Tuesday 24 October 2017

IRFU's hard sell over tickets leaves clubs counting cost

Ireland's autumn internationals are creating a dilemma for clubs, writes Brendan Fanning

H igh noon last Friday was the deadline for the clubs of Ireland to declare their ticket status to the IRFU. It is a huge bone of contention for them.

By the appointed time they were either to return tickets they couldn't sell for the autumn internationals, or get on with the business of shifting them, and paying over the proceeds to head office.

They were clear about the ramifications of returning tickets unsold: their future allocation would go down permanently by that number. So 100 tickets handed back now equals 100 tickets off your bundle when the Six Nations comes around. There is no room for manoeuvre on this.

This has caused a huge dilemma for clubs up and down the country. As one Ulsterman put it to us on Friday: "We have tickets worth 30 thousand quid unsold. And we're s***ting ourselves. We started off selling them as a package and that didn't work. And now we're selling them on an individual basis with the prices varied between each game in an effort to make some inroad into the 30k."

So either his club takes a hit and hangs onto the unsold tickets, or they return them and lose out when the Championship starts with England and France coming to town. Sounds like they will take the hit and hope to lessen the damage later.

You might ask why clubs are so stressed about moving tickets when all the talk towards the end of the Croke Park era was that the clamour for access to Aviva would be savage. Sure they'd be crawling over each other to get in.

There are a couple of reasons for this, neither of which seems to interest anyone over at Lansdowne Road. First there is the price, in any event. Second is people's capacity to pay regardless of the price simply because of the horrendous times we live in.

Let's take Leinster as an example. When Croker was closing, the Leinster Branch made a submission to the IRFU to look kindly on them when it came to reducing the ticket allocations that everyone had enjoyed in the bigger stadium. They were successful.

Nobody figured at that point that they were pitching for tickets that were exclusively at the top end of the market and would come with conditions attached.

Then the union came out with a flat price ticket. This implies that all seats are of equal quality, which of course they are not. No more could you sit in the gods at a reduced rate -- for big games it was a flat €100 across the board. If you had been a patron of the terrace for €30 then it was a hell of a jump. Worse still, the IRFU initially came up the idea that if you wanted to go to one autumn game you had to go to four, before reducing it to two. This beggared belief.

Better again, they scheduled a round of the AIL to clash directly with the Samoa game, the least attractive of the four autumn Tests. The AIL may not be the hottest ticket in town, but if the clubs are your selling agents and it clashes with their bread and butter, then guess what gets left on the table? And it's the clubs who have to pay for it.

There was another surprise in store for them. Very late in the day the clubs discovered that their allocation would include premium tickets. They hadn't asked for these. Immediately rumours started that the union had a truckload of premium seats they couldn't sell. Suddenly they were looking like the FAI.

What happened was this: they shifted the first 5,000 premium seats no problem and have a waiting list; but the second 5,000 premiums were allocated to existing holders of 10-year seats from sales made in the old Lansdowne Road.

So they asked the 10-year holders would they like to shift upstairs to the premium level when their tickets ran out (as they will in 2013 and 2015). Of the 5,000, a whopping 3,000 looked at exactly where they were being moved to on the premium level, and decided to stay put. Whereupon the IRFU started stuffing 3,000 premium tickets into clubs' envelopes.

Happy days? Eh, not exactly. By the time the premium tickets were revealed, the club secretaries had already done their allocations and found they were battling to shift flat price tickets (€100) in a basket case economy. And suddenly here was a clump of tickets at €125. When you factor in the admin charges -- some of them pretty blunt -- that clubs put on the tickets in order to cover themselves, the numbers started getting out of control.

"Look, tickets are revenue streams for clubs and always have been," says a union source. "Some of the marking up seems a bit mad in some respects."

Indeed it does. So we have the union bullying the clubs because they want to clear the stadium debt while interest rates are low, and the clubs are bullying their members with admin fees on tickets because they need the cash to keep the doors open.

The IRFU will tell you that it's not about treasurer Tom Grace wanting to clear the debt in the way Usain Bolt clears 100 metres, that it's about staying liquid enough to avoid programmes being cut. Great, but you'd sooner sell a premium ticket than that line.

And surely the most basic programme of all is what happens in the clubs? That's where, as seven-year-olds and younger, the professional players of today first pick up a ball. Until the IRFU slow down and look at their prices, and the damage they are doing to their clubs, their bottom line will be meaningless.

Sunday Independent

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