ANON - The Emirates Stadium Mystery – whatever happened to The Arsenal?
In a late breaking story it has emerged that one of the corner stones of Arsenal Football Club – the fair and equitable treatment of lifelong loyal fans appears to have been removed from the Marble Halls to a “safe location” in an industrial estate close to Caledonian Road tube station. Whilst the trust of the fans will be held in abeyance until the move to Emirates Stadium is complete, concerns are mounting as a large number of recent eye-witnesses claim to have observed that away from its natural habitat the trust of the fans is said to be in a critical condition.
I was born an Arsenal fan, brought up believing the club to be unique in its treatment of and level of respect for fans. In keeping with this tradition I have always felt a responsibility to maintain and nurture the relationship for a host of reasons; the club represents the area I live in, has strong historical links with my family and has been responsible for many of the happiest (and most depressing) moments of my life. All my family are season ticket holders. Good old Arsenal, I have always been proud to say that name and have always felt privileged to renew my season ticket, safe in the knowledge that although other clubs may be bigger or have won more trophies there is no club on earth like Arsenal. Now, I’m not claiming that my relationship with Arsenal is anything worth shouting about or out of the ordinary; in fact the only thing that is special about my relationship with the club is that it is probably one shared with the thousands who go to Highbury for every match.
Despite nagging concerns about the direction of the club over the last few years I was as excited as any fan about visiting the Emirates Stadium Reservation Centre to select seats in the new stadium. Being an A Bond and season ticket holder I speculated excitedly with the rest of my season ticket group about our eventual choice of seats in the new ground. For the record my A Bond North Upper season ticket cost £1295 this season and is the second most expensive seat in Highbury on a match-by-match basis (£51, with the most expensive being the East and West Upper Next to Centre blocks at £54). It is also worth bearing in mind that as part of the commitment to Bond Holders season ticket prices were frozen for ten years, suddenly jumping from c£330 to c£1100 once the price freeze expired. The club’s handling of the bonds is another story entirely and it has been a real struggle financially to keep the ticket going. No complaints about the return on the field though and faced with the prospect of not going at all I (in common with many others) have made sacrifices in other areas.
As soon as we sat down for our appointment something didn’t feel quite right. It just didn’t feel like Arsenal. One of the guys in the group said that it reminded him of a particularly unpleasant time-share pressure sales pitch he once endured. On reflection he was right and the (intended) irony of his observation lay in the club’s recent departure into the Costa del Sol Spanish property market. It is made very clear at the outset that “this is it”. You have a limited time in which to choose your seat for the rest of your Arsenal watching career, pay your deposit and be on your way. Not happy with what you are offered? Well that’s tough because that’s what you are getting. If you walk out without a reservation you’re at the back of the queue and have to make another appointment. So, we were off to a cracking start feeling nice and relaxed as the clock counts down and the representative showed us a range of seats we would have really liked but were either already taken or were available but not on offer to us anyway.
Whilst the Emirates Stadium Reservation Centre gives the impression of a slick customer focused operation my overriding impression from a supporter’s perspective is that the Centre operates as an extremely cynical exercise in maximising the amount of money that can be extracted from fans. This is understandable and pragmatic from a business perspective – of course the club has to generate as much money as possible bearing in mind the debt it has taken on, but I do feel that this should be achieved in a balanced manner that acknowledges the level of commitment shown by existing fans (whether they are season ticket holders or not). My essential problem lies with what I perceive to be smoke and mirror sales strategies employed by the club in relation to the very same fans who have supported Arsenal for years during times when we for the most part played pretty turgid football.
In its “Emirates Stadium Season Ticket Information” brochure (available as a PDF on arsenal.com under the “Season Tickets” section - direct link here) the club provides a Season Ticket Pricing Map and Key. In the interest of fairness it is worth mentioning that this document shows a large number of relatively reasonably priced seats in the lower tiers of Emirates (ranging from £885 - £990). However, the price band of my current ticket means I am not able to select seats in these areas. A restriction has been imposed on where an individual can sit based on the current pricing level of his/her season ticket at Highbury. This means I can go down one price level or up to any price level. Obviously “up” works best for the club. I am not clear why the club feels the necessity to restrict the choice of loyal supporters in this manner and can only assume it is because Arsenal believe that there is a strong likelihood that people in these categories can afford to and eventually will upgrade. Well, I can’t. In fact I can barely afford the seat I am in right now and had to take out a loan to pay for it.
In view of the inflation of ticket prices in recent years many may find it preferable to start off in a lower priced seat to insulate themselves financially from future price increases. I would certainly have liked this option. This is clearly a case of new season ticket holders being offered a wider choice and a cheaper deal than existing ones and as such is manifestly unfair. Thank you for the consideration Arsenal, it was much appreciated.
