A forum was held between Liverpool FC and supporter representatives this week to discuss the auto cup scheme.
Location: Liverpool FC offices, Chapel Street.
Attendees: Tony Barrett (meeting chair), Jo Kirkham (vice president of fan experience), Phil Dutton (vice president of ticketing and hospitality), James McKenna, Graham Smith, Melissa Fallon, Andrew Morris, Paul Jones, Joe Blott, Harinder Singh, Anna Burgess, Nigel Taylor, Jack Wycherley, Ste Davies, Tony Fitzgerald, Matt Selby.
Tony Barrett: Firstly, thank you for coming and giving up your time. Also, I would like to apologise to those of you on social media and internet forums who have borne the brunt of some of the frustration that has been evident over the last few days. A lot of legitimate concerns have been raised in various quarters and this is your opportunity to raise them to the club, whether just on your own behalf or on behalf of other supporters. Clearly the Auto Cup Scheme (ACS) is an issue which is in need of discussion and for that reason it will be our main focus this evening. There are other issues that we had been planning to discuss but it is evident that members are upset and they are also seeking clarity and fairness so it is right and proper that the ACS is our priority at this forum.
Phil Dutton: In relation to the concerns that were raised at the weekend, the most important thing to stress at the outset is that nothing has changed. I know it’s been suggested that we have done things differently but the reality is that both the process and the criteria are totally consistent with what we did last year. The sticking point when it comes to the ACS is undoubtedly the Champions League and understandably so given how much the competition means to the club and supporters and how well we have done in it in recent seasons.
Last season, you had to have been to six games to qualify for the ACS but you still were not guaranteed. This season, you have to have been to six games to qualify for the ACS but you are still not guaranteed. Those are the facts of the process and the qualifying criteria. I realise that there is another debate about fairness but it’s important at the outset to make this element clear before we even look at what should or shouldn’t be happening.
The reason why there is no guarantee is that the further we go in the competition, specifically after the group stage, UEFA are able to take an increased allocation of tickets. We have to plan and prepare for that because it will happen. It is a similar situation with media companies and priority rights holders (PRHs) but the main impact comes from UEFA’s contractual requirements. In a low level group game they may take only a few hundred tickets but for a semi-final it can be anything up to 3,000. In all three cases – UEFA, PRHs and media companies – these are obligations that we have to meet.
An additional complicating factor this year is that when Red Star Belgrade came to Anfield last season they did not bring any visiting fans. Those 2,500 tickets were instead sold to our members who were given a credit for their attendance and that has an impact on the numbers we are working with. What this means in broad terms is we have a situation in which we have an increased number of qualifying members while, simultaneously, we are also having to prepare for the contractual obligations that we have to meet. So we have more members who reach the criteria than we have available seats.
The other thing to note here is that everyone is pointing the finger at season ticket holders but the season ticket take up is actually pretty static. Most season ticket holders tick the ACS box, it hasn’t really fluctuated. There has been a small uplift but it’s not as significant as the increase in members who qualify.
Anna Burgess: But even if it is only a couple of hundred season ticket holders who have joined this year having not joined last year, that’s still a couple of hundred members who aren’t getting in as a result.
PD: Yes, it is and that’s something which we will come on to. But, in the first instance, it’s important that we provide clarity because I’m aware that there are a lot of accusations flying about suggesting thousands of season ticket holders have jumped on board despite never having been to a European game and this has changed the process and this isn’t accurate.
TB: Phil has had the opportunity to put the record straight from his point of view but I think it’s important that we ask the forum members if they feel there has been a change to the ACS process because there can sometimes be a gap between the perceptions of service users and service providers.
James McKenna: I think it’s more about the fairness element that you’ve said we will go on to discuss. But it’s also a communications issue because if the process is the same then you really need to make this clear in your selling notice. As it was, you expected supporters to join the dots and that’s not really fair.
AB: Can I just clarify something? Is it possible for a member who is not in the ACS to record six credits?
PD: Yes it is. What will happen this season is for the first game we will go on sale to season ticket holders and members with six games and then work downwards. Most supporters with six games are going to get tickets for the group games. Where it becomes a pinch point is when it gets to the quarter-finals and semi-finals.
AB: But I can remember lots of supporters complaining about this last season and the season before so it’s obviously a problem.
PD: That is definitely true and I totally understand why those supporters who do miss out are so frustrated but nothing has changed in terms of how we sell tickets.
