Why does the Emirates rarely look full?

Sometimes, like last Saturday, it’s because there are queues of people trying to get into the stadium (the search procedures had changed and everything was chaotic). Sometimes, it’s because people head out before half time to beat the queues for beers, toilets, or both. And sometimes, it’s because people have left early to beat the traffic or the crowds on the tube.

However, sometimes it’s because the stadium is genuinely half empty.

This year’s AGM featured a discussion on the cause and solutions to this issue, and regular readers will know it’s a subject close to my heart. The Premier League has never been tighter, and the support of a packed Emirates should be one of those “marginal gains” which are so much in vogue these days.

We are a club with tens of thousands of season ticket holders and tens of thousands more on the waiting list. I should know: I spent seven frustrating years on that list, renting someone else’s ticket instead. Yet despite our demand vastly outstripping supply, somehow we can’t fill our magnificent stadium with a bum on every seat from the first minute to the last.

Arsenal season ticket holders are hugely privileged to have both the money and the opportunity to watch a fantastic football team week in, week out. If we didn’t enjoy it every once in a while, we wouldn’t fork out four figures for said privilege. But with great privilege comes great responsibility.

We have a responsibility to sell on our ticket if we won’t use it for the good of the team, and the good of our fellow fans. I am proud to say that my seat has NEVER been left unfilled in the five years I’ve been a regular attendee.

I hate prawns

Arsenal season tickets are expensive. We know this, after all, because we have it stuffed down our throats each time the Price of Football survey rolls around.

This means that, for better or worse, a significant proportion of our fanbase comes from a somewhat above average level of affluence.

Plush padded seats, entertaining football and great transport links in the capital city of football’s founding country also mean that we have a sizeable number of corporate match-goers. Not for nothing are we known as the prawn sandwich brigade. Bleurgh.

I’m not about to comment on the comparative values of these various demographics. Live and let live etc etc. But the one unavoidable reality is there’s a big difference between official attendances and gates. Some fans don’t fill their seat every game, which means both that they haven’t turned up and they haven’t sold their ticket.

On a one-off basis, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But when the average official attendance is 5,000 higher than the actual gate, that is a prevalent issue. It is an issue which stops 5,000 people having the opportunity to watch Arsenal each game. It is an issue which deprives the team of 5,000 supportive voices. And it is an issue which can be addressed.

Status quo solutions

Our ticket exchange isn’t perfect – it was good to hear Ivan talk about the improvements that will be made later this season to make it more accessible and more user friendly – but it is a fair and transparent way to sell on your ticket for face value and recoup some cash, where the seller gets a fair price for their seat less a small administration fee, and the buyer gets to go to the game without paying an extortionate price. The club accumulates no materials costs or benefits bar a few extra faces in the crowd.

Compare and contrast with Tottenham’s use of StubHub, on which my other half can list his Spurs season ticket (face value circa £50) for a staggering £125. A fan wanting to buy that ticket – and it has never yet gone unsold – pays the £125 plus approximately £15 in fees, for a princely total of £140 (280% of the true price) and for which the seller receives £110 after also paying StubHub a £15 fee. The middle man nets £30 and the buyer gets fleeced. It’s essentially legal ticket touting.

Show me the money

I’ve mentioned that the Arsenal exchange is broadly cost neutral, so arguably the club has little incentive to improve attendances. After all, as long as each seat is sold in the first place, they have received their money. But again this ignores the value of the crowd to the on field success.

There may be a school of thought which says the board doesn’t care about on field success, only about the bottom line, but the two are hardly mutually exclusive. On field success not only brings direct benefit in the shape of prize money, but it also vastly improves the value we can command in our sponsorship negotiations.

It feels like a no brainer. If we can get more tickets sold on when people can’t attend, it improves the atmosphere, it potentially improves the team, and it improves the success of the club. Meanwhile, more people get an opportunity to attend a game, the next generation of fans can be welcomed into the Emirates, and all those secondary purchases we make – the shirts, the scarves, the merchandise – well, they start to add up.

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We’ve got some great initiatives to get younger fans a chance to attend games, but what about that lost generation that sits between the subsidised youth tickets and the reliably employed who have already waited their seven years to get a seat and can afford to pay for it week in, week out? Selling on tickets opens up more availability and more opportunity for those fans who would love to go now and again, or even for the very first time, but can’t lay their hands on a ticket for love nor money.

Win. Win.

I just need five minutes with a boffin from the club to explain.

The elephant in the room

But there is one issue we haven’t yet touched on.

The money you recoup from selling your ticket on, in the event that you cannot attend a game, is still not enough of an incentive for some people to bother.

I know right? Imagine a situation where for the sake of a few minutes on a computer, you couldn’t find the inclination to collect your £50. But the reality is, those people clearly exist, or else every seat would be filled for every game.

Lots of people say money isn’t their driver, and usually I’d call their bluff, but in this instance there is clearly a segment of Arsenal’s fanbase for whom money truly isn’t important. So when the likes of Spurs, Chelsea, United, City, and Liverpool roll into town, you can bet your house that those seats will be just as warm as those around them. But when it’s Bournemouth at 2.15pm on a Sunday?

Forget it.

We have to hit those people somewhere other than their wallet, somewhere it will actually hurt.

Kill them! (just kidding…)

Season tickets reward those who show loyalty to the club. Personally, I’m in favour of a “three strikes” policy, where if your seat is not filled three times in a season then you lose your right to a season ticket the following year. This needs to fair, and offer right of appeal since things can come up last minute, but it is enforceable.

My gym does exactly this. I pay up front for my membership which entitles me to attend classes. However, if I book one of the limited slots and fail to turn up, I am fined £4 and not allowed to book into another until I’ve paid it. And it’s fair, since I’ve taken up a slot someone else would have loved to have used.

Season tickets aren’t all that different, and if that means controlled and fair consequences for those who hog seats, I’m all for it. Maybe it means the seat in front of me will be filled by a real live person next time. Indeed, there’s even precedent: some German clubs rescind tickets if they go regularly unused.

However, many consider this approach too draconian. But that is exactly why the question at the AGM about the use of home credits really piqued my interest as a potential halfway house.

Plan B

Theoretically, someone could currently buy their season ticket, not turn up to a single game, and then have an equal chance in a cup final ticket ballot as the fan who attended week in week out. That has to be wrong.

If you have enough money to buy a season ticket, and you’re interested in going to the big games, then perhaps there’s only one way to incentivise you to either use or offer up your season ticket for smaller games: use your seat’s attendance record as a factor when things like cup finals come around.

There’s nothing to stop people still buying their ticket to ensure they can attend big matches included in that season ticket. It would simply encourage them to sell their seat on for the games they aren’t bothered about attending.

All I know is, there are fans who want to attend but can’t get a ticket, and there are fans who have a ticket but don’t want to attend. Somehow, we have to force those two groups to meet. It means more availability, more atmosphere, and potentially more success as a result.

We’ve tried the carrot. Plan A offered cash returns to season ticket holders in exchange for selling unwanted tickets, with some success. But we want more. We deserve more.

We’re always lamenting our lack on on-field Plan B. Maybe it’s time to turn to an off-field one.

Further reading:
I wrote this piece over 18 months ago, and I believe it remains just as relevant today.