Monday, 7 January 2013

Barbernomics: Price rises + fans = angry punters

Last month a message from Brighton & Hove popped up in the Twitter feed of thousands of supporters.

It was urging fans to make use of the pre-match brasserie ahead of forthcoming home fixtures. Nothing unusual about that. The wording however was enough to make event the most stoical fan's stomach churn. Whoever wrote the message, you see, wanted fans to "maximise" their "matchday experience." It was as if David Brent had been let loose on the club's PC.

And, while the Albion's chief executive Paul Barber was obviously not behind the management-speak-gone-mad message, most supporters realise he is very much behind the club's recent drive towards commercialism off the pitch.

However, while some see it as a necessary evil to be suffered if the Albion are to push further up the footballing pyramid, others look upon Barber and his recent approach as the first step in stripping the club away from the very ideals which so successfully kept extinction at bay throughout the lean Goldstone, Gillingham and Withdean years.

When he was appointed back in May, Tony Bloom hailed Barber as the man to move the club forward, drive revenues and, without saying it in so many words, drag what had been something of an amateurish off field operation kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Bloom told fans, “He brings a huge amount of experience from his previous roles. He will be an extremely excellent appointment for Brighton both right now and for many years hopefully in the future.

“What the Amex brings, what the city of Brighton brings, what this football club brings, is the opportunity to use his commercial experience, his commercial skills to bring in new sponsors and partners to really increase the revenues of this football club.

“It’s far too early to be putting figures on it but I think we can get very good increases in the future."

That last line is key. Bloom, having bankrolled The Amex and the club's first season assault on the Championship needed the Albion to meet him halfway. Or at very least make the effort. It is public knowledge that when designing the stadium, Martin Perry et al were very much afforded a blank cheque. Nothing was done on the cheap. And every bill was paid by Bloom.

If you believe various murmurs coming out of the club, the Albion spent much of last season somehow managing to lose money. This despite unprecedented ticket sales, a huge leap in merchandising revenue and mass interest in off field partnerships with local businesses.

With a new £30million plus training complex to pay for though, Bloom was always going to want the Albion money-making machine to click into top gear sooner rather than later. Enter Paul Barber.

At Tottenham Hotspur Barber secured the club's then biggest ever sponsorship deal, a £34 million four year contract online betting firm, He also established international partnerships with MLS side San Jose Earthquakes and Hong Kong-based South China FC.

Brighton, lest we forget, are coming to an end of their sponsorship deal with Brighton and Hove Jobs. Fans should not underestimate the part Barber will play in finding a far more lucrative new backer.

Part of the problem at the moment is that prices are going up without an obvious improvement in what Barber would no doubt call, the product.

If supporters are going to be treated as customers, the club has to be careful to keep up its side of the exchange. One perhaps unappreciated aspect of Barber's arrival is that Gus Poyet may find himself under pressure far quicker if results do not go according to plan.

Last year the club needed the off the pitch operations to catch up with the team's performance on it. Now, with Barber at the helm, the opposite may be true. Poyet may need to up his game to keep pace with the money men.

Barber, for someone with such an extensive background in marketing has made some PR blunders, not least the removal of Gully's Girls from the pre-match proceedings.

While many supporters were apathetic about the idea of cheerleaders at football, the one thing you can say about Brighton fans is they will defend their own. Gully's Girls were a group of volunteers who, unlike around 12,000 of the current weekly crowd, were at Withdean every match. In their outfits. In the rain. They also did superb work with the club's community and charity departments and had become well-respected ambassadors for the Albion.

That they were so shabbily cast to one side is regrettable. Barber may be perplexed by the reaction, but hopefully he will have learnt from it.

Prices have gone up across the board. The cost of food and drink increased pre-season and the price of the programme, albeit an award-winning one, went up 50p despite appearing to be printed on cheaper paper. On their own, explainable by quoting the rising cost of players' wages and recruiting the best talent. In tandem with other Barberisms, perhaps not so easily swallowed.

The club, and thus Barber, have been widely criticised for their ticketing procedures this season. The option to spread season ticket payments out monthly with no interest has proved hugely popular and made regular attendance at The Amex a more affordable option for many. It is one of a number of measures introduced by the Albion which should be applauded.

However, for those who cannot justify a season ticket, the pricing leaves far more to be desired. A cheapest match ticket on a game by game basis is £28, around £8 higher than the division's average for lowest price stubs. And to make matters worse, this batch appears to only be released on general sale once the higher priced £34 tickets are sold out.

To put it in context, if a fan was to pay £34 per game all season, it would cost them £736.

And the decision to demand popular website remove its well-used ticket exchange has proved an own goal equivalent to Colin Hawkins' bullet header at a wet and windy Withdean.

Fans now have to hand their season tickets back to the club if they are unable to go, with the Albion placing them on sale once, or if, the game has sold out.

Pre-Amex, the online ticket exchange was a vital and affordable way for fans to get tickets to see the Albion, particularly in the early days at the Withdean when demand for seats was at a premium. In fact, many of the fans now sitting as fully fledged season ticket holders will have had their interest kept alive by securing cheap tickets from NSC on an ad hoc basis.

Any small amount of money the Albion will make by getting rid of Gully's Girls and and the NSC ticket service will be less than the value of the lost goodwill among supporters.

This, people argue, used to be club which first and foremost connected with the supporters. The times, as Bob Dylan once sang, possibly imagining an Amex era Albion, they are a changing.

But is it really for the worst? Many will say no. For everyone moaning about the increase in the price of pies there will be another demanding Bloom loosen his purse strings and make big money available for new players. This, rightly or wrong, is modern football and the Albion are smack bang in the middle of it.

That this new approach is at such odds with that of Dick Knight era Brighton is perhaps as much the fault of the previous management than Barber. The shock of this new approach is all the more bracing because of the less-than-professional way things were done during the Withdean years.

Nobody wants increased prices and Barber et al have clearly made some major mistakes, albeit, in reality, small ones. This season is as much about the Albion finding their feet off the pitch as Poyet fine-tuning things on it. Sometimes this direction will be chased too quickly. But fans wanting a direct line to Bloom and Barber to consult on every decision are never going to get it.

And perhaps there also needs to be a change in fan representation. One victory over the powers-that-be, we are told, was the decision to have a supporters bar and stock real ale.

But how important are those two things to anyone but a handful of supporters who, well, like real ale. Harveys sells thousands of pints a game, which, of course, is great for all considered. But would the much-celebrated "matchday experience" really have been significantly reduced by not having them? Probably not.

Are those small victories really cause for celebration or piecemeal concessions to subdue supporter unrest?

Matchday pricing, potential season ticket increases and stopping supporters finding themselves at odds with the ownership are bigger issues which needs addressing.

Barber was also responsible for introducing the One Hotspur membership scheme at White Hart Lane which, in return for a payment ranging from between £42 and £63 for adults, secures priority ticket access. He was also largely behind the England Fans membership scheme while working for the FA. It would be good to know whether there are plans to launch something similar at The Amex.

The fact remains though that Barber is one of the most experienced, well-connected and respected chief executives in football. He has been hired to whip the club into shape and get it ready to support Premier League football. If it wasn't him making the changes, it would be someone else.

There is no going back. Brighton is a club with a new direction and progress in all areas is all that will be tolerated.

We might not all like it, but all the time we keep buying tickets there is not much we can do about it.

Welcome to Brighton & Hove Albion 2013.

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