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The Albion Assembly: Second meeting lowdown

12 May 2015

Minutes from Albion Assembly meeting (06.05.15)

MEETING: Thursday, May 6 (8pm)

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE: Martin Swain (Assembly chair), Hannah Weaver (Assembly vice chair), David Cox (Assembly vice chair), Mark Miles (WBA head of facility operations & development), Jo Barr (ticket office manager), Chris Lepkowski (recording minutes)


The meeting opened with an up-date from Martin Swain on the ownership issue. He cross-referenced media reports about several interested parties, some of whom were now conducting their due diligence. He told the meeting that his dialogue with the chairman had made two very distinct elements clear – 1, that legacy was hugely important to the chairman who wanted hand on the club to a new party which could be trusted with its progress and 2, the issue would not be allowed to drag on. If there were no clear signs of a sale by the end of May or early June, the process would be disengaged in order the club focus on preparations for the next season. He added that the chairman had been in regular dialogue with Tony Pulis to keep him up to speed with any developments.

COMMENTS FROM THE FLOOR: Where are interested parties based? A. (Answer was Off the Record)

The feedback was positive. Comments from the floor included 'it was fantastic', with one member suggesting that designating one game per season to a current or historic reference could bring together fans, improve the atmosphere and be used as a hook to bring in new fans. 'Stars in Stripes' (the tune played as Albion players emerged from the tunnel) was mentioned as a potential anthem. It was also noted by Martin Swain that Darren Fletcher had praised the event, describing it as 'fantastic', with the club captain also seeking reassurances that supporters enjoyed the occasion (if not the result). Asked whether the players were 'overwhelmed' by the occasion, Martin replied that "maybe there was an element of that" but that the Leicester game had been in planning for some time and that the Foxes were the chosen opponents of the Astle family. The Albion News Astle Special matchday magazine was praised, with further ideas, beyond that day, suggesting Junior Baggies interviewing a selected player before each game, with those being screened on the big screens before the game. Martin concluded: "Tony Pulis and David Kemp came over here for the Disabled Day. It was the first time they'd properly wandered around the stadium. When we buy players in the summer this is where we need to bring them. There is a disconnect and we need to address that. Maybe we can get players to go into the Fanzone before games for example…?"
Martin also revealed that the club did consider a themed play list for the Great Escape anniversary....but the 2005 play list "is absolutely awful".
Mark Miles gave an overview of the proposed Fanzone, where the former Hawthorns pub sits. Mark gave details of the building, the plans going forward and some of the issues the project had thrown up - "for example as we started to demolish we found horse hair in plaster so we then had to send that off for testing as horse hair can contain anthrax pores." For a 3pm kick-off, the plan is for the Fanzone, which will be Tarmacked, to open at midday until around 2.45pm It will re-open for an hour after the game. However, there are no plans for the Fanzone to be opened after the game for evening matches.

Mark Miles also said: "The history of the pub is that we've owned it for a few years now - it's a Grade II listed building...any future development of the West Stand requires the land that the building sits on. We've managed to slim the building down to what it is now.  The original part of the building dates back to the 1840s. We will refurbish it inside and outside, it will be re-rendered and painted off-white. The building will look new from the outside. What the usage of it will be, we still don't know. We are still speaking to third parties. What we then have is the land that the pub is sat on. It is our intentions that area will become the Fanzone. On a match day 20 minutes to go until kick-off we have about 35 per cent of capacity. Everyone else tends to come in those final few minutes. This will be a place where people can chew the fat have a coffee, have a pint, have a chat. There will be mobile catering - burger, pizza, carvery, there will be licenced units, coffee selling point, a retail outlet selling merchandise, there will be an area for potential sponsors, for corporates who want to showcase our products - we have that as part of Barclays - and to have facepainting, maybe a football goal for kids. We are also considering a stage so we could get a local band playing, a former player, maybe a current player. We're trying to make it somewhere you can come beforehand, be early - it'll close at 2.45pm - and then come afterwards, have another drink, while traffic dies down. We don't know if we will get 50 people, 500 people, or 2500 people. The success or failure will be down to the fans. We know what we start with in August might be different to what we finish off with in May."
Asked whether away fans would be welcomed, Mark replied that it had yet to decided although certainly not after games. And it would depend on who the opponents were. He also confirmed there would be no charge, although a stilecard or match ticket would be required for entry. There will be disabled facilities and the Club plan to appoint a Fanzone manager.

"Will there be real ale available?" was one question from the floor. Mark confirmed that the bar units would serve draughts but all units would be "nice and clean and painted in the same livery" - "what we won't have is things looking like an 'ice cream van' or 'Pete's Burger Van'."

Another question from the floor queried winter arrangements. Mark Miles replied that the gazebos cannot be installed due to the site being listed and therefore impacting on planning permission. However, there are plans to install 'Jumbrellas'. The Assembly was also informed that the site's listed status meant any catering units must vacate the site on the same day. Mark also reassured fans that pricing of nearby facilities in relation to Albion's catering outlets was being discussed. Also being explored is the possibility of a giant TV screen being erected to show early kick-offs to try and entice more fans.
Hannah Weaver suggested the Fanzone be used to showcase the Albion Foundation's 'fantastic' work. This was met with approval by Mark, who confirmed he had been in discussions with Rob Lake.

