As NUFC away ends continue to sell out weeks in advance, and demand for tickets is through the roof, MATTHEW PHILPOTTS (@mjp19731) asks: Is the loyalty points scheme fit for purpose? You’re a brave man, Matthew…
There’s a common misconception that the geopolitical manoeuvrings of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were the root cause of the First World War. But what people often forget is that while Archduke Franz Ferdinand thought his loyalty points should be retained despite him giving up his season ticket a couple of years before, gun-toting Bosnian hothead Gavrilo Princip believed fervently that only those who had been at Southend away were “proper fans”.
And, lo, much like your local Yates’s on a Saturday night, a disagreement about loyalty points spawned a vicious pile on, just with industrial-scale mustard gas and heavy artillery instead of cheap hospitality glassware. Still, ten million dead and a whole generation blighted by their experiences in the trenches seems a small price to pay for the opportunity to occupy the moral high ground on the vexed issue of ticketing arrangements.
Now, don’t let it be said we’re ones to shy away from controversial topics at TF. And so we venture bravely into the realm from which no-one returns in one piece. Yep, we really are going to enter the terrifying Upside Down of fan loyalty points.
First up, let’s ask ourselves a simple and direct question – what potential problems might there be with the current loyalty points scheme? Well, no system is ever going to be perfect, but it does seem to me that there are potentially important problems at present, some of which were brought into sharper focus by the Wembley allocations. Specifically:
1) Communication and transparency. I mean, I get that the club might have been unprepared for us making a Cup final this year – in any five-year NUFC operational risk analysis, getting to a Cup final can hardly have figured high. But the retrospective decision to give such a strong weighting to tickets bought for League Cup matches highlights a significant problem: that information wasn’t available to ST holders when they were making decisions through the season. It only seems fair that fans should know the rules before they play the game, not after.
2) Corporate, sponsors, and players’ allocations. We can argue into infinity (and beyond) about different kinds of loyalty but one thing I hope we can all agree on is that non-Newcastle fans have no place in our away end or at Wembley. I’ve no idea whether suggestions about the Brentford allocation – nearly 25% creamed off by the club – are true, but I’ve heard enough stories about Wembley to believe genuine fans missed out to those who don’t even support Newcastle. Frankly, they can fuck off.
3) Difficulty in getting on the ladder. Here we have the very definition of a vicious (or virtuous, depending on your perspective) circle. Points win prizes in the form of tickets, and those prizes win points. When most aways don’t drop to even 40 or 50 points, by definition only those already with high numbers of points are ever going to accumulate any more. A self-perpetuating Möbius strip trodden by a privileged few.
4) Redistribution of tickets. Given the previous point, this phenomenon is understandably widespread. And it’s both a cause and a symptom of the scarcity of tickets. Whether redistributing among friends at cost (you would hope) or selling them on for profit (bastards), at least some of those already with high numbers of loyalty points routinely buy tickets for aways, whether or not they intend to go. And so the vicious (or, again, virtuous) circle is further entrenched.
The first two issues are easy enough to deal with, at least if the willingness is there on the part of the club. But the latter two are altogether tougher nuts to crack and require some creative thought about the loyalty points system. There’s often a sense of resigned inevitability about that system. Yes, it’s flawed, but what other way is there? After all, all clubs run more or less the same system, don’t they?
Well, a quick bit of research confirms that those clubs with high demand for tickets all operate a variation on the loyalty points scheme. And, indeed, that for fans of many other clubs the lock on access to away tickets is a similar problem. But there are also significant variations to the NUFC version of the loyalty points scheme (a blunt tool: one point per away ticket bought, accumulating until time immemorial) which suggest that it’s possible to have a something a little more flexible, without dispensing entirely with the notion of loyalty as a currency. Broadly speaking, those variations fall into five categories:
Points allocations for home games/ ST renewal. Primarily used by clubs that need to incentivise attendance at home games like Fulham, who actually give points for home TV games (!), this may be the least significant innovation for NUFC. In many ways, this is already baked into the system for a club where tickets are unlikely to go beyond ST holders. It can also include more pernicious aspects, like at Man City where upgraded STs in the higher price bands give higher numbers of points. Interestingly, they also have “gold” STs that cover all 19 games and “silver” ones that only cover the supposedly less attractive 14 matches that don’t include the “big” five. Let’s hope we never reach that point. Perhaps the only advantage is that it would recognise those who have renewed their season ticket over many years without necessarily attending many away games. Those were among the losers in the Wembley allocation.
