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.
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.