The Members’ Sale: a biannual shambles: by Olly Ricketts
The third Wednesday in July may not mean much to most people. But for a sizeable proportion of Liverpool supporters it is the most tense night of the year. Hours of sleep is lost, minds racing with excitement.
Will this finally be the year that the official website’s servers decree that I am on the ’nice’ list, and allow me a seamless customer experience so that I might swap much of my year’s disposable income for tickets for 7 of the home games in the first half of the 2018-19 season? Surely it must, I’ve been so good this year, and I only got tempted to send private messages on Twitter to random club employees calling them all bastards last July; I didn’t actually do it.
Alas, for many, this Thursday brought all too familiar tales of disappointment. Basically, the Members’ Sale was due to commence at 8:15am. The servers decided they didn’t want to, and the site died. At one point the live blog, launched by the club to provide instant information on the sale to those in the online queue, also died.
Funny, undoubtedly, though still some way behind my personal favourite from a few years ago when the club sent an email questionnaire about people’s experiences with the sale process; the link leading instead to an ever-reloading blank page. The Members’ Sale, the gift that keeps giving.
The club’s website is currently replete with slightly nauseating references describing Liverpool FC as a ‘family’ - and I suppose the sheer powerless sense of frustration each Members’ Sale provokes is akin to listening to your uncle drone on about immigrants at Christmas.
The club were quick to issue an apology, at 08:50am, and the online queuing system began to function soon after. However, half an hour later the blog announced that there were ‘over 50,000 sessions in the queue’. Some of these might be people with duplicate windows or devices in the queue.
Others, like myself and my friends, might have all logged in in the hope that our chances would be increased. But that is still a huge volume of people trying to get tickets. It is correct that the club have apologised for the servers’ failings this morning.
It is difficult, however, to accept talk of unprecedented or unforeseen demand, given that it is the club that sells the memberships, so knows exactly how many members are out there. More importantly, a significant proportion of these will be ‘Light’ members.
These people have paid £26.99 for a membership shorn of the tat (sorry, ‘welcome pack’) that gets sent to ‘Full’ members - in effect the only supposed reason to be a ‘Light’ member is to book tickets. The club therefore know that virtually every ‘Light’ member, and a significant majority of ‘Full’ members, are going to be hammering refresh on the morning of each Members’ Sale. The demand therefore cannot be unforeseen.
However, the predictable failure of the club’s website is still an admittedly significant and hugely frustrating symptom rather than a cause of the bigger issue: Liverpool’s membership system doesn’t work, because the club does not limit the amount of new members that can join each year.
Yes, a fair few must quit in despair at each season’s end, but the rest of us pay our £26.99 every summer in the forlorn hope of the club doing something to make the system fairer. And then we end up getting the scraps from the sale. If you end up with tickets for a single match, you have effectively paid a £26.99 booking fee for your ticket. Some don’t even get that lucky.
Members have access to 10,000 tickets per home game. For the right to book tickets for many of these matches you need to have certain credits from last season. This, of course, is absolutely right. However, the sheer unfettered volume of memberships means that most find it near impossible to move up the loyalty ladder in a season.
Given that membership is for a full year, but you can join mid-season, it stands to reason that the November sale (for the home matches in the second half of the season) can only see more people getting involved in the bun fight. I won’t pretend that solving this issue is easy. I first started writing a piece on this topic several years ago.
Looking at my notes, I felt that Liverpool’s membership scheme was markedly less fair than any other club in the Premier League. I accept now – as I did then – that to some extent it is not fair to compare like-for-like with those clubs who may not sell out every home game and therefore use membership schemes to entice attendees. For Liverpool, only the deadest of rubbers (or leaguest of cups) is unlikely to sell out far in advance.
While demand outstrips supply so significantly, it is understandable that the club views membership as a means of distribution rather than an attraction to attend. What has changed in the 3 years since I started looking at this are the membership schemes operated by the other ‘big’ clubs. Back then I found that all still offered more tiers and what seemed like fairer, more transparent systems than Liverpool. Now, it appears they used us as the capitalist canary in the coal mine, and all have adopted broadly similar schemes since.
So what can be done? The Anfield Road extension would certainly help! Others have suggested sensible measures to make the sale itself a less traumatic process, by restricting each IP address to a single place, or requiring members to log in before entering the queue. But the membership system itself needs fundamental changes.
At the moment everyone hates it. Those with significant loyalty built up hate it because they are dragged into the bun fight for low category games.
Those with no loyalty (and this doesn’t simply apply to glory hunters, it could be people that have been away from the country or unable to attend for health reasons) hate it because the odds seem utterly stacked against them getting anything other than scraps from the sale, and as previously mentioned if those scraps involve 1-2 games per season then they are effectively paying an astronomical booking fee and not getting enough credits to improve their outlook for the following season.
And absolutely everyone in it hates it because the website breaks every single time.
Limiting the number of new memberships sold per year would help. So would adding in several more tiers of membership depending on loyalty. I would even propose, to avoid the possibility of that £26.99 booking fee, effectively re-introducing the fan card or, more specifically, an entry level membership tier which cost substantially less than even the Light membership.
If you were able to book tickets for 4 games, you would be offered a place in the next tier of membership (if there were spaces available), or put on the waiting list (if there weren’t). Of course this system is far from perfect, but if everything was transparent then at least we would all know where we stood. Capped numbers, plus an entry level tier and several more tiers as you get up towards full loyalty of 19 games plus cups would certainly help, as would knowing that you were only a few quid out of pocket if you didn’t get lucky in the sales.
In the interests of fairness and full disclosure, I should point out two things. Firstly, I was luckier than some on Thursday, and at least managed to get tickets for myself and two mates for the Cardiff game. Not sat together, as there were no longer three together anywhere, but better than nothing.
Secondly, I have not mentioned the additional sales that members have access to approximately 2 weeks before each home game. These are sales involving returns from season ticket holders unable to attend. They can be useful, and I have got tickets in the past via this method. But getting seats together is virtually impossible, and the whole process adds to the feeling that the club treats those members without enough credit to guarantee themselves tickets as a bunch of animals fighting over a fly-ridden carcass way after all the good bits have been taken.
Tony Barrett’s appointment was an inspired move by the club, as no one can doubt that the fair treatment of Liverpool supporters by the club is his genuine and absolute priority. As such, I truly believe that he would like to find a method of selling tickets that is as close to universally fair as possible.
It is sad, however, that on a day on which we signed a world class goalkeeper for a world class fee, providing further evidence that in many ways this football club is beginning to appear unusually competent and united, the excitement for many was tempered with another reminder of how low down the list of its priorities we appear to be.