Why didn't the FAI just drop their ticket prices?
THE tragicomedy that enveloped the attempts to sell the FAI's 10-year premium level tickets for the Aviva Stadium is best summed up by the story of the client who died and miraculously rose again.
He had expressed an interest in taking eight premium level 'Vantage Club' seats, in the second best category, valued at a total of €152,000 for 10 years.
Then, one day, in the offices of ISG -- the third party ticket experts commissioned by the FAI to bring the tickets to the market -- they received a call from someone purporting to be the client's brother, who informed them of the sad news that he had passed away after a sudden accident.
That was the end of that. Or so they thought. In the build-up to Ireland's World Cup play-off showdown with France, the customer in question suddenly came back to life.
A certain number of premium seats for the last couple of Croke Park games were set aside to woo clients that were potential buyers for the 10-year tickets which the FAI need to sell with a view to covering their substantial borrowings towards the renovation of the old Lansdowne Road.
Despite the quirky behaviour, the offer was extended to this prospective buyer. Sadly, the gesture wouldn't lead to a sale although, remarkably, the details of his proposed order remained in the not so magic number of 4,077 when ISG's association wound down last month.
Since the Irish Independent's investigation this week uncovered that -- subtracting existing ticket holders, cancelled orders and incomplete direct debits -- the FAI have made fresh sales for less than 3,000 of the 10,400 premium seats at the Aviva Stadium, the level of feedback has been substantial.
The vast majority have expressed dismay at the manner in which the entire affair has developed, particularly with a view to the FAI's long term future.
Yet there is another point of view which argues that an organisation failing to sell tickets in the midst of a recession is no big deal. The school of thought is understandable. Isn't everyone struggling, after all?
It is a big deal, though. From the outset, the association in question were informed of the economic climate.
They were told again, and again, that the prices were exorbitant
The market research which priced tickets at €12,000 for the cheapest seats and €32,000 for the top end seats was conducted in a different time and, even then, it's difficult to see how it embraced the reality of Irish soccer.
At the cheapest rate, €1,200 a year for an average of six Irish games, plus the FAI Cup final and yet to be confirmed exhibition games hardly constitutes value. And as for the other rates? The obvious doesn't need to be stated.
Especially when, unlike rugby, there is no guarantee about the quality of opposition. The luck of the draw can result in unattractive visitors, similar to the Euro 2012 draw which pitted Ireland with Russia, Slovakia, Macedonia, Armenia and Andorra.
Sales executives operating in the field were met with the immediate response that the cost of tickets was beyond most people's reach. When that was communicated back, high level meetings took place at the beginning of 2009, with respect to the possibility of drawing up a revised pricing structure.
The decision was made to plough ahead with the original prices. Subsequently, the FAI lengthened their arrangement with the banks and prepared to play the long game.
Of course, borrowing was always going to be an element of constructing a stadium. It's the sheer scale of it and the associated interest attached which raises serious concerns.
Targeting the grassroots was trumpeted as the solution. So, the Vantage Club project was taken on the road, with incentives attached.
Some of the stories emanating from the project would be funny if the ramifications weren't so serious for the FAI.
Recently, CEO John Delaney responded to questioning about the level of Vantage Club sales by observing that some journalists were 'obsessing' about the project. There was more to the FAI, he said.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that it's the FAI who have been obsessing about it.
Why else would members of staff -- who were hired to perform specific roles in the organisation -- effectively do double jobbing as de-facto salesmen, in addition to the ISG team.
For example, why were Noel Mooney (head of League of Ireland marketing) and Stephen Driver (the FAI's HR director) the key figures in a road-show which took them around clubs in Limerick and Munster with a view to selling tickets.
Mooney, you might remember, was also in Barcelona as part of negotiations with the Catalan giants with a view to organising a friendly in the Aviva Stadium. A messy affair which ended with the La Liga giants going elsewhere and, ironically enough, a League of Ireland club, Limerick FC was the loser.
Also part of those discussions was Padraig Smith who, at that juncture, was the FAI's Compliance Officer, primarily dealing with the governance of League of Ireland clubs.
Spreading the Vantage Club message around the country was a team effort. In tandem, thousands of euro were pumped into print and broadcasting ad drives, primarily based around home internationals. A big push was centred around the games with Georgia and Bulgaria at Croke Park in the early part of last year. The take-up was minimal.
Radio ads yielded some interest, but translating curiosity into something tangible was a lengthy process with no guarantee of a chequered flag at the end of it.
It was this kind of scenario that the sales team encountered when they planned events at notable destinations around the country.
Waterford's Tower Hotel was the first major stop, Delaney's home parish. Sections of the local football and business community were invited, with a few drinks followed by a presentation of the Vantage benefits, with Delaney among the speakers. An enjoyable night for all concerned. But sales? When it came to tracking down those who had expressed an interest, early exuberance was replaced by long term reluctance.
Galway, The Merrick Hotel. More of the same. The roadshow team weren't expecting Delaney to speak at this gig but, to their surprise, he took to the podium. Alas, a lady at the back of the hall, who had availed of a few too many complimentary drinks, decided to vocalise her opposition to the prices while the CEO was speaking. The prices, you see, were designed for people in suits. Not people in tracksuits.
Was the event a success? Well, if it was, you suspect the FAI wouldn't have needed to visit Galway again earlier this year, this time hosted by Salthill Devon in the Ardilaun Hotel.
There were other schemes. A Vantage Club stand at the Punchestown Races, tucked away in the corner. A presence at Top Gear, and Toys 4 Big Boys exhibitions. Sales reps went to away qualifiers in Bari and Sofia to meet Irish fans. One Saturday morning, a team was sent out to Dublin airport to target Manchester United and Liverpool fans setting off for the UK, greeting them in the style of those nice people who spring Ryanair credit cards on unsuspecting passengers.
Entrance into raffles for free tickets provided a database of names and numbers to be cold called. Once more, the trails led to almost nothing.
Not that every initiative was a disaster. An event in Malahide proved a hit with the locals.
For every story like that, however, there's three more glum ones, such as the event for a schoolboy club in the Croke Park Hotel the night before a major international which gave people a place to stay for a night, but not the desire to find a place to sit at the new Lansdowne for the next 10 years.
Add in the cost of advertising to the outlay on the travelling circus, and you have another serious level of expenditure to offset any immediate ticket income.
League of Ireland clubs were asked to gather their sponsors and well-heeled supporters into a room so they could be given a presentation. Many complied. Others reasoned that money was so tight that, in reality, they needed the people in question to keep their disposable income for them.
The pitch from the FAI point of view was that if clubs bought tickets, they could use them as fundraisers by arranging draws of their own. This was in the context of no general admission tickets being available for the rest of the stadium -- outside the premium seats -- because there were so many block-bookers there ready to take up their option. Well, they got that one wrong.
How many clubs are now trying to raffle tickets, when people are aware that match-by-match tickets are freely available? There's a knock on effect right down the ladder.
Sure, if the FAI had chopped their initial prices after six months, there would have been criticism and talk of an embarrassing climbdown. But if the gesture was accompanied by a rallying call, an acknowledgement that times are tough and that these tickets are important for the game's future, it would surely have mustered a positive response.
"The problem," as one source close to the project points out, "is that people who could have afforded to pay at lower prices at the start, can't afford to do it now."
By the time that discounted tickets were sanctioned, the horse had already bolted. Meanwhile, the FAI insisted everything was alright, sticking it to the nothing to see here folks style of fire-fighting which they hold so dear.
One wonders if the tactic will be remembered as Irish football's pride before the fall.