, people running onto the pitch, it’s madness. You’re going to get yourself a football banning order, you’re going to lose your season ticket, you’re potentially going to have a criminal conviction, and maybe even lose your job. They’re all the consequences that come with committing a criminal offence. It’s hard to fathom, but unfortunately it has happened a lot recently. The Premier League, FA and Police are meeting to discuss if more significant sanctions need to be put into place to deter people from doing these things. We can only warn people of the consequences and ultimately people have got to take responsibility for their actions.

How will the Fan Advisory Board work, how will the findings of each meeting work?

Jenny Gower: We’ve still got to fine tune all of the details. First and foremost we want to try to create a system where people can volunteer themselves who are interested in becoming a part of the advisory board. Once we’ve got those candidates, it will be quite a long process to select the board members. We then want to start scheduling meetings, ideally to start by the end of this season/early summer. Then it will be a case of publishing minutes or having a summary on the website for wider groups of fans to see. At the moment we’re looking for feedback on what fans want from the Fan Advisory Board so we’ve setup an email address where people can send in ideas or things they want to see.

PB: This is a real opportunity for the elected representatives on the Fan Advisory Board, and our wider fan base, to get some exposure to the people that actually run the football club day-to-day. There’s this misguided perception that I do everything! And that’s not the case funnily enough! We’ve got amazing teams of people run by senior managers, who are taking decisions that impact the fan experience on a game-to-game basis, and it’s really important that fans understand there is a big structure behind me and behind the board, with specialists in each area and there will be opportunities for the Fan Advisory Board to quiz this group of people. Across our senior team, I was counting up the other day, we’ve got over 100 years of experience of putting on professional football matches. That’s not including the board who have got a lot of wider commercial experience as well.

Can we have an explanation as to the Tottenham allocation? It said on the website that the club may take up to 9,000, but there were plenty of fans who were under the impression that we were going to get that number. Could the communications have been better?

PB: In ten years at the Amex, we haven’t sold anywhere near 9,000 tickets for an away game. The closest we came to this was just under 7,000 when we went to Milton Keynes for a 3pm kick-off on a Saturday when we chasing promotion on a nice spring day with no COVID around - and the tickets were £10. That’s the most we’ve ever sold. The most for an FA Cup game (obviously excluding the recent semi final at Wembley) would be around the same figure, a bit below (I think it was 6,000 for Liverpool and almost a thousand less for Manchester United). We have to make a judgement based on the facts. The facts are it’s an 8pm kick-off, there are no trains back to Sussex, it’s live on terrestrial TV, and COVID is still a concern for some. The vast majority of the initial emails we were receiving were people saying why they couldn’t or wouldn’t go to this game, views which were totally understandable given the circumstances. On top of that, we have to consider that if we ask for 9,000 tickets, we have to pay the balance on what we don’t sell and that could run into tens of thousands of pounds, which at this moment is money we can’t afford to lose. In terms of whether our communications could have better, it’s not an unreasonable question at all. But let me present another scenario; we announce that we’re going to take 5,700 tickets, people pile in because they’re concerned about not getting a ticket. Because of slow sales at Tottenham, Spurs give us tickets back and then Jen Gower and her team have to deal with floods of complaints from people saying ‘if I had known we were getting more tickets, I’d have waited so I could buy later to be with friends’. So whichever way we do this, we’re caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of what we say and when we say it. It’s never going to be perfect for everyone or even anyone. Ultimately, we have to take what is a sensible decision based on the information we have. As much as we would love to take 9,000 supporters to Spurs, and it’s in our interests to do so, history has shown us that we don’t travel with numbers like this at  8pm on a Saturday night in London when there are no trains back to Brighton, there is no parking available at Spurs, there is limited ability for coaches to park at Spurs, the game is live on TV, and COVID has been restricting attendances so you can imagine why we have gone for the lower allocation rather than the higher allocation - and there was nothing open to us in between.

Were you surprised with how quickly they sold?

PB: They didn’t sell quickly, they sold through relatively slowly. If the game had sold quickly, it would have never got to club members. It’s one of those difficult balancing acts we have to strike. We looked at all recent away attendances and people may be surprised that our average away attendance in the Premier League has been about 2,300. In the Championship it was about 1,700. So we’re taking good numbers to away games, and yes we’ve taken good numbers this season too, but when we start talking about selling 9,000 tickets to an away game in the circumstances I’ve already described, we just don’t have any data that supports us taking that many people to London on a Saturday night. Trust me, of all people, I would love to take 9,000 supporters to Spurs. If I take the 35 complaints I received and times that by 30, and we sell an extra 1000 tickets, we’d still be left with over 2,000 tickets to sell. That’s £50k, and I’m sure people will say in the context of the Premier League and all the TV money it’s nothing, but trust me, it isn’t. We lose tens of millions of pounds every single year. Every £50k we lose represents the value of two full-time jobs. I cannot sanction £50k being frittered away because we think we might be able to sell 9,000 tickets. These are the tough decisions we have to make.

People might struggle without loyalty points to get to away games?

