Spurs and Supporter Participation: Lame Duck or Fighting Cockerel?

For the past two seasons, the only legal way to buy and sell unwanted tickets for sold-out matches at White Hart Lane has been through Stubhub, an American ticket reselling company. Tottenham On My Mind joined other prominent Spurs websites and the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust (THST) to create the Stop Stubhub campaign in protest against an arrangement which we believe is not in the best interests of supporters.

We generated considerable support both from within the fanbase and from supporters of other clubs who suffered the same arrangement. At the same time we were on the receiving end of criticism from other fans who were perfectly happy with the scheme.

A couple of weeks ago there was a resolution of sorts when Tottenham confirmed they had extended the partnership for another two years. I am not sure if this is an end to the campaign – clearly we’ve failed to stop Stubhub – or a beginning, of a new effort with the same aim but a longer timescale.

What Stop Stubhub has done, however, is provide me with my first sustained personal insight into the murky relationship between a Premier League football club and its supporters. I’m going to tell you what I found.

Spurs fans will know how Stubhub works. When a match is designated as ‘sold out’ season ticket holders can sell on any unwanted seats to other supporters. Stubhub pay Spurs a flat sum for the contract (the amount remains a closely guarded secret) and make their money by charging a percentage fee per ticket to both sellers and buyers.

The club gleefully trumpeted the arrival of the scheme as being in the interests of supporters, as if that was the reason it had been introduced. It’s true that season-ticket holders want a chance to sell unwanted tickets, given the high prices and the moveable feast of a fixture calendar. From next season, if Spurs get into the Europa League home matches can take place on any night of the week. It’s also true that demand is high because we are a well-supported club with a relatively small stadium.

However, this benevolent peer-to-peer ideology swiftly crumbled in the face of good old capitalist exploitation. Tickets for big matches went on sale for exorbitant mark-ups – a pair of Chelsea tickets last season was up for £1200. Meanwhile touts bought tickets from good folk who priced their tickets near face value then resold them, on Stubhub, for twice the price.

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I had a real problem with this scheme then and I still do. It’s less about the actions of individual supporters, although personally I wouldn’t sell on to a fellow fan at more than face value, and much more about the actions of the club.

Tottenham Hotspur charge some of the highest prices in the country. This is blatantly exploiting the astonishingly loyal fanbase. They also benefit from television deals of staggering enormity, yet this is not enough. They then make more money from reselling tickets that they have already sold while a company takes money out of the game. They even had the cheek to imply that because ticket prices were so high, this was giving us a chance to recoup the money. Cutting prices would have had the same effect but clearly not an option. All this replaced a perfectly reasonable alternative in-house reselling scheme, which charged sellers a fee and sold on at face value to other supporters.

These and other objections, including the fact that tickets for matches designated as sold out, thus triggering Stubhub, were still on sale at the box office, were taken to the club by some of the campaign bloggers and (mainly) by the Trust. I have not been directly involved in any of the negotiations so there’s no inside knowledge here but I have learned two lasting lessons from the experience.

One is that Spurs’ fans are not a homogenous, cohesive group. To talk about ‘the interests of Spurs fans’ as I did above is to tread on extremely thin ice.

I write as someone who thinks of himself as aware, who reads what people write about Spurs and listens to what they say. I’m open to different ideas and, if I say so myself, possess an ability that’s increasingly rare in social media of being able to disagree with someone and still respect their views and their provenance as a supporter. I thought that broadly speaking most Spurs fans would share my objections to Stubhub even if they did not want to actively oppose the scheme. That is simply not true.

Many supporters, as loyal as I am, see Stubhub as a legitimate way of selling and buying tickets, of giving them a chance to make a bit of bunce as my dad used to say and/or get hold of a ticket for a big game. It’s a free country and a free market – if people want to pay, more fool them but it’s their right to do so, or so runs the argument. Others, the majority I suspect, simply don’t mind one way or the other. They just want to come and watch their team, have a chat, a drink maybe, then go home until the next time.

It was the same with the other big issue we have faced recently, the possible move to the Olympic stadium site. Powerful elements of what it means to be a supporter came crashing together, heritage, the value of place and the need to compete in the brave new world of the corporate global game. Big questions, important to us all and again seen very differently and very passionately by those who saw our long-term future as served in a new stadium next to White Hart Lane and those who saw the high income/low cost Stratford solution as enabling us to compete with the rich and powerful. We support the same team but in different ways, and who is to say one way is more authentic than another.