J MC: You have to accept though Phil that there is a perception that everyone – whether they are season ticket holders or members – are ticking the box this year because no-one wants to miss out on the Champions League given that we’ve just won it and were in another final 12 months earlier. For me, this means the club has a responsibility to inform supporters how many might miss out. There will be supporters out there who are fearing they might miss out when the reality is that they won’t but their fears come from a lack of information more than anything else.
Joe Blott: The mistake you are making is that we are hearing this today for the first time.
Graham Smith: This ties into the conversations we have had for 10 years or longer in which we tell you, you as in the club, that there is a need for more information and greater transparency. That hasn’t happened and this is why we end up in situations like this one in which justifiable concerns about fairness and access get caught up in misinformation and we end up with a mess. We have fan on fan issues with season ticket holders being accused of jumping on the ACS bandwagon but if that isn’t happening, at least not to the extent that members fear, then the club should say so.
PD: I think some of the criticism is fair up to a point and the kind of communications we do around ticketing is something we can definitely look at going forward but I would also say that if you go to the actual page the reasons why fewer tickets are made available as the competition progresses are made clear.
J MC: I think two things have happened – a lack of information has led to the vacuum being filled by myths but it has also created another conversation about loyalty. The question that members are asking and which needs to be asked here on their behalf is why a season ticket holder with no previous loyalty has an advantage over a member with loyalty? This is the fairness issue in a nutshell and I am more than happy to put that to you as a season ticket holder because, although I think we need to avoid the kind of fan on fan issue that Graham has mentioned, members deserve their concerns to be addressed as a bare minimum.
PD: So a season ticket holder should have the same qualifying criteria as members then?
J MC: That is what members caught up in this situation are saying and understandably so. I have concerns that go beyond season ticket holders/members because I worry about what all of this means for kids and young people who would like to come to games. The reality is that all you would be doing is creating an even bigger closed shop but this is the loyalty system that the club has created and it’s this that is locking supporters in and causing these kind of problems.
PD: So what would the forum suggest we should do?
Ste Davies: From my own experience, I managed to get on the ACS along with my son four years ago at a time when we were in the Europa League and played Sion in the first game. So it’s fair to say we weren’t jumping on board for the glamour at that stage. A season ticket holder who chose not to join at that time – and that is obviously their right – could now, if they choose, take up the option of a place in the ACS for the coming season ahead of us. I take all your points about the process being the same and I appreciate none of this is easy but from a fairness point of view this can’t be right. That’s how loyalty should work.
Andrew Morris: That’s the point that members are making – the club actually has an historic record which documents the loyalty of supporters and the club also operates a loyalty system so it doesn’t make sense to separate them. That process can be bypassed with a tick.
PD: So the consensus is to get rid of a longstanding season ticket benefit?
GS: No, there’s not a consensus. Everyone has their own opinion and mine is that the club should be looking to resolve these issues and prevent supporters from turning on one another by proceeding with a stadium solution which, as a bare minimum, would satisfy the demand of the supporters we are talking about whether they are members or season ticket holders. It shouldn’t be a case of taking from Peter to feed Paul.
J MC: The starting point as things stand should be to let people know how many season ticket holders have ticked the box that had no previous loyalty.
SD: The bottom line is that when it comes to July 2nd and I go in as a member I will have less tickets to go at even though I’ve built up full credits over the last four years and that’s because you operate in favour of season ticket holders who might have no loyalty when it comes to Champions League games.
PD: That’s much less of an issue this year. Going back three or four years, the impact of season ticket holders in this kind of scenario was greater than it is now.
SD: Even if it’s only one person, that’s one less opportunity for me as a member with six credits.
J MC: I've previously asked questions on forums and to supporters about whether people would want tickets without the loyalty to prevent the perceived closed shop becoming even bigger. The overwhelming response was that they want the loyalty too, which is fair enough. They’re not unhappy that what they see as a closed shop exists, they are unhappy that they are not in and that’s human nature. It’s also a real challenge for all of us to find a loyalty solution that works and is fair for everyone, without any unintended consequences.
SD: That’s a fair point but in the case of the Champions League you have people who’ve passed up the opportunity to get into the closed shop but have chosen not to and they are being given another chance ahead of someone who has been paying good money to build up the loyalty to get into it.