PB: This season, five away games have gone to general sale, four have gone to purchase history, two have gone on sale to members, so there are loyalty points available in all these games. Only four away games this season have sold out to season ticket holders. There have been plenty of opportunities for supporters to get tickets for away games, and to build up loyalty points.

Have the seats been moved closer together?

PB: When we had the Amex built, the shoulder room that was given per seat was a lot more generous than other stadiums up and down the country. We have always had the option of increasing the capacity by slightly moving seats closer together as they are on rails. As a consequence, we have been able to add on the odd seat to the end of rows where space allows. The club’s entire board tested the seats when moved closer together before the full installation and none of us could really tell the difference. Clearly, in winter, when everyone is wearing bigger coats and more layers, it might well b a little more noticeable.

There seems to have been an increase in the amount of homophobic abuse at games?

PB: It’s depressing. I heard it at Leicester and we will be feeding it into the various meetings that we go to. We do ask for action, most clubs are supportive in voice if not action and on the day in terms of making arrests, there are a few things that are really important. The first thing is the evidence, catching someone on camera with volume is important or having a steward and/or Police Officer there to identify the people. We’re fed up with it, we will do everything we can to try and educate and ultimately eradicate. But ultimately it’s going to take time and there are some people that still just don’t get it. We will keep trying.

Is Dan Ashworth staying or going? 

PB: I hope Dan stays for as long as possible. There are always going to be options for our best people, whether they’re coaches or staff, to take opportunities when they come along. We can’t control that. But our policy has always been, when we are approached by other clubs for our staff, we want them to go and have that conversation if that’s what they’re being invited to do. Sometimes, and in a lot of cases, they go and have the conversations and they come back to us and say, ‘I am happy here and I like it here more’. Whereas if you block people from that, it can build that resentment. We hope Dan stays for a long time.

The tweaking of the ticket sharing system. Is it going to work better than it has in the past?

PB: Thousands of people have signed up to it this season - and it’s also helped us to attract several thousand new club members. It’s a difficult scheme to manage because you start from the premise that season tickets are not transferable, and never have been at the Amex. Substantial discounts are applied to season tickets. They’re personal to the season ticket holder who receives the discount for committing to attend 19 matches. By definition, that discount isn’t transferable. Then you have covid regulations that meant we had to move quickly to digital ticketing to help identify as best we could those people in the stadium at any one time. With digital ticketing it’s difficult to pass your phone onto someone else, so we had to come up with a scheme that was designed to cover lots of different scenarios. The scheme we came up with was to provide season ticket holders with flexibility, and for the club to have better control on who received those tickets. Again, this is because first of all we’ve got a responsibility to know who is in the stadium, secondly we have got to protect the club’s season ticket and match ticket revenues. For next season, Jen Gower and her team have come up with a range of options for the season ticket transfer scheme that answer a lot of the initial complaints that we received including one-off uses or even more flexibility for a couple of used without paying the additional £20. We also want to make sure that when we apply a decent discount for season tickets, it’s being used by the person it was intended for, and is not a benefit used by someone who might not come to the stadium again on a one-off basis. We will always looking to improve where we can do, but we’ve also got to make sure that we’ve got a scheme in place that is fair and works for as many people as possible as well as for the club.

JG: We would love for the system to be more user friendly than it is, we do our very best to make sure it is as user friendly as possible. There’s plenty of people who don’t require this sort of flexibility and we didn’t want to put an extra price on them by adding a standard charge to all season ticket holders. Those that want flexibility pay the additional fee. Those that don't want or need the flexibility don’t pay the fee. It’s also worth saying that people are comparing what other clubs do and some offer a more open scheme, but they also charge you 19x the match ticket price and don’t let you have much or any discount on that, so we’re different with that, we’re very generous with our season ticket pricing. 

PB: The scheme actually has the potential to take money away from the club. Many of the people who are now benefitting from sharing a season ticket, are typically people who might buy a match ticket. That’s because season ticket holders can share with an unlimited number of club members as many times as they wish through the season. The potential number of match ticket buyers, and the revenue they might provide to the club, has therefore been reduced at a time when we have expanded the stadium’s capacity, and that of course has the potential to reduce the club’s revenues at a time when we most need money (to help us receiver from additional COVID losses). The season ticket transfer scheme is certainly not making us money, it’s doing quite the opposite. Another complaint and query is why are we taking longer to open the ticket exchange? Well, we’re taking longer to sell out games because again season ticket sharing takes the edge off the amount of people buying match tickets. If I look at the ticket scheme in terms of revenue, it’s worth about £250,000 to us, but the potential cost to us is a couple of million pounds if the scheme contributes to us not selling out of match tickets for all our home games, which is critical revenue. Each game that we don’t sell out is lost revenue we can’t recover, so far from being an exercise in “profiteering” as some have erroneously suggested, it is actually a scheme that was genuinely created to provide greater flexibility for fans through and post COVID as digital ticketing becomes mandates by the Premier League, to help the club better know who is in the stadium at any one time (which in turn helps to keep all fans and our staff safer), and to help us build our fan base for the future. We simply can’t do that through anonymous ticket transfers. But we can do that by knowing who is watching our matches, and by knowing who is prepared to make a modest initial financial commitment to do so.