The other lesson is that the club does not have the interests of supporters at heart, however those interests may be defined, and therefore any blame for problems in the relationship should be laid squarely at their door.

They control what happens at the club and choose to take an intransigent approach. Therefore the power of supporters to change things is extremely limited and that includes the efforts of the Trust.

As a supporter, season-ticket holder, campaigner and Trust member, I appreciate was has been achieved at the same time being disappointed that we have not achieved more. Stubhub continues but the Trust have secured important concessions that set an upper limit on prices and prohibit so-called ‘flipping’, i.e. buying to re-sell. What I am satisfied with is that the Trust have done everything they could to pursue this and other issues affecting supporters, not easy in the face of resistance from a company, and let’s call them that for the moment to make it clear who they are, from a PLC that considers itself untouchable and accountable only to itself.

This is the context that defines relations between supporters and THPLC. It’s inescapable. I know they are accountable to shareholders but Levy and Lewis hold the majority so that’s all the major decisions sewn up right there. A couple of years ago, the club at the highest level was openly contemptuous and dismissive of supporter involvement.

To evaluate success or failure, let’s take a couple of examples. I like to think we are something more than customers or consumers. In reality, the PLC defines that relationship as it chooses according to the circumstances. The fans are great when they get behind the lads, travel all over England and Europe, but these same loyalists are dismissed if they dare to grumble, see Adebayor this year and AVB last. As ‘customers’ the ticket money disappears remarkably quickly from our accounts yet you can’t get through on the site to buy the tickets in the first place, not because of high demand so much as economising on the number of operators and servers available to meet demand that is utterly predictable.

Look outside the blinked confines of the world that is Tottenham Hotspur. One benchmark is the efforts of consumers and shareholders to change the way other large companies operate. I would say the success rate is infinitesimally low. Protest or march outside any big company, even organise shareholder action, nothing of any substance changes.

All clubs including Spurs exploit the loyalty they profess to admire and value. Shoppers and shareholders who moan about Tesco’s recent performance and prices can go to Sainsbury’s if they wish but we’re not going to the Emirates and that distorts the ‘customer’ relationship right out of shape. And don’t mention a boycott because one, not enough people will, two someone else will just sit in my seat if I give it up, three, the TV deal means the club have massive income from other sources and could play in front of empty seats as League sides in Italy do, and four, I’ve loved this club for a lifetime so why the bloody hell should I give up now.

One group in a similar position to football supporters are commuters. Like supporters, they come from different backgrounds, classes and income brackets and have one thing in common, in their case that they have to catch a train to get to work. Commuters have long-standing and well-organised representative groups. Rail staff also face spontaneous outbursts of passenger anger. The sight of a phalanx of commuters with Ian Hislop at its head surging towards the manager’s office of my local station was more terrifying than almost anything I’ve seen at a football ground. Yet it doesn’t make any difference. Southeastern Trains abuse their monopoly position by raising prices every year and not improving the service. I don’t have to point out the similarities.

Let’s also consider this in the context of how supporters’ movements at other clubs have fared. Trusts and supporters’ organisations have increased their involvement and control only when clubs have been in serious financial trouble. The sustained campaign against the Manchester United owners has been fought in the boardroom as well as in the stands and outside the ground. The Glazers are still there. Across town the City supporters’ club complains AGAINST Financial Fair Play because, they say, it unfairly stops their owners spending more money than everyone else, hardly an oppositional stance. At Newcastle, Pardew went but Ashley is still there, unmoved and milking the club dry. Liverpool has changed ownership but the Spirit of Shankly fights on because supporters are still not listened to closely enough.

The Stop Stubhub experience provides a good example of what I mean. The club have listened to the argument, then signed up for another two years. Is that failure of the campaign? In one sense it is of course, in that Stubhub is still with us. I’ve had a couple of emails criticising the Trust’s failure to shift the club on Stubhub from people who were in favour of Stubhub in the first place.

In another though, we have made some changes as I’ve mentioned above. Our experience became evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee investigating the shady aspects of ticket reselling. Freezing season tickets for a second year running has halted the inexorable 700% rise over the past decade and a half, a major achievement.