Mark said the central building would be open 364 days of the year, adding: "we have an area where we think we can get 1500-2000 people in comfortably. We want it to provide a unique atmosphere, become a focal point for fans at 1pm before the game and where you put the game to rights afterwards."

The catering units will be provided by one company, with Albion setting the price. Martin Swain continued: "We want to make this a unique Albion point, where you can watch a young lad on the big screen interviewing, say, Darren Fletcher, or meet former players, or watch specific media things we've done that week. It will be Albion-centric build-up material."

The Assembly was asked whether the early matches could be shown on the stadium screens. Mark Miles confirmed that the 2003 (rugby) World Cup Final was the only time this had happened due to rights issues relating to Premier League games. He also explained that concourse TVs are not operated by the club, but by an external London-based company Matchday Media.
Deviating away from the Fanzone, the Assembly asked about updates about the appearance of exterior of the Hawthorns. Martin replied that all ideas were subject to budget allowance - further muddied by the ownership issue - but the Club had been inspired by displays of the Everton Holy Trinity of Alan Ball, Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey on the outside walls of Goodison Park.

Mark added that fewer games in the Premier League allowed the Club to start upgrading the Hawthorns - with the Birmingham Road being repainted inside since the last home game. The East Stand kiosks have also had a facelift.

Mark was asked about the the PA system. He replied: "I'd like to think these issues are now historic.” He then went onto give a detailed account of how some equipment had failed following its migration from the old control room in the Smethwick End to the current facility in the West Stand. Mark also explained that pre-match sound tests were futile as the sound in an empty stadium is different to that of a full arena. The acknowledged poor sound quality of Yam Yam Cam was down to the recording system of the camera and was being looked into.

On another note, Mark defended claims that the Smethwick End was 'left behind the rest of the stadium' by revealing that it had better flooring than the East Stand and was looked after to the same standard. The Hawthorns toilets had also been voted as the 'second best' in the Premier League (after Arsenal). Following a question on the subject from the floor, Mark also stated that the hand-dryers could not provide any stronger performance due to the electrical demands posed by the use of 257 floodlights.

Martin Swain opened this particular part of the meeting: "Season ticket prices, you'll all be aware of. Are you ready to fire your bullets...?"

The opening comment from the floor made it clear that "for the credibility of the Assembly, we need something good to come from tonight."

The first question centred on whether free cup tickets would be offered for season ticket holders as "we used to get free cup tickets."
Jo Barr - we were told she has spent 27 years at the Club - informed the Assembly this was not the case. A further comment from the Assembly suggested it would be a good PR move to do this with Martin replying that it wasn't straightforward due to the split of gate receipts. A 'voucher' for cup games was also suggested. 

It was suggested by another Assembly member that Cheltenham Town's tickets were the same price as Albion’s - although this has not been verified.

It was also noted by one Assembly member that "in reality this raise will raise about £800k. It's nothing - it's six months wages for Samaras for instance. I'm astonished that we've got this Assembly and talking about getting more ethnic minorities, getting bums on seats...I'm astonished the Club is willing to alienate a section of the support for the sake of £800k."  Another comment expressed disappointment. "One thing I find troubling is that you say we're not willing to invest into something because of a potential takeover yet they are willing to raise ticket prices. We will take money from fans, but we won't invest - that strikes me as strange."
Martin Swain pointed out that it was a question of perception - £800,000 remains a figure that Albion still need to account for and is a "vital sum of money". He added: "I've seen what agents need to be paid for deals to be done, for instance. For us to compete and put squads together that fans want for us to challenge in the Premier League, we need every penny we can get."

Other comments included:
* "...No matter how much the Club dress it up, it's a kick in the teeth. £50 is a lot of money."
* "...I'm going to support the Club on this. It's £2.63 per match. It's less than a pint of beer. We held the prices down for three years, nobody moan, then we put the price up for less than a pint of beer and people are up in arms? Come on."
* "... People are talking about West Ham - they reduced theirs by so much. But they're putting them up first...
To the final comment, Martin replied: "I do have a solemn promise from Mark Jenkins that if Sandwell Council build us a free stadium for 60,000 people then he will reduce our prices."

Further comments: 
* "...I think they could have been frozen again, but I don't feel strongly about it in the context that they were reduced and were frozen. What the Club has done isn't unreasonable."
* "...People's wages haven't increased. And it's above the cost of living. If they'd put a cost of living increase from 2012 I don't think people would moan: They'd say, 'fine it's the cost of inflation'...but if you put a cost of living from 2012 then £350 season ticket would now be £370 or something like that but it isn't, it's 14 per cent higher than it was for essentially a worse product than four years ago."

