Countdown to Wembley: memo to SAFC – FA Cup hopes demand ticketing rethink

Jake: just a few more days
Jake: just a few more days

Hull City’s replay win sets Sunderland a stiff but not insurmountable task in the bid for at least one more Wembley trip after Sunday’s. Mick Goulding asks the SAFC powers that be to give some careful thought to the ticketing process should further FA Cup progress be made …

“What price loyalty?”

So….here we are again on our once-per-generation cup final trip to Wembley – as usual the underdog, and our heads full of that “hope for the best but expect the worst” ambivalence that haunts the life of the Sunderland fan.

I couldn’t get a ticket for ’73, but have been to the defeats in ’85, ’90, ’92 and ’98 (only two of them cup finals), so I already know that looking forward to the event itself is more sensible than worrying about the result. And having recently entered my 60s, it occurs to me that (Sunderland being what they are) this could be my last cup final trip, so enjoying the weekend is what it’s all about.

I’m going with my son, who is just short of 17, so this is his first cup final; and he needs to enjoy the event for the exact same reason – because you never know when/if the next one might come around (and Sunderland being what they are, he may be taking his teenage son to the next one)…

In his short life he has already lived through three promotions and two relegations, with his first season as a season ticket (ST) holder being the infamous 15-pointer. He’s already paid his dues and deserves some glory.

Jake: ' any chance of tickets for March 2 and May 17?'
Jake: ‘ any chance of tickets for March 2 and May 17?’

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Older fans will no doubt remember the highly stressful and dysfunctional processes for getting tickets in ’73, ’85 and ’92. Roker Park was a place with only a few thousand seats and the vast majority of fans had no ST (because they didn’t exist in standing areas) and turned up for games with no tickets and no means of demonstrating loyalty which could be measured.

So we had lucky voucher giveaways, where those entering Turnstile A got a yellow one which guaranteed a Wembley ticket, while those entering Turnstile B got a pink one which didn’t.

Despite going to all the games, I was always a “Turnstile B” person. I missed out completely in ’73, but managed to blag my way to ’85 and ’92 through contacts with friends of friends and blokes met in the pub etc. 1990 was a play-off game and tickets were easy to come by, and by ’98 I was a season ticket holder at the new stadium – but just about everybody got a ticket anyway.

So this year, with our STs and a few away trips under our belts, our loyalty credentials are comfortably intact, and for the first time in my life I was able to be totally relaxed about getting a cup final ticket from SAFC as of right.

“Loyalty” is the watchword and the key; and in this 21st Century technological world, it’s even become measurable. But is it being measured correctly? Is it possible for the club to come up with a foolproof method which every fan will accept?

Some of the statements made by the club about the sale of tickets for this final have surprised me. First they announced a Phase 1 and Phase 2 for sales to ST holders and that a further announcement would be made for any Phase 3. But by the start of Phase 1, they were already announcing that a Phase 3 would be “unlikely”.

Surely they should have known, in advance, exactly what the numbers were? “Total Allocation” minus “Number of ST Holders” minus “Internal SAFC Consumption” minus “Corporate Sponsors” = “Remainder”. The only variable should have been “Corporate Sponsors”, and what the club have clearly done is to adjust this number until the “Remainder” became Zero. A quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation should have shown that a general sale in Phase 3 would be neither “likely” nor “unlikely” but simply a matter of fact. But a lack of clarity left many fans in the dark and unhappy.

sobs in clover

The club’s subsequent announcement that “demand had been unprecedented” just made me laugh. It would only be unprecedented for those at the club too new, or too young, to have been there in 1992. But it shouldn’t have come as any surprise to anybody that a club capable of filling a 48k stadium (when things are going well) would have a demand (whether legitimate or not) for cup final tickets which was bigger than the actual allocation – reported as 31k.

And while the club was using this “unprecedented demand” to suggest that they were under a lot of pressure, let’s remember that all they really did was to tell ST holders they could all have one – and then spend two weeks selling them. If the number of ST holders is the reported figure, circa 26,000, that’s the kind of number which would be sold out in about an hour for a major music event – with nobody queuing, nobody being ripped off, and no computers crashing.

The bizarre thing (although maybe not, this being Sunderland) is that, despite being in big relegation trouble, we are only one winnable game away from another trip to Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final. If the incredible happened and we got to the final, there would be even fewer tickets for that (than there is for the League Cup Final) and the club’s process for discerning priority would be really tested! When even some ST holders won’t be guaranteed a ticket, then we’ll see some real stress – so the club needs to think ahead and plan for this now. I mean….one day we might even be a successful club, where this kind of thing might be commonplace!

I’ve said that loyalty can be measured now, and that’s true because all of our purchasing transactions made using our Customer Numbers are held on the club database. Clearly the up-front purchase of STs demonstrates a loyal commitment to the club, so ST status has to be the foundation on which loyalty is based.

