Manipulative, misleading and ill informed: the debate over empty seats at the Ems

By Tony Attwood

There is a little bit of a debate going on about the issue of empty seats at the Emirates, and how unfair it all is that some people have season tickets and then don’t show up for games.  The suggestion is that such people should have their season tickets forcibly removed by the club.

The fact that the argument has flaws within it can be seen through article reporting it in the Telegraph (a paper regularly willing to use the press releases of organisations that wish to attack Arsenal) has a series of pictures which quite clearly were taken not during a regular match.

If you look at the first picture in the Telegraph you see people looking up, around, left and right, and those that are looking are not particularly focussed.  It is a summer’s day – in fact it looks very much like the picture was taken during one of the Emirates Cup games a year or two back in which Arsenal was not playing (ie when two of the visiting teams play each other in the early afternoon before the Arsenal game kicks off at 4pm).   Tickets for Ems Cup games cover the whole day – and I know I have often turned up midway through the first game, pausing for a drink before going into catch the end of the preliminary match.

The use of such a picture to illustrate the scene shows how weak that Telegraph’s argument is – had there been a real case to answer a picture from yesterday’s game – or at least another recent game  – an actual picture of the “empty seats” mid game would have been used.  Instead a highly manipulative image is used to make the point.

The second picture used as “evidence” was one taken at kick off for the last Champs League game, and it shows a lot of empty spaces in the clock end – and that wasn’t a manipulated picture – it was like that.  But within ten minutes that part of the ground had filled up dramatically.   The issue with that picture was one of late arrivals not of non-use.

Here there are many reasons – some people arrive late for Champs League games because there is no drinking in the ground, so they stay in the pub a bit longer.  Some just get delayed by transport events, some are just bad at time keeping.  I don’t fully understand that, since by and large I do arrive on time, but I see it game after game – people come to their seats late.

This is an issue I am well aware of, since I sit one seat in from the aisle – and thus have to stand each and every time someone arrives late – or indeed goes out early.  People do both.  Are we now trying to stop that – on the basis of another highly misleading Telegraph picture?  An interesting approach to selling.  Yes some theatre’s do it, but theatre’s generally take under 1000 people who just buy that ticket for that performance, not a ticket to attend 25 times a year, so the issue is different.

So on the basis of these misleading pictures we are told that Arsenal are being “urged to consider banning season tickets of fans who fail to show up.”

Of course it is true, people don’t show up sometimes.  I like to think I’m as committed a season ticket holder as one can get regarding Arsenal but I don’t think I’ve attended every game in a season at Arsenal for years, and when I have not attended, I often haven’t been able to pass my ticket on.

There are many reasons for both my non-attendance and the not selling on of the ticket.  Here’s a few real reasons – not taken from make believe misleading Telegraph pictures.

Why I don’t always turn up

One of the most frustrating and pernicious issues behind non-attendance is TV scheduling.  At the start of the season you have no idea when matches are going to be.  Games listed as being on a Saturday at 3pm can turn out to be on Friday, Saturday lunchtime, Saturday evening, Sunday lunchtime, Sunday late afternoon, or Monday.

And although we live in a world where spontaneity of arrangement is highly prized, some of us still plan non-football events.  Visiting friends, a christening, a grandchild’s party, a few days away, a trip to Australia to visit my daughter who lives there… such things happen in my season.

Then there is transport.  If you’ve never driven from the Midlands to London down the M1 on a Saturday you might care to try it sometime.   Disruption is the name of the game: not least for the 3 year disruption for the building of the new A1/M1 link – and further north the M1/M6/A14 interchange.

Or take a train.  It may seem obvious and ok, but our transport system is never as organised and reliable as some like to suggest.  Cancellations, late running… its part of the game.

Then there is the weather.   If it’s snowing as we approach my leaving time, doubts set in – because just half an hour’s snow can make the roads in and out of the village where I live impassable.  It shouldn’t happen, but we have a government with no commitment at all to keeping local roads open, so they are left, with nature taking its course.  I’ve been faced by fallen trees, flooding, roads blocked by broken down cars… you name it.

Meanwhile there are everyday reasons, and my friends who sit around me also don’t show all the time either and we often exchange stories as to why.  Getting delayed at work for evening games is a common reason.  Major traffic problems too.

Then there are family and friend crises… the list goes on.

Why I don’t always sell

Some of the reasons above make it clear why one doesn’t always sell a ticket – they are last minute events.  But there is also the fact that just because a ticket is put on Ticket Exchange doesn’t mean it will sell.  After I found that my ticket for a game against Tottenham (a ticket that most of us might expect to sell in a second) failed to sell, I started trying to find people myself who would buy a ticket, and then have them meet with my friends for a handover.