J MC: I get that but the point I’m making is that if a young kid wants to start going to Champions League matches for the first time it’s not his or her fault that they weren’t going to matches four years ago because they were too young. There’s a real problem here about finding a way to do both and I can’t help thinking that the club should admit that there will never be a solution that pleases everyone or accommodates everyone because the numbers don’t work.
PD: To Steve’s point, we should look at that. We should ask whether it is right that someone can join the scheme by effectively jumping the queue ahead of someone who’s been to 18 European home games in the last three years. I see the argument from both sides but it is something we should discuss. If it’s something that the forums can’t decide because it’s too divisive an issue then the club will have to decide. I can certainly see the point that members are making. There are new season ticket holders every year and we could, as things stand, have someone who has never been to a European game in his life who is able to go straight into the ACS. It’s certainly not his or her fault that this opportunity exists but it is something that we should look at.
J MC: My fear of all of this – and it doesn’t relate to one side of the debate or another, it relates to all of us – is we are constantly talking about what the club can do to get more kids into the ground because that is absolutely vital but we are actually doing things that make it harder for kids to come.
PD: It’s actually not impossible to do that though. It would be a case of maintaining the six game qualifying threshold and carving out, for example, 1,000 tickets specifically for kids/young people but they would have to be used properly. That would obviously impact on the number of tickets available to members and potentially season ticket holders but it is something that can be done.
AM: It all comes back to what we have spoken about in the past – the fans who buy the tickets using them and getting the loyalty as a result. That is the way a loyalty system should work.
J MC: On the current membership issue, though, what are the club going to say and what are they going to do? We have obviously raised a lot of concerns and other people have outside of this forum also but it is up to the club to make decisions.
TB: In the first instance, I think it’s clear that the club needs to put out some sort of clarification in whatever form that may take. From my own point of view, I thought it was important that the members of this forum were able to hold the club to account and make their feelings known before anything else was done but obviously that has now happened so the club needs to say something. Additionally, the minutes of this meeting will be published so that supporters can see for themselves the nature of the discussion that has taken place. Obviously, anything in terms of possible changes going forward is down to Phil and others but I would hope that this kind of discussion has further informed any process that may follow.
J MC: A starting point would be to repeat what you do with the Champions League final allocations. By breaking down those figures in the way you do you do help supporters to understand and even if they are not happy – and who is going to be happy if they’ve missed out on a ticket? – they at least know how it works and can come to informed conclusions rather than just thinking the worst and lashing out at one another and the club.
PD: Again, that is something we can look at. There is a key difference between an event like the Champions League final and the ACS though – that is whereas the final has a fixed number of tickets, the number of tickets available for each Champions League game changes for all of the reasons I have already outlined.
J MC: I get that and I know it’s not straightforward but the way it is being done at the moment means every member with six credits is sat there fearing that they are going to miss out. You’ve got members who didn’t just do six European homes, they also did six European aways and they are fearing that still won’t be enough to get them into the ACS. If there was greater clarity in the sense that you said, and I’m just plucking numbers out of the air here, that there are 29,000 season ticket holders and 16,000 members and a certain percentage of the demand will not be satisfied, the fear of missing out would still exist but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as strong as it is now.
PD: At this stage, the actual difference in season ticket holders who have signed up to the ACS this year compared to last year is around 400.
JB: Even that, as basic as it is, is important information. It shows that although there has been an increase in take up it is not as significant as people fear, although the point still stands about whether this is the fairest way of doing things. If nothing else, it is the kind of information that would help alleviate the kind of supporter on supporter debate that has been going on and which we should all want to avoid.
PD: Moving onto members. This year we have got around 1,000 more members with six games than we did last year. Again, this is because numbers move about for various reasons. Something I have to stress, though, is that if a member does miss out on the ACS this season that does not mean their chance of getting tickets has gone. That’s not what happened last year and it will not happen this year. I’m not trying to avoid the fairness debate in saying that because, as I’ve said, that is something that we should look at, but equally I don’t want members to think that because they’ve missed out on the ACS they won’t be getting tickets for this season’s Champions League. I can absolutely guarantee you that ahead of game day one there will be tickets available to members who have attended six games.
AB: The problem is that for some of those members they may get game one, game two and game three this time around but once the allocations begin to decrease as the competition wears on they could potentially miss out and then they will be starting the following season without six credits through no fault of their own.
