By Tony Attwood
Premier League clubs have lots of money. Premier League clubs need good PR. Premier League clubs have consultancy groups representing mainstream fans and minority groups.
And yet they get their PR wrong. Utterly, totally, hopelessly wrong.
Arsenal, as has been well-reported, has applied its rules about Cup Credits for season ticket holders, and raised a storm. Liverpool meanwhile have been buying up streets, knocking down houses, imposing compulsory purchase orders with the help of the local council in order to re-build their ancient stadium, and have now put the prices up.
Both this week have had a backlash from some fans.
Of course in such circumstances it is hard to say what percentage of fans are up in arms – those who are can make a lot of noise and the press love it when fans turn on their club, even if they are not fans who attend matches, and thus who make no financial contribution to the club.
But whatever the number, there is a certain amount of breakdown of trust between some fans and some clubs. Man U for example have had a long history of argument with its season ticket holding fans for forcing them to buy league cup match tickets, whether they want to go or not. I think that policy has stopped but it took several years for the club to get the message and a huge amount of damage was done in the interim.
However I suspect most people actually don’t want their club to respond to all their fans. Indeed they can’t because the fans have different opinions. I’m always delighted to find that day after day, week after week, Arsenal take no notice of the aaa and their media bedfellows.
That’s great, but ignoring fans at this level does not help guide the club when it comes to issues like the cost of tickets for cup matches.
Arsenal is quite unusual in that it includes cup matches with season tickets – up to a limited number, which I think is seven. Of course the media normally ignore this fact when doing the regular “most expensive tickets in the multiverse” headlines, but the arrangements for the way in which the club provides tickets for cup matches has been established for many years.
But this year it meant that suddenly the cost of the next Euro cup match shot up, because Arsenal have yet again been drawn at home in the FA Cup. So the club applied the rules that have been in position for a number of years, and some fans got agitated.
In response the club backed off and changed the charging process. Which is good, fairly fast, and resolved, and quite well written.
Liverpool however haven’t shown any sign of backing off. In fact they are digging in further and further. (The thought when in a hole stop digging hasn’t reached Merseyside yet). For while Arsenal have put out a statement, saying (among other things), “It was never our intention that we would upset those fans who are amongst our most loyal supporters. Having listened to their feedback, we are announcing on this occasion that we will not ask fans to pay the additional amount due under our season ticket conditions for the game on February 23rd.”
Which is quite different from Ian Ayre saying he is “staggered that supporters would walk out of Saturday’s game against Sunderland in protest at rising ticket costs at Anfield and denied prices could have been reduced thanks to next season’s record broadcasting deal.”
He might feel staggered. He might be staggering, but saying it is just about the silliest thing Liverpool have done since the owner, John Henry, addressed a big sporting convention in the US and boasted that yes, there was a buy-out clause in Suarez’ contract, and yes, Arsenal did exceed it, and yes, he was bullshitting at full speed when he made his insulting “What are they smoking at the Emirates?” statement. He lied, lied, and lied again and the media, lap dogs and poodles that they are, lapped it up. Fortunately for reality Untold was on hand, and we read the international sporting press.
The revelation made Liverpool look like a bunch of cheap conmen.
I am sure many Liverpool fans and indeed Arsenal fans, will want to point out that even with the new price hike, Liverpool’s prices are for the most part, a lot lower than Arsenal’s. And Tottenham’s come to that.
Personally I can see why Liverpool are going to charge more for the top tickets in their rebuilt stand. What I am surprised at is that a club that size gets itself into such a mess so easily in trying to explain it to their loyal and long suffering fans.
Now Liverpool has a supporters’ committee, which apparently was consulted on the proposals, but they have been among the most outraged and it seems that over a short period of time communication broke down. Liverpool FC have been quite aggressive in taking the dispute into the open, conducting discussions via the media – never a very helpful thing to do.
Issues of ticket pricing are complex – as when Man City arranged a protest at the Ems over the price of away tickets. Only a small number of tickets were sold to away fans and the media made a lot of that. What they made nothing of was the fact that the barriers between home and away fans were moved, and all the spare tickets returned by Man C were snapped up by Arsenal fans. Which says something.
The fact that Liverpool has got plans for having some £9 tickets for category C matches and 1,000 tickets over the season being given free to local children get lost in all this, and begin to sound a bit like an excuse. 1000 tickets free is nice, but across a season it comes down to around 50 tickets a game. That doesn’t sound that good does it?
And a statement like, “I think there is a difference between somebody creating whatever noise they feel they’ve got to create to get people’s attention and the facts,” from the Liverpool chair, as quoted in several newspapers, is really dumb. I mean really, really, really dumb.
Whether you call people fans or customers calling them “Somebody” is really silly. Want to alienate the people who pay you money to attend your games? Call them “somebody”.
Likewise failing to explain the club’s finances properly is also a mistake in my view. Just saying, “Of course everybody would like the tickets to be cheaper, including us, but that’s not an option for us right now,” doesn’t help either.
Maybe it is so, but why? That would be good to hear.
What they said instead was,
“How are we pricing fans out of the stadium if 65% of season tickets have flattened or come down, and 45% of matchday tickets have come down? Aren’t we feeding what we – certainly me as a Liverpool fan – have been saying for years: more young people, more local people. These initiatives are feeding that.”
Maybe, but that is not how you convince people. Ask anyone who has ever worked in advertising or PR and they will tell you. Getting people to change their minds is possible. But you can never ever do it by telling them they are wrong and you are right.
Subtlety is the name of the game. And here I can speak with a little authority, having run an advertising agency for more years than I want to remember.
Now my firm isn’t that huge; we are certainly not in the top bunch of advertising agencies. But we have our area of specialism, and in that little field we are pretty much at the top. And so like all agencies, we study which adverts succeed in changing the behaviour, we study the attitude and views of people, we know what psychologists have discovered across the years about human behaviour, and we could tell every football club that this is not the way to do it.
Especially not when Premier League clubs are getting from the benefit of a £5.14bn broadcasting deal from next season. Calling the money from TV rights and the money from fans “separate business streams,” as the Liverpool boss has done, is stupid in this scenario . And I can say, if one of my staff was in this sort of PR disaster and said, “The TV revenue goes into a completely different product on the pitch and the prices of that could be X, Y or Z. We can’t build a sustainable solution for the stadium based on what we may or may not spend in the transfer market. It’s the same plan we’ve always had for the stand and tickets,” I would sack him for gross incompetence and undermining the long term good of the company.
Handling people and changing attitudes is difficult. But clubs are big enough to be able to employ experts and get it right. And they do employ experts. The problem is that the experts themselves are removed from the fans – they generally don’t have a clue how fans feel about their clubs.
Really, clubs have sufficient money to be able to bring in people who are close to fans and who know how to communicate with fans. Arsenal didn’t think ahead to what the fans reaction might be – and that for me suggests that their links with fans who also know about communication is not strong enough. But they picked up the pieces quickly, and things are resolved.
But Liverpool! They are just not at the show.
- 6 February 2010: Arsenal lost to Chelsea 2-0, following close on home defeat to Man U on 31 Jan, meaning there were no wins in three games, and with Liverpool the next team to be played.
- 6 February 2010: A member of the Norway Arsenal supporters club claimed that the club had lost over 300 members in the last month because of the poor performance by the team under Arsène Wenger.