Yes people expressed themselves desperate for a ticket.  “If you ever have a spare….”  “Do you really sometimes have a ticket available…” these are the common comments.  But when it comes to the event suddenly everyone can’t make it on that day, or says yes, but then simply doesn’t turn up for the handover, leaving one’s friends hanging around.

I realised just how hard it could be to move a ticket on when I damaged the ligaments at the base of my spine and was pretty much immobile for four months.  For match after match I wanted to move my ticket on, and around half the time I failed to.  It really isn’t as easy as you might think.  And here’s why.  If the tickets have not sold out, the club will not implement the ticket exchange, and even then not every ticket on ticket exchange sells.  It’s not a perfect system.

So how many people don’t actually show for a “sold out” match?   Figures vary but the Freedom of Information request last season on which the Telegraph bases its whole article quotes “a shortfall of around 1,000 per league game.”  So about 1.8% of those attending a game.

Now if you take out all the reasons I give above for having a ticket and not selling it on (it doesn’t sell on ticket exchange through to transport problem, illness arising on the day before the game, the person who says he/she will buy not showing up…) that probably takes you down to a few hundred people per game who have a ticket and simply don’t show.

And on the basis of the actions of a few hundred people, “The board will be asked to consider this issue at the AGM and encouraged to implement both incentives and potential sanctions for ticket holders. Fans also believe that a more accessible digital system could be created to facilitate re-sales and the deadline for buying tickets could be extended.

“The concern is that there are groups of super-rich corporate fans who buy a season ticket each year to be sure of seeing the very highest profile matches but are not then interested during the rest of the season. Arsenal have a huge waiting list for season tickets.”

Yes that is annoying.  But now we see – it is the super rich who tend to buy the super expensive seats – the sort of tickets I could not afford to buy.   So we might release a few of those for other super rich people to buy.  Fair enough.  But let’s be clear and not use highly misleading and manipulative pictures.  A few hundred of the most expensive season tickets in the ground might be reclaimed because they are not used, and passed on.

Will that help your regular fans to have a few more top-end season tickets on the market?  I doubt it very much.   But if you do have £3000 or more to spend on a season ticket in one of the more refined parts of the ground, and you are on the waiting list, then the Arsenal Supporters Trust campaign, ably abetted by the Daily Telegraph’s misleading photograph department is obviously for you.

Of course there will be a few cheaper tickets released, but only a few.

The whole issue is a perfect example of people who are desperate to make a protest against Arsenal, allying themselves with a newspaper that makes sales out of stories attacking Arsenal.

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Former Arsenal player John Barnwell talks about his years at Highbury


22 Replies to “Manipulative, misleading and ill informed: the debate over empty seats at the Ems”

  1. Tony,

    I have been lucky and had invitations to the AGM for the past few years but sadly not this year so I won’t be able to do a first hand report.

    For anyone wanting a report on proceedings, Tim Stillman usually does an accurate one on Arseblog.

  2. Tony – your assessment of the situation is spot on.
    Late arrivals/early departures are by far and away the biggest problem facing the vast majority of fans – especially those who who can tear themselves away from the pub in time to be established in their seats in good time for kick off. Those that can’t (whether it’s a ‘dry’ Champions League night or otherwise) not only arrive late but also are disproportionately those who seem to need to get to the toilet after 20 mins of the game. They don’t seem to have worked out the link between those two events yet – and, if they have, they just don’t care. Tightening of security checks is making matters worse – but it’s not like the Club hasn’t warned fans way in advance and with great regularity.
    The AST knows only too well that the root cause of the empty seats ‘problem’ is that Arsenal are blessed with many supporters for whom the price of a ticket is not actually so significant that they are desperate to fill the seat themselves or to get it resold to someone else. The fact that tickets are, in real teams, becoming cheaper will only make this worse.
    In different circumstances (say, ironically, with an airline) there is over-selling of seats in the knowledge that there will be an almost predictable level of no-shows. That is obviously not a tactic that a football club can employ and the multiplicity of reasons for such a no-show make any one tactic almost bound to fail.
    The fact is that Arsenal are being watched live by easily the largest crowds in their long history and it’s happening week in, week out. Pushing to go from a 98% occupancy rate to one of 100% is probably wishing for the impossible.It wasn’t even the case during the last ten years at Highbury where there was a 40% lower capacity and, on average, nearly a trophy every season.

  3. Following my rant above I checked back on a programme that I got at an AFC Wimbledon game (v Oxford Utd.) earlier this year. In it the Wimbledon Chairman quotes the example of a recent home game (v Luton) at which only 1800 season ticket holders attended – out of a total of 2600. Of the 800 no-shows only 90 informed the Club that they weren’t going leaving 710 whose ticket thus became unavailable for resale. Not only that, but the Club was unable to reclaim the VAT on the unused tickets. He goes on to say that, on average, 740 season ticket holders at AFCW don’t come to each game and that, all in all, they lose £25,000+ a season as a result. I dare say Arsenal ‘lose’ more than that every game.
    The problem is obviously widespread and quite possibly a great deal worse (in terms of proportion) elsewhere.
    But I don’t suppose the AST or The Telegraph will let the facts get in the way of a good knocking story.