So where can I sit? The price band imposed by the club entitles me to a £1295 Upper Tier seat behind either goal. Sounds reasonable enough until you consider that the footprint of Emirates is around twice that of Highbury with a far larger pitch (rumoured to be similar in size to Old Trafford). This is what I mean by smoke and mirrors; although the price has stayed the same, the dimensions of the pitch and its surround will inevitably result in the distance to the goal at the opposite end being far greater than at Highbury. The ticket is the same price yet the view will not be comparable.
A more realistic transposition of the second most expensive seat at Highbury would be to the second most expensive seat at Emirates - an Upper Next to Centre or Back Rows Off Centre at £1370. Of course this would mean that the club’s promise to freeze ticket prices for the first season at Emirates could not be met. Although this commitment is made on the basis of the geographical location of the seat it is also based on price, which is at best disingenuous considering the relative sizes of the stadia.
Of course we were entitled to go down by one price band (to £1190) so we looked at the seats on offer there. The range of available seats would require a telescope similar to the one at Jodrell Bank to get a half decent view of the action. Would be cheaper to hire a blimp. No thanks.
“You could of course upgrade to a higher level seat for £1370 or £1825”. Silence. Yes, I could do that and maybe I could just set up a Direct Debit from my bank account to transfer all my money to Arsenal as soon as I get paid for the rest of my life as the prices are whacked up year on year. I look at the £1190 section again and realise it is very small compared to other sections, very far from the pitch and curiously prevents access to another section marked in red “Upper Wing and Corner - £1165”. “Can we go into the Red section? It’s far nearer the pitch and we can get a much better seat”. The response reminded me of the character in Little Britain who, when faced with a difficult question replies “Computer says no”. The gist of the conversation was as follows. I stress that whilst these are not direct quotes of Arsenal employees at the Centre they certainly reflect the views expressed on behalf of the club to our group of season ticket holders:
It’s more than one price band down.
O.K., we’ll pay the extra £25 per season.
No, can’t do that I’m afraid.
We don’t like any of the seats you have shown us. Isn’t there any way we can select in this red section? Please, it’s very important to us.
Tap. Tap. Tap. No virtual reality view as yet, but I fleetingly see plenty of available seats in the section we want, in the front five rows. My heart leaps.
Silence. Computer says no. That was a cruel thing to do, letting us see that the seats were available and then refusing to let us have them.
Have you offered seats in this section to people in our price band?
Yes, but only in the corners.
So you are offering red section seats then?
Yes, we changed what we are able to offer.
Have you advertised this?
But in your Season Ticket Pricing Map and Key there is no difference in the price between a corner and wing section. They’re both £1165.
We can only offer the corners.
So can you definitively confirm that you have changed what you are offering from your stated pricing map and key?
Can you change it again?
We don’t want to risk upsetting East and West Upper Season Ticket holders.
But you have already changed the offering, which by your definition may have prejudiced their position already. Anyway, you have a clear allocation priority order outlined in your booklet that prioritises Bond Holders over any other season ticket holder. We understand what you are saying but there must be enough space to accommodate us all, this stadium holds far more than Highbury. Are you saying you would rather definitely upset us than possibly upset someone else? There is no logic to that argument. What about C and D Bondholders?
They can choose any seat from any price band.
Conversation goes on ad nauseum.
We’re not getting anywhere with this and the clock is still ticking. I think to myself that I’m lucky to even have a choice. There are many who would give their right arm for a seat anywhere in the stadium. I certainly don’t want to deprive another fan from the East/West Upper of their seat, but I’m sure that everyone could be accommodated. What’s the point in having a priority order and a stadium plan if you don’t stick to it? Besides, the club has broken its own rule anyway by offering seats in that section.
I realise something fundamental has snapped inside me and I am starting to consider life without a Season Ticket as I overhear a representative telling a fan that Holloway Road and Caledonian Road stations will be closed on match days. Bloody hell, I’m going to have to walk to every game. After years of support Arsenal have pushed the money-grabbing button a bit too hard this time. I can take last minute halfway line goals in Cup Finals, a failure to retain our best players from Liam Brady to Patrick Vieira, the drives to places like Hartlepool to watch a midweek league cup match – they are all part of the game and part of being a fan. But apparently being treated like this is also now part of the game and that’s what really bothers me. The trust has gone and the club apparently aren’t bothered. After all there are thousands more who will happily take my place. They may even upgrade to the £1825 ticket or buy a club level seat. Good luck to them.
I left the reservation centre without making a reservation.