In this context the Trust have achieved a considerable amount. No one is giving up, it’s just that these are the facts of football life. Protests about anything that is unfair to supporters will and should continue so that THPLC cannot rest easy. The board of the Trust as well as those involved in Stop Stubhub know that better than anyone. I can’t speak for them, that’s just my honest assessment.

We’ve gone from a club which ridiculed supporter involvement and activity a few years ago, let alone responded to it, to one that is reacting and changing its position, albeit in limited terms. That is something to be proud of.

So me. I have joined the Trust twice, once in the old days when it was run by some decent, hardworking folk but, well, they did not get very far because they weren’t up for a challenge. Disillusioned, I rejoined about a year ago because it was clear the body had been resurrected as something different, and if I could help with that rejuvenation in some small way, I would, and should.

I gave it a chance. I know some of them, partly because over the years a few have contacted me to say they read the blog, partly by attending meetings, once by standing in the rain at a demo outside the PL HQ, because we cared about supporters. Several of the Board have a background in activism, one has been elected by her peers nationally to negotiate with the PL. Whatever anyone thinks about the Trust, don’t think they are mugs.

I’m prepared to engage with the club whilst remaining deeply suspicious. To me, that’s a healthy approach, one that I see the Trust as sharing. I’m pleased that the club in the latest THST minutes have been more open with their approach to building a squad but I’m not under any illusions, pleased that Pochettino is doing a reasonable job but knowing that he came here probably because he was prepared to accept Levy’s financial restrictions on the playing budget that in my view have severely hampered our development over the past few years. If he was first choice, which I doubt, that’s the reason why.

I’m not naive. I used to be a shop steward. I led my office in two strikes, one of which lasted 5 weeks. I went to meetings, ran the welfare service, stood on picket lines and, the most difficult of all, explained to my wife why we didn’t have any money. The dispute wasn’t about wages, it was about the safety of receptionists and counter staff in council offices. It didn’t affect me directly, I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do.

At the beginning of the 6th week, we marched back to work together, in solidarity. We got some of what we wanted, including important concessions on support and working conditions, but in the end we couldn’t succeed with every demand. You work hard, do your best, take what you can and plan the next campaign. There’s always a question about where that point of compromise lies. You have to take something, or else lose everything.

Demo? I’ll stand outside the club or the PL for that matter. Complain? Where’s my pen and paper? Go to meetings. Work hard, do your best, take what you can and plan the next campaign. That’s the right thing to do.

This is all my personal opinion. I don’t claim to speak for anyone else. It’s in keeping with the way Tottenham On My Mind has always been, a blog with a single voice, open, honest, using my real name because of a touching faith that if you treat people properly, they will respond in kind. Too old to change now. I guess this is a personal tidying up of the feelings generated by the Stubhub experience. I blog so I share, I share so I blog.

New stadium, ticket prices – the one big issue. Price it wrong and a generation of fans will be lost, us older ones will be alienated, but there is a precious, precious opportunity to focus on. Safe standing on the agenda too, excellent. Let’s plan. And when we do, remember it’s the club that is the problem.

8 thoughts on “Spurs and Supporter Participation: Lame Duck or Fighting Cockerel?

  1. An excellent piece, I too joined the trust in the last year, can’t understand the criticism that they seem to get, only wish there had been a trust when I was going to more games in the 80’s & 90’s.
    Unfortunately nothing surprises anymore, and we now find ourselves gratefull for a freeze in the season ticket price from a sport which could survive quite easily without my £1000 a year.
    Keep up the good work.

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  2. Personally I wonder why people spend any money to watch some of the crap that they have offered up to the fans.If I were them I would be kissing the arses of the fans instead of kicking them in the balls. But look what do I know about supply and demand. To be honest Id rather watch Harry kane doing a gig at in a circus tent that have to watch most of the others play. Throw in a manager that is confused by his own science (I really dont know but just take the way that captains are picked as the paradigm)
    Levy spent 100 million or so in a drunken rage to buy catch up with the Bale money and so he has to show Joe that he is actually doing SOMETHING for the business. Cut down the supply,forget the football,make tickets the most difficult thing to get since 1964…its a false economy but so what otherwise nobody would go.
    I am a Spurs supporter but Id rather not go. I couldnt possibly explain to the grandkids what happened telling them it will soon happen.
    I do love Tottenham but its been very painful at times.I dont buy tickets,I dont live there anymore. But I do invest in time and getting up early on Saturday and Sunday mornings and feel very sorry for the unlucky bastards they go all the way up to Burney up the M1 and M6 and have to suffer watching that and driving back down the M1 and M6 after and then think about buying a ticket for a home game.
    Are they stark raving mad?