  4. As Tony says there are many reasons someone may be late or cannot make it at the last minute. There may be also those who are first timers who underestimate how long it can take to get in. Those perennial latecomers are who saunter along watching the game as they go are the ones I find annoying but there few of them (you know who you are!).

    If you want a pint at half time you either have to go down early, down it in one, or come back late. At the end of the game a sharp exit may mean getting the train which for evening games means home by midnight.

    Most of the early leavers do wait for the ball to go dead and I know of some that watch the last few minutes in the concourse.

    The club are continuing to improve the options if we can’t go but there will still be those occasions when it’s just impossible.

    There were a number of empty seats (the club know how many) and they also can know who never attempts to make their seats available. There are the too rich to care but also “hospitality seats” which are possibly not so attractive for some games.

    If the club could have an on the day facility or general sale exchange period it could help fill these seats and undermine the touts. Disruptive away fans are a risk but the we currently get large numbers of neutrals and well behaved away fans that the risk should be small.

    As an aside the article doesn’t appear on my mobile but is there on desktop view.

  5. I know from people who have used it that there is a small chance you still could get in and buy a ticket on match day from the ones that didn’t turn up or told the club they wouldn’t show up. I have known a family of 4 people from Flanders who were that lucky a while ago. They were on the underground speaking Flemish and talking about if it would be possible to get a ticket still for the Arsenal match. So I talked back to them in Flemish to their surprise and advised them to go. We exchanged phone numbers and they told me later that they had been able to enter the stadium and enjoy the match.
    So go to the box office if you really want to go and hope for the best… But people have to inform Arsenal that their ticket is up for sale of course…

  6. I do wish Arsenal would publish the actual attendance, instead of the tickets sold, as they used to at Highbury. This would give a more state of accuracy of the crowd which would be most helpful for all.

  7. Sold my ST for the Tiny Tottd in 4 minutes last night on ticket exchange. Haven’t read the article yet because it won’t load on my phone, but thought I’d share. My ST is a cheap one though

  8. I can’t seem to find the article, only the comments section. Is there a reason why? I’ve refreshed a few times and using a mobile. Should I switch to desktop view?

  9. I find it very hard to understand that when I can’t attend a home match, which is infrequently, that I can’t hand my ticket to my son because he is not a senior or junior, and as such is not allowed to use the family enclosure without having to be in charge of a junior for that particular match. Every match I look around me to see who my companions for the day are and many are newcomers to me and very often you see young men and ladies who are obviously not junior members or indeed senior season ticket holders. In the past couple of seasons, some seniors who have given their tickets to different people for a match have had their season tickets taken away. My gripe is compounded by the fact that my son is still a Bond Holder from the Northbank Days so I think he should be allowed to use my season ticket providing he pays the the full difference in the price for that particular seat. Of course at the moment when I can’t attend the match my seat will be empty as are other seats around me.

  10. OT
    Southampton just taken the lead at Man City. Terrible back pass from Stones left Redmond in on goal.

  11. Very insightful piece Tony but for reasons I can’t understand, the article does not appear on mobile phones; only on desktop.

    For those that still can’t view it on their mobile phones like Blacksheep and I, swich to desktop format to see the article.

    Meanwhile Tony/admin, kindly make the necessary adjustments.

  12. Walter
    It would be helpful to know if they did use an official outlet. There may have been times that someone going to the box office may be directed to a small group of season ticket holders stood nearby looking for a new companion for the day to take the place of their normal companion who had a last minute hitch. Hopefully they didn’t use a tout of which there are so many. If there was an on the day facility i’m sure it would be well used.

  13. I gather there is little possibility of “forcing” others to retract biased “evidence”. Or, someone believes any news is good news.

    But one way to fight such a bias, is to provide data.

    At any given game, Arsenal knows how many Arsenal employees are at the game. They also can find out how many Arsenal contractors are at the game (such as food service staff). I would imagine how many medja are at the game is known. In a stadia where all visitors watching are seated, a person could count occupied seats via electronic means. With image analysis, I think counting all people (seated or standing) is feasible, as is assigning each “count” to being present as assigned or not (are there people present, not occupying a designated seat at that time).

    Some of this information probably shouldn’t be published, but maybe some of it can be published in an obfuscated format. Different opponents may have different requirements for staff present (direct or contractor), but a person might be able to say that staff present was between 95 and 105% of planned. I think it would be useful to print actual numbers of medja present, maybe even break it down into print, radio, TV, blog.

