YOUSEF HATEM (@yousef_1892) looks at the changes made to ticketing for 2023-24 and asks whether the club might be biting the hand that feeds…
Newcastle United is growing up. In terms of its relationship with its paying customers (for that is who we are to them), that starts with getting hold of accurate data about who we are. Who is buying tickets and memberships? Where do we live? How many matches do we attend? Are we long-term season ticket holders? This is basic, fundamental data for any serious business to have – the kind of data without which you might as well cobble together your commercial strategy when seven pints deep at the Bodega and the fruit machine isn’t free.
Companies – and that includes those in the football industry – are only as valuable as the data they control. Membership schemes and ID checks – though they may be anathema to some older supporters, perhaps those who recall the demonisation of football fans in the past, or are just generally suspicious of change – are necessary if the club is going to be run as a serious commercial concern. Digital ticketing is part of this too.
The club’s communications have been regrettably slapdash. The ticketing rules and regulations are poorly drafted. The operations side remains stubbornly unfit for purpose, with assistance in short supply for supporters who – not unreasonably – are concerned about too much happening, too quickly. This cannot all be laid at Ashley and Charnley’s door. Those cans – hashtag optional – are out of date now. Messrs Silverstone and Eales have held the commercial and operational briefs, respectively, for a year. The General Counsel, John Devine, has been there longer still.
Ask yourself whether these really are “teething problems” or whether – in fact – they were foreseeable, foreseen, and not acted upon. Still, these are points about implementation. The membership scheme and ID checks (and the digital ticketing that goes along with them) are essentially sensible, while a ballot is surely preferable to the first-come-first-served 10am nonsense of previous years. Some tweaks would be good – allowing members to accrue loyalty points, for example – but, all in all, the changes are welcome.
Notably, debates about the new ticketing arrangements have largely centred around the question of how excess demand can be managed. Perhaps that is unsurprising, given that those who participate in these debates – on social media, in fanzines, or wherever – tend to be NUFC obsessives, rather than those whose support is a little more elastic. Perhaps, also, it’s explained by the fact that this part – the meteoric rise, during which we colonise Trafalgar Square, wear Joelinton-themed Hawaiian shirts and laugh at Tonali eating in Wetherspoons – is the fun part, during which the possibility of a time when there may be excess supply, and not excess demand, is hard to imagine.
But this period will end. When thought needs to be given to the question of how you fill the 52,000-capacity stadium you already have, and not how many more seats you think you might need. Even if we become a side that wins things, we are not going to suddenly generate more demand (and some of the existing demand may even tail off – the fun part is now). Our handsome city – my birthplace, and where I am most at home – may be the greatest place in the world to me, but it has geographical and economic disadvantages which mean it will not attract overseas supporters in numbers significant enough to even be noticeable on a matchday.
I don’t mind the six-hour round trip from Kings Cross, but I’m a Geordie. Newcastle Airport is small and has few non-European destinations. There is only one restaurant with a Michelin star. These little things matter to the kind of moneyed, international “fans” who might associate support with silverware. There will never be enough interest from Kensington to replace that from Kenton, nor can Durham Mags easily be substituted for Dubai ones. We do not have the glamour of a London club, nor the history of Manchester United or Liverpool. That is not negative or defeatist: it is merely to acknowledge that arses don’t get put on seats in quite the same way in every ground.
£37 for an annual membership. £37 for which you get very little in return. £37 over and above the costs associated with actually going to any matches. £37 which sounds okay in the delis of Jesmond and Hexham, but less so in the West End of the city, where half of children grow up in poverty. I’d like to think the club would look at the data being collected, and see if there are postcodes or wards where NUFC would traditionally have strong support, but which are under represented in the membership numbers.
The takeover presents a real opportunity to re-engage with supporters who were priced out of regular attendance by the advent of all-seater stadiums, season tickets and the Premier League. A realistic, canny operator would recognise that – quite apart from it being the right thing to do – Newcastle United (long term) needs Scotswood and Elswick more than Arsenal needs Holloway or Finsbury Park. The membership scheme in its current guise – a one-size-fits-all poll tax, which takes no account of either historic support for the club, or socio economic circumstances (and is extremely regressive in the case of people who can only afford one or two match tickets per season, who end up paying significantly more per match than those fortunate enough to be able to attend more) – is too blunt an instrument, for all that some kind of membership scheme is demonstrably apt.
Even for those who do stump up for membership, the club – by running the ballots so close to the date of the game, and by only opening the resale market (and the ability of season ticket holders to transfer their tickets to members) so late – makes it difficult for members to plan their attendance. Plenty of fans have memberships instead of season tickets because, due to living away from the North East (people leaving the region for opportunities elsewhere is hardly a new phenomenon), they cannot justify a season ticket.
Advance train tickets and good value accommodation cannot be booked, because match tickets are issued too close to matchday. Newcastle United does not run the railways, but they could make life a lot easier, and cheaper, for a lot of supporters, by not doing everything at the eleventh hour. It does not have to be this way (a point proven by the fact that NUFC put hospitality packages for every home league match on sale last month). Digital ticketing should also make all of this easier.
I’ll end where I began. Membership schemes, ID checks and digital tickets are all fine. The problem is that the club has failed to demonstrate that they really understand how the fanbase is made up. Other things – trivial but noticeable also point to the hierarchy being disinterested in ordinary match-going supporters. A full relaunch of the hospitality offering, while the same weird plastic bottles of Kingstone Press remain in the Gallowgate West corner.
There is nothing wrong with chasing new revenue streams. If someone wants to spend big bucks to come and watch NUFC, they are most welcome. One just hopes that the club is not being too greedy, not over-playing its hand at the risk of alienating its traditional support, and not pretending that our club is located in London, Paris or Rome. One hopes that Messrs Silverstone and Eales recognise how easily goodwill can be lost, and that a time will come when they need it more than they do right now.
One hopes. But sometimes, hope is all one has.
YOUSEF HATEM – @yousef_1892