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  3. Interesting points and well written Alan (as always may I add!)

    I and many others, have been fighting touting at football and music gigs for years, and each “win” usually ends up with an unintended consequence I have found sadly. From the days of setting up fake ebay accounts to bid gig tickets up to £10,000 just so they wouldn’t sell to campaigning against the legitimate secondary markets now created, it just seems to be an ever losing battle – with pure economics supporting it.
    The deal has to be lucrative to StubHub and the club or they simply wouldn’t do it – it must be remembered that there are huge percentage profits made even for tickets sold under face value on the site.
    Single tickets are usually very easy to find and buy at reasonable prices, pairs and up very expensive.

    I was looking for 2 for the Villa game – 2 weeks ago the average price for a pair was about £250….

    I met someone recently who has two ST in Paxton.
    He sells them as a pair each game, and buys 2 singles. This pays for all ST costs, the extra tickets and travel. He has a totally free football experience, actually making a profit even after beer & pie! Under the rules he is doing nothing wrong…
    Also, and always unanswered, where do the touts get fistfulls of tickets from? For a sold out game CatA game every ticket has gone to either ST holder or member, so there are no paper tickets issued in theory, and yet all the way down the High Road people are selling them.

    And so on…

    Too many people, including the club, are making too much money from buying and selling tickets for there to ever be a real desire for change, sadly.
    I have often wondered how many people at a given match are actually in the right seat for the ST or membership ticket, and recent visits by me would indicate it is a worryingly low number in many areas of the ground.
    Still, the new stadium will remove this issue, as it will rarely be sold out IMO.

    The concession to stop flipping was a big win though for the Trust and mustn’t be underestimated.

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  4. Excellent piece Alan.

    I do wonder how long the premier league could command such grotesque sums from TV companies if grounds were half full. Though as a global game these days, as Alan says, if he doesn’t go someone will just take your place.

    This issue always reminds me of a post back in 2012 on one of the Guardian blogs on ticket prices (on this occasion regarding the 64GBP charged to away fans by Arsenal) by BrooklynArsenal, though I am sure many well-off fans in the UK feel the same. I bookmarked it as it was one of the saddest, arrogant football posts I’ve seen and will post it here if anyone is interested. Pithily, or depressed, a good response to the post was simply “The Day the Music Died”.

    BrooklynArsenal: For some of us, seeing a game of football already far exceeds 64 pounds. Plane tickets across the pond aren’t cheap, and neither is accommodation. We get destroyed on the exchange rate, and beers are damn expensive in your pubs.That said, sports are now a business. You’re not going to jam it all back into Pandora’s box…it’s over. You don’t want to pay 64 pounds? Watch a lower division team that could use the support. I saw Brentford v. Carlisle United back when I was there in 1998, and it was a lot of fun. I sat front row, right by the center line, for maybe 20 pounds at the most. Personally, I rate watching Santi Cazorla play football as being worth that kind of money. Perhaps you don’t. As others have said, if you don’t, then don’t go. The market dictates the cost – morals don’t come into it.

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  5. Some excellent points, but the view of the THST is the usual revisionist, defensive twaddle.

    When we cut to the chase, the Trust adequately assist fans with ticketing issues, but lack influence in the THFC boardroom, a position which they engineer themselves by failing to challenge, failing to effectively question and fail to negotiate a demand for any power.

    Power isn’t a dirty word when it something that keeps fans in their place. For effective change, there must be shift in the balance of power. Until then, all we’ll be told is how hard the Trust is working, whilst it sugar coats the club’s inertia and contempt.

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  6. Some good points made here but as long as people are willing to pay the price for tickets then he club will not lower them, with regards to selling them on a friend of mine is a Man City fan and a couple of years ago he sold his wifes match ticket to a fan for 1200 quid, now that may seem a lot but that was the going price and with that monet he was able to pay for his ticket for the next season. What i want to know is where these so called touts get their tickets from, maybe the club should limit sales (say 2 per person) and anyone bulk buying should be banned from buying tickets in the future its unfair on the genuine fan who just wants to watch the match and not make a massive profit

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