PD: I appreciate that but the problem of decreasing allocations is not something we can resolve because, as I said earlier, we are obliged to meet our contractual obligations as are all other clubs in the Champions League. Once that happens, the number of tickets that are available will reduce but there is nothing we can do about that.
AB: Do the tickets that UEFA use ever come out of hospitality or is it always general admission that takes the hit?
PD: UEFA are very clear and specific about where their tickets have to be. In our case that means the Sir Kenny Dalglish Stand on and around the halfway line and the Main Stand.
J MC: Have the club sold any more hospitality this season and is that having an impact?
PD: No. We plan to sell less.
Melissa Fallon: How many season ticket holders are actually waiting before signing up for the ACS?
PD: That’s hard to say at this stage. We won’t know until it actually happens.
J MC: Once you’ve reached that stage would you be able to put something out informing members of what their chances are of joining the ACS as you did with tickets ahead of the Champions League Final?
PD: That’s something we can look at but it might be better this time around if we stick with the usual way of doing things to avoid any confusion and also to allow us to take stock of what needs to happen going forward.
TB: From what has been said to this point, my interpretation of your main concerns is that the club should be working harder to communicate its message to supporters when it comes to ticket sales and should also be looking into making the existing system fairer, something that Phil has said he is willing to do. Is that a fair assessment?
RB: On the messaging side, I think the club has to realise that if they don’t put out enough information or the right information there are people on Twitter with a few thousand followers who will put out their own message and that doesn’t help anyone.
JB: Clarity is vital. As much as many of us have issues with the current capacity and it’s clear that this needs to be addressed as a matter of growing urgency, while the capacity is what it is you need to give supporters as much information as possible so that, if nothing else, they understand why the ticketing situation is like it is even if they aren’t happy with it.
PD: There are a couple of things that need to be looked at and we will do that. One is, in theory, a season ticket holder with no credits can jump the queue. If I was a member that would upset and frustrate me.
SD: My issue isn’t so much with those new season ticket holders to be honest. It’s the ones who in the past have decided not to enter the ACS and now they’re saying we want in.
J MC: It’s bigger than that, though. There’s a much bigger conversation about loyalty that needs to be had. Tony came and spoke at the recent SOS AGM and one of the questions that came his way was how we go about getting kids into the ground. We have four or five groups – season ticket holders, members, hospitality, away supporters and so on – and they all have to fit into the ground and the group that gets squeezed out most easily is kids. We’re now in a situation in which the groups that are getting in are finding out that, in some cases, it’s becoming harder and harder for that to happen. The stadium issue is so obvious it’s untrue but even if capacity is increased we will need to have a reckoning and an honest conversation over loyalty at some point because demand clearly outstrips supply by so much.
PD: The problem is that there is no right or wrong answer. Everyone has their own opinion about who they believe deserves to be in the ground and having been involved in these kind of discussions on countless occasions over the years that isn’t changing.
AB: You’re probably right that there is no right or wrong answer but there is a fairer answer and if you are going to have a loyalty system it should apply to everyone equally. There’s also a case for going back further to previous seasons rather than just the one before so that those who have built up loyalty over a longer period are rewarded.
PD: To the last point, it doesn’t actually make a great deal of difference. The supporters who went to six home games last season almost certainly went to six games the previous season and the same applies going further back. Like all of the ideas and suggestions that have been put forward, though, we will look at everything to see what we can do differently. There may need to be some difficult discussions with supporters but I am prepared to do that. We also all need to accept that if loyalty is being rewarded then we have to ensure that those who most deserve to be rewarded are and that opens up another conversation that we will have going forward. In the meantime, I am more than happy to have a look at the communications around the ACS and ticket sales in general. Hopefully we have provided some clarity at this meeting and even though I fully understand why any member who misses out on the ACS will be frustrated I hope some of the information we have provided will give them a better understanding of the situation that we are dealing with.
Actions to follow:
- Issue social media clarification of the process and criteria for entry into the ACS (Done).
- Engagement to continue with forums on all key issues raised (TB and fan forums).
- Internal ticketing/communications working group to be set up (PD).
- Updated ticketing information to be provided to supporters as and when appropriate (PD).
- Internal and external dialogue focusing on the fairness of the current loyalty system (PD, TB and fan forums).
- Analysis of ticket use and how to ensure the loyalty of ticket users is rewarded (PD).