But the only figure they’re currently using to measure loyalty beyond that is the purchase of tickets for away games. Now, nobody would question the loyalty of ST holders who go to away games. But there are lots of perfectly good reasons why many ST holders don’t or can’t do that. And these latter ST holders may go to every home cup tie, whereas some of the away-game followers might not. Is it right that going to an away game shows “more loyalty” than attending a home cup tie?

Only 16k attended the home tie against Southampton. But that game was televised, in bad weather, and with a stupid kick-off time. Nobody should doubt the loyalty of those 16k. And nobody should doubt the loyalty of those who attended the cup games against MK Dons, Kidderminster etc – when nobody even dared to dream about Wembley.

I know there’s no easy answer to this, and fans will all have their own opinions and ideas. But is it time for the club to re-assess and make a clear and definitive statement on how it proposes to sort this out in future?

Mick Goulding with young admirer
Mick Goulding with young admirer

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6 thoughts on “Countdown to Wembley: memo to SAFC – FA Cup hopes demand ticketing rethink”

  1. I agree with you both and Joan’s suggestion sounds too sensible for any club to implement but there are flaws. E.g. season ticket holders who have gained loyalty points because they have got me tickets for away games they haven’t attended themselves. I’ve gone to those matches but my personal loyalty is unrecorded.

    And why have I asked those people to get me tickets? Because it’s by far the easiest way, sometimes the only way.

    I think my point is that no system is perfect. If I do what I can to support my club is that not enough?

    • Yes, John….you’re not being rewarded for games which are recorded on somebody’s else’s card. That’s why they need to be recorded on your own card – and if that’s not an ST card, then it needs to be some other form of loyalty card. That might not get you a ticket this year or next; but it eventually will and that’s got to be better than doing nothing.

      You ask whether “doing what you can” is enough. It depends what you mean by “enough”. Enough for what? Abstract concepts like “loyalty” and “passion” are meaningful in discussions between fans, but they can’t be transferred into hard currency. Cup final tickets are hard currency – they have pound signs on them and they’re in short supply. All the passion in the world won’t get one on its own.

      You’re right that no system will be perfect and there will be anomalies. But that’s not a good reason for not trying to come up with the most fair and efficient system possible.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with Mick and had a heated discussion about this the other day. I have a ticket for Sunday but got this because I know someone who knows someone – not because I’ve hardly missed a home game in the last 10 seasons.

    There’s never going to be a perfect method but I think the club could easily run a better points system:

    – a base-line (large) number of points for having a season card

    – extra points for buying tickets for cup games and away games (they could even do double points promotions for less popular games as an incentive)

    Then, when it comes to distribution ask everyone above a certain number of points to apply. Then allocate
    in stages

    eg people with, say, 60+ points
    people with, say 50+ points

    When it gets to the next tier and there aren’t enough to go round then have a ballot – people are more likely to accept they didn’t get a ticket if they at least thought they had a chance.

    For all the tickets I’ve bought (including Kidderminster Harriers, league cup replays with less than 14k in the SoL) I still have a grand total of 0 loyalty points. This is demoralising and demotivating.

    If Boots can clock up points every time I buy a tube of toothpaste, surely the club can do something better. Yes, distribution wasn’t fair in ’73, but computers have been invented since then.

    • Spot on, Joan. What I have in mind is a form of “membership card” (like a store loyalty card) which would be the next step down from a season ticket. I know a few people who don’t have an ST for financial reasons and the upfront commitment required – so they go on a match-by-match basis. But some of them end up going to nearly all home games anyway. If they could have these games recorded on a smart-card, they could at least accumulate some loyalty points which might be rewarded in some way in the future.

      It would take a while to build up, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. Some might remember the SAFC Gold Card scheme of the late 80’s-early 90’s, which attempted to do this by conferring “membership” status on fans in non-ST areas of Roker Park. But the scheme was almost useless because the card wasn’t “smart” enough for it to work properly. Now we can do better.

  3. I don’t have a season ticket because I live 160 miles away and I don’t make many matches. I have commitments down here and getting to the SOL costs over £50. Others pay more – on one of my trips up there earlier this season I had a drink with some fans who had travelled further than me.

    There are people who attend more matches than I do, people who travel more miles than I do, people who do both. There must be thousands who are more deserving of a ticket.

    But I’ve never gone off to support Liverpool, even though they’ve won all sorts of things in my time here and my in-laws are all reds. I was, I am and I will remain a Sunderland supporter.

    Is that not loyalty? If so, how can it be measured? How can it be compared to those who turn up week in, week out and did so during the darkest days?

    There is no answer, there is no justice. There’s just fans and clubs, and sometimes, only sometimes, the twain shall meet

    • I know what you’re saying, John, and people display their loyalty in all kinds of ways. But to be fair to SAFC, they can only reward loyalty which can be measured – and that means something which can be demonstrated and proved – e.g. through the purchase of tickets for games.

      Nobody can measure the kind of loyalty which sees people stick with their team through the dark days – unless they demonstrate it by going to the games. And, again to be fair (and no offence to anyone) anybody could say it, whether it was true or not. How could the club know?

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