Wanderers chief executive Neil Hart says he has been surprised by the negative reaction in some quarters to the introduction of a membership scheme at the University of Bolton Stadium.
Supporters were informed on October 25 that they must register to purchase tickets for last weekend’s FA Cup clash with Stockport County, and that in the future, those without a season ticket could not purchase a seat without supplying their details online.
That has prompted a backlash from some fans, some of who feel the introduction of the scheme was rushed, and others who have had technical issues during the process.
Speaking to The Bolton News, Hart felt the criticism had stemmed from a “vocal minority” on social media but that the process was accelerated to curb escalating issues with crowd disorder.
ARE YOU SURPRISED BY THE REACTION TO THE MEMBERSHIP SCHEME?
“I am surprised, but I would categorise it as a minority, a vocal minority, who tend to operate on social media.
“There are a number of supporters who have contacted the club, directly to me, and we have spoken to them in an honest and open way and resolved any issues they had, and they have gone away happy.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN EXACTLY WHY THE MEMBERSHIP SCHEME WAS IMPLEMENTED AT THIS STAGE OF THE SEASON?
“We started talking when I arrived at the club in July and August about the ticketing policy.
“The strategic intention here is that we need to modernise many aspects of the football club, and our ticketing policy and our ability to collect data to speak to supporters will be critical moving forward. We are in 2021, we work in a digital age, and the strategy was always to introduce this scheme.
“In an ideal world would we have done this in pre-season? Yes. But linked to disorder – and those who were here for the Wigan game saw clearly what went on. It was a minority but one which was totally out of order and we could not identify those supporters for exactly this reason, we did not know who we were selling tickets to.
“It isn’t just about disorder at the Wigan game, we have had trouble at a number of fixtures prior to that. And I will give a very real example – I stepped out of the entrance after the Rotherham game and there were fans of both clubs fighting, with one Rotherham fan flat out on his back.
“I am sure your readers will agree that it is totally unacceptable and we need to take action. The start of that is a ticketing policy.
“We made a decision quickly to introduce the scheme and I apologise to supporters if they feel it came from left field, or it has taken them by surprise. It does not apply to season ticket holders, we know who you are, we know where you sit, this only applies to the match by match purchasers.”
ONE OF THE COMMON CRITICISMS IS THAT A MEMBERSHIP SCHEME WILL AFFECT TICKET SALES AND CLUB BUSINESS.
“It is a two to three minute exercise online, and any music or sporting event you attend anywhere in then country will ask you for the same level of data.
“We are not asking anything ridiculous. It is free but we want to know who is coming to the stadium and utilise that data to talk to you, let you know what we are doing, events, offers, activities, family days, half-season tickets etc, etc.
“We will evolve the membership, look at benefits and enhance it. We will also have some consultation meetings with the Supporters’ Trust about what that will look like.
“All in all, yes I have been a little disappointed by the minority, but it has had the traction we would hope.
“I work in facts, not what 15-20 people say on social media. Within two weeks of launching the membership, sitting here today at lunchtime on Thursday, November 11, we have 9,200 members of which 75 per cent are non-season ticket members. That is 7,000 sets of data that do not own a season ticket.
“If you look at our average crowd, which is circa 15,500 this season excluding the cup, looking at that intelligently, there at 10,000 season ticket holders and an away contingent put to one side, we have pretty much captured our match-by-match casual purchasers.
“So what we wanted to achieve, we have done. We and out stakeholders – SAG, local authority, police, are satisfied with the actions we have taken and we are now in a better place to move forward.”
WILL THE CLUB LOSE BUSINESS AS A RESULT OF A MEMBERSHIP SCHEME?
“We are not seeing it and haven’t since we introduced it. We put Stockport away tickets on sale and they are nearly sold out.
“We have a crowd for the game against Crewe which will be similar to the one against Gillingham, around the 13,000 mark.
“We are at where we expected to be. A few supporters have said that the crowd wasn’t great against Stockport but it was where we expected it to be, membership scheme or not.
“If you look at two years ago when we played Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup I think the gate was 7,000. There is no difference there, in fact I think we are a little bit ahead compared to the Stockport game on Sunday.
“We are not seeing an impact on sales and, actually, what I hope to see is that the membership scheme will impact the club commercially because we have 7,000 sets of data from supporters who are not season ticket holders and this allows us to say ‘come and join us’ or ‘buy a half season ticket’.
“We will enhance the membership over the coming months.”
WILL ONLINE MEMBERSHIP APPLICATION CAUSE ISSUES FOR OLDER SUPPORTERS?
“It has caused a small problem with our older demographics but what we have tried to do there is support them. View the ticket office as a helpdesk. You can ring them, physically pop into Bolton Central. Danny Scott and his team are fantastic, great people, and they have been here for many years. They know our systems and they know our supporters so they will help you do what you need to do. That support has been there since the outset.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF A MEMBERSHIP SCHEME, AS OPPOSED TO SUPPORTERS WHO WAKE UP AND FANCY A GAME?
“It allows us to communicate with people, tell them what we are doing, make them feel a part of it. And not in a token way, we genuinely want them to be a part of the Bolton Wanderers family. That is something we have not been able to do.
“We have a clean database, clean sets of data, current data. And you can still wake up in a morning and think ‘I’m a Bolton fan, I haven’t been to a game for a few years, I fancy Crewe tomorrow.’ “Get online, pop down to the ticket office, and we’ll sell you a ticket, just as long as you fill in the five or six lines of information. It is straightforward and easy.
“I went to a concert in Manchester a few weeks back and did exactly that, provide my data, who I was, where I live, key information. It is standard.
“I understand that football fans don’t like change. And I am sorry it has taken people by surprise. But it is in the best interests of the football club and 95 per cent of supporters have engaged with it.
“I am sure people are making mountains out of molehills here.
“Another point worth making is that on Tuesday we put out a little thankyou to the 8,500 people who had joined. On social media, what you see are 15-20 negative comments, but what the supporters don’t see – and this is context and being open around facts – is that within two hours of that going out we had an extra 500 members.
“The facts and the data tell the story, not a small minority of people being negative about it.
“I believe we are doing the right thing for this football club, from a ticketing and data point of view.”
WHICH STAKEHOLDERS DID YOU CONSULT BEFORE LAUNCHING THE SCHEME?
“The key stakeholders we spoke to post-disorder against Wigan, but also prior, before other games, were Greater Manchester Police and our local authority.
“Prior to the disorder taking place we felt as a leadership group that this was the direction the club needed to go in.
“We want to be a professional outfit and if you go to any Premier League, or most professionally run EFL clubs, this is what is in place.
“I can’t buy a ticket at United, City, Arsenal or Blackburn Rovers without joining some sort of membership scheme, or having an ID number. This is no different.
“Bolton Wanderers’ ticketing policy has not been updated for a number of years. And it is time this came into place.
“This will become part of the furniture.”
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