Variable weighting for different matches. This is a common variation among the London clubs. Chelsea, Spurs, and Fulham all give a higher points allocation to games against clubs perceived to be less attractive. In Fulham’s case, that depends on distance. Again, for a club like NUFC where every away is sold on loyalty points, this doesn’t seem like a necessary variation.
Cup schemes. Many clubs award points separately for home Cup games. Manchester United, for example, operate a separate Cup scheme, so that anyone with any intention of attending a final pretty much has to buy a ticket for the earlier home rounds. Again, this is an attempt to incentivise attendance (or rather purchasing of tickets, which isn’t quite the same thing) for those matches. Of course, this is effectively what Newcastle did for the Carabao Cup, albeit retrospectively. Safe to say that all ST holders will be buying Cup tickets next season.
Resale or reallocation schemes. Here, Liverpool and Man Utd provide a template. For clubs where there is a premium on keeping your ST and buying tickets for home games and aways, there is a clear need for a controlled scheme whereby those tickets can be redistributed outside the black market. Both clubs allow ST holders to nominate friends (other ST holders and members) to whom their tickets can be re-allocated. On the one hand, this widens the pool of those who can attend matches. On the other, it only entrenches the tendency for those with high numbers of points to buy up tickets, knowing they can redistribute them if they can’t attend or have no intention of doing so in the first place. A crucial point here is whether loyalty points are awarded for redistributed tickets.
Limited, rolling time periods. Plenty of other clubs (Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa) only look at the number of away matches attended in the previous year, which potentially allows for a more fluid system, albeit one that doesn’t reward long-term loyalty. Interestingly, the Spurs system operates a rolling five-year time period for points. Clearly, this rewards recent ticket-buying history, while also acknowledging longer-term patterns of support. Having said that, these schemes do nothing to address the redistribution of tickets. Indeed, shorter time periods only encourage those who already have points to protect their position by buying tickets they don’t intend to use. Beware the curse of unintended consequences.
What none of these schemes makes explicit is perhaps the most crucial aspect of ticketing: that with paper tickets still issued and no identity checks made, there is absolutely no enforcement of the theoretical non-transferability of tickets between those to whom they are issued and those who attend.
As someone who benefits regularly from that non-enforcement, it feels strange to advocate tighter checks. But the reality is that no system for rewarding loyalty can ever function fairly without ensuring that the ST holder who holds the points that earn them the ticket is actually the person using that ticket. After all, loyalty is attending matches, not buying tickets for them. That seems beyond reasonable argument.
So, what might a reformed loyalty points system look like? Personally I can see merit in a more limited, rolling time period for loyalty points. Instinctively, three years feels reasonable. But that can only function if the identity of the ticket holder given admission to the ground is the same as the person to whom the ticket is issued. In turn, that probably requires the introduction of a re-allocation scheme for the unexpected circumstance that might prevent someone from attending (for an example of such a circumstance, look at West Ham away – originally due to be on a Saturday in September, and now re-arranged for a Wednesday night in April).
This could not simply begin (nor, arguably, should it begin) from ground zero. It would have to take, as its starting point, current loyalty points. But over that three-year period, the make-up of those holding points would gradually change, so that they were a full and accurate reflection of attendance patterns at away matches.
The principal losers here would be those with a long historical record of attendance but who are currently unable to attend many aways. Here, there is a clear need to treat Cup finals differently from regular away matches. That long-term loyalty at home and away deserves recognition, and for that reason it seems desirable to award some allocation for those who have held a season ticket for a long period, perhaps ten years or more.
The final possibility, of course, is some kind of ballot of a fixed proportion of tickets to non-qualifying ST holders and members. That would open things up, but it would be divisive. Mind you, if it replaced the current proportion held back by the club, it might be a more popular move.
Obviously, all of this denies the one iron law of loyalty points discussions, namely that whatever you think on the subject, you are most definitely wrong and Baz from Newbiggin is most definitely right and the only true fan. In fact, I’m reliably informed that the Japanese soldier who was still fighting the Second World War on a remote Pacific island decades later was still irate over changes to the loyalty scheme for Grampus Eight cup matches. Fact.
One playful wartime metaphor too many? Perhaps. Maybe it’s a battle not worth fighting. I tell you what, let’s just go old school and require people to cut vouchers out of programmes and stick them on a sheet that they take to the ticket office. That’ll sort the wheat from the chaff. It got me a ticket to Wimbledon in the fifth round of the Cup in 1988, after all. Then again, it was shit and we lost. Much like the League Cup final.
Maybe those without loyalty points are the lucky ones after all.