    Which leaves the visitors. There are different stands and different levels in some (all?) of those stands. I don’t know if the combination of stand and level is broken down (I’ve never been there, and I haven’t studied it). But, you could have a map or table showing % occupancy in each “section” as a function of time. I would suggest (-8, -4, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 22.5 minutes) and its mirror. So, our table could say that north level 1 was 85% occupied at 8 minutes before the game started. On something like the above schedule, it provides information as to how many fans are properly “seated” before play begins, and how many are slower to get to their designated place. This proceeds up to the midway point of the first half, at which point we flip the schedule to count down to half time. Half time is nominally 10 minutes, so we only go to the -4 minute designated time (4 minutes into half time), when we flip the schedule again for the second half.

    Some medja outlet publishes a picture of an empty section of the stadium, you can go back to the data and show just how often and when the stadium was that empty.

    If we were to “stamp” a random 2 character string on each ticket on entry (if A-Z, that would be 676 “bins”), the person when they got home after the game could visit the Arsenal website, enter their 2 digit code and also enter how long it took them to get to the game and how long to get home (or wherever their initial and final locations are). And maybe at the end of October this entries of travel time are all entered into a draw, and maybe they give away a CD of country music chosen by Carl Jenkinson, or an accordion cover from Koscielny or something?

    It may be that too many people would game the system, and so you would need to register the 2 digit code against the ticket number, or use a many digit stamping, and on the entry web page you ask the person to enter the 3rd and 9th characters (reducing it to 2) or something. The web page involved could have a button, to indicate whether they had missed last bus or train on the way home. Now Arsenal has data on travel to the game.

    I think I would prefer a Chelsea ManU tie, but as I submit this it appears Chelsea is still 2-0 up.

  14. With the AGM due, the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust, is always looking for a spoiler!

    Tim Payton, was using the Independent, now it appears he is using Jeremy Wilson?

    The paid attendance and the actual attendance, is reported on the appropriate form to the EPL, for every home match.

    Club Level, players etc., at the Ems use the basement entrances which employ 4 turnstiles. These turnstiles do not appear on the Met attendance figures!

    The AST have been told this repeatedly at the Arsenal Supporters’ Forum meetings. We must assume that Steve Cooper and now Lesley Williams (?) is not reporting back?

    The AST has no credibility! Every forum, the Ticket Exchange is mentioned, easier said, than done.

  15. Gord
    At the ems each seat is allocated electronically. So if I don’t go the computer knows. It knows if I put my seat in exchange and if is taken – my card is turned off. It knows when I go through the turnstile. It (should) know if I use my silver and season ticket. It knows where I live and if I get get tickets posted somewhere else it knows that (most ticket holders live where they are registered). There is so much data we could have a field day. Data does of course inform just part of the picture.

  16. Robido, yes they went to the place where supporter clubs can collect their tickets and were helped to official tickets

  17. Walter.
    Thanks for looking into it. They may have got some of the special comps the club keep in reserve (?) & it’s good if that was the case. The club can be very (and suprisingly) empathetic and helpful as I have found out a few times. If they were “unused normal” season tickets I’ve not heard of this option and would certainly have used it. Perhaps it’s not something widely publicised? I am aware that some theatres offer to do it on a no guarantee basis.

  18. The ticket exchange system could be improved by allowing tickets to be sold when their respective price range has sold out. On some silly oclock kick offs when travel from distant East Anglia is sometimes impossible .As a season ticket holder in the one and nines I have to wait until the expensive seats have gone.Whilst I appreciate that the club wants to maximise it’s income there will be many supporters that could afford a £36 ticket whist not buying a £50 one.

  19. My wife and I are fortunate enough to have seats in club level. We have had the seats since The Grove opened. At the time I had a good job, no kids and a relatively low mortgage for London so I cold spend 3k each on them without too much hardship. I never missed a game for the first 3 seasons but then I was diagnosed with a ginetic condition which has made me very ill and reduced my mobility. As such I will miss 2-3 games a season but in my family and circle of friends I have managed to pass on both seats on all but 1 occasion when just 1 seat was used. It does help having gooners in the family and living just 6 miles from the ground. What I have seen at club level is the high portion of corporate seats given to clients that couldn’t give a flying cart about the football. Many of the seats will in fact be taken, just not occupied by those individuals who are present but decide to spend the match at their dinner table or bar. It then poses the problem of which statistic to place these individuals in. They are not no-shows, but neither are they taking their seats.

  20. The season ticket is a paid for seat & nobody has the right to force holders to attend. The House of Lords is paid for by the tax payer & many Lords do not attend. The ones that do get a fortune for attending. I wish that house payment was reduced, so that those who attend get a minimal payment.

    The non attending Arsenal season ticket holders end up missing some of the most exciting football in Europe having paid for the empty seat.

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