Liverpool Football Club: A lesson in how not to consult
Last week, many of you would have noticed a rather embarrassing U-turn by Liverpool Football Club’s owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) over the prices of match day tickets. On Tuesday 2 February FSG announced it would be selling tickets at a top rate of £77 whilst also pricing some season tickets at £1,029, the first time ever this type of ticket would break the £1000 barrier. Less than a week later, FSG withdrew its proposal and offered an unprecedented apology to supporters.
The change of heart from the American owners followed a massive, and rather surprising, protest by the Liverpool fans, 15,000 of whom left a match on the 77th minute to show their disapproval at the perceived greed from their club’s owners. The protest sent shockwaves across the media and even grabbed political attention when David Cameron was forced to criticise LFC at Prime Minister’s Questions, saying, “I think there is a problem here when some clubs put up prices very rapidly every year, even though so much of the money for football actually comes from sponsorship, equipment and other sources.”
Yet it wasn’t just a reputational cost suffered by FSG, the group were also hit financially as it announced a freeze in ticket prices and the scrapping of match categorisation, a controversial system that sees ticket prices varying on who Liverpool are playing at the time. This would mean that a ticket to watch Liverpool play Manchester United would cost a lot more than watching Liverpool play Aston Villa, for example. FSG announced this in a hope of clearing the media storm that had gathered over its initial announcement, but by doing so some have estimated that it has cost the group millions and cut into its profit margins.
If anything can be taken from this unfortunate episode, it is this: consultation has to be true and meaningful, otherwise the chances are it will be found out and the repercussions can be costly.
Before the decision was made to raise ticket prices, LFC embarked on a large consultation process which lasted around 13 months. This process included opening up dialogue with various supporters’ groups such as Spirit of Shankly and Spion Kop 1906. Opinion and feedback was gathered on what supporters would like to see in future ticketing allocations and deals. It has been said that some of the suggestions from supporters’ groups included cheaper tickets, with 70% of match day tickets capped at £30, an end to match categorisation, and an increase in the number of young people at match days.
FSG claimed it had listened to these ideas and incorporated them into its original proposals. For instance, there was indeed a scheme to get younger people into the ground, with free tickets being offered to local schools and charities for young people. There was also a special match day price, with some tickets for certain games costing just £9.
Unfortunately for FSG, these good news stories were drowned out by the bad coverage the proposals received and, what’s more, it could have been avoided.
When the initial proposals were announced, the club pushed the £9 ticket prices as the biggest good news story of the new scheme. On paper it looked a great deal and played to those supporters’ groups that wanted cheaper tickets. A simple look at the figures, however, would tell a different story as these tickets were only available for three matches a season and only 527 would be available for each of these particular games. In total, this meant the £9 tickets accounted for just 0.18% of the available tickets across the whole of a standard season.
In hindsight, FSG should have listened to the requests from the supporters and been clearer in the communication of its proposals afterwards. It is probably unrealistic at this time to expect ticket prices to be capped at £30, no matter how much I’d like them to be! However, to go and increase prices to more than double of what was asked whilst also increasing the costs of season tickets to an all-time high was misguided. Trying to then divert attention from this with a weak gesture of £9 tickets for only 0.18% of match goers was foolish and ultimately cost FSG’s reputation needlessly.
The moral of the story? If you say you are going to listen to people, then listen. Consultation does not mean that you have to do what people suggest, but it does mean that you must listen and respond to their concerns with respect. If you cannot include someone’s feedback into your final proposals then explain why and evidence how you have come to this decision, nine times out of ten people will understand even if they are disappointed at the result. LFC and its owners forgot this and soon found out to their financial and reputational cost that you cannot ignore your public.
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