Responding to claims the price increase was a 'kick in the teeth for fans', Martin continued: "I do get that but the fact is - and please don't jump down my throat - having cut prices back and then frozen them, we've not had a response through the turnstiles. We have flatlined through attendances. Perhaps that's because our product out there hasn't been good enough - that's the challenge to West Bromwich Albion: not just to add £50 extra a year but to make sure fans come back because what happens out there is making you come back."
There was a suggestion from the floor to increase the capacity. Another question queried whether commercial deals, matchday packages, corporate rates had gone up. Martin and Mark Miles confirmed they had. 

Season Ticket price figures from other clubs were also produced (bar QPR, who hadn't yet announced). The Assembly was told that Swansea had lowered prices to match Albion's new level, yet had been praised. It was also pointed out by Martin: "We have the smallest revenues, but we have the highest percentage of that revenue to help us pay for what is largely the wages of the playing staff and their attendant fees. It's no more complicated than that."

Hannah Weaver added: "In terms of the lowest we are the fourth lowest. Manchester City offer one at £299. Leicester are £395, Sunderland are £370, Villa are £335. So in terms of the highest price, Swansea are £489 and Sunderland at £495. So we are pretty competitive."
There was a claim from the floor that the Assembly was portrayed as no more than just a 'taking shop'. Hannah replied: "I had a big discussion with Martin…is the Assembly are either complicit or redundant? There is no middle ground. So to come back to the earlier point, we need to make it very clear of what the Assembly wants to achieve but to make that response to everyone else that we didn't know what was coming. We have a focus group here where we can test the water. How will it work? What are we thinking? Maybe we can use the Assembly for that role a little bit."
A further comment from the floor suggested the Albion Assembly should have been informed of the price rise...despite having no veto. Martin accepted that the timing of the announcement - falling in between meetings - was unhelpful, before adding: "We didn't really need a fans' poll to know it's not going to go down well - we know that."
There was praise from the Assembly for the return of concessions to the West Stand: "It's a positive step forward." Martin replied: "I know it was said it hadn't been discussed. Fact is that it didn't need to be discussed. It was fairly clear fans wanted a return back to West Stand concessions. In several meetings with Mark (Jenkins) I've said: 'The Assembly keep mentioning that they want concessions in the West's fairly clear this is something they want and is very important.' Ultimately we got that. It's not the central areas - quite brutally, simply, they are the best seats in the house so we can't get those at concessions. But we've got the concessions restored to the sides. And we do it at 60 - we are the only club who introduce concessions at 60, other than Cardiff. The rest do it at 65." (Later, a member of the Assembly suggested this point should be highlighted to supporters outside of the meeting).

In the light of the decision to keep full prices in the central areas of the West Stand, Jo Barr was asked whether she could provide a breakdown of the figures of how many people will benefit through concessions on the wings and how many will ‘suffer’ in the centre. Jo Barr agreed to providing this information.

Another comment from the floor: "The message needs to go out that this (the Assembly) is the opportunity for a bunch of fans who are representative of supporters of the Club to come along and make their points. It is up to the Club to give those points serious consideration. We are still in our infancy and as an Assembly we will learn that there are some issues we cannot influence, but some things we can. The success of this Assembly will rise or fall on the consideration that the Football Club gives to the Assembly. If people at the Football Club don't take it seriously then that is where the role of the Assembly falls down. We have to be taken seriously."  Martin Swain: "That's very true and very important. The great thing is that a week after this announcement , we are here to listen to criticism, opinions, it is being recorded and it will go on our website."
Another member of the Assembly questioned the decision to increase season ticket prices given the salaries earned by senior members of the Board. There was also a request for Mark Jenkins to attend the meeting, which Martin Swain reassured he would pass on for his consideration.

Mark Miles was asked to address the issue of safe standing. Mark told the Assembly that safe standing 'happens in our ground at the rear of the Smethwick End in one respect but if it was unsafe we would stop it.' 
Mark also cleared up the notion that Safe Standing could return any time soon in the form of the 'rail-seat' system. 

"It's illegal, it's not allowed in this country by Government. On the back of the post-Hillsborough report, all stadia (in the Premier League) have to be fully seated. There is a cost to put any safe or rail seating into the ground but there is this number circulated through the Football Supporters Federation that if you put what they call the safe standing/rail seating system in then you can get 1.4 or 1.5 more people into the stadium. That works in terms of space on the terracing, however you would need more turnstiles, more toilets, more exit gates, bigger vomitories, bigger concourses and greater gangways. The only way to achieve that is to knock the stand down and rebuild it. So the rail seating system - unless you rebuild a stand, which costs a lot of money - simply won't happen....Safe standing as a concept, as championed and sold by the Football Supporters Federation, simply won't happen until some Government official puts his head above the parapet - on the back of Hillsborough, which is where it came from - to say, 'actually the top two divisions should have standing areas again'."  Mark expressed thanks that he was given an opportunity to explain this particular issue to the Assembly with the view of informing all supporters.
Mark was asked whether there was a quota in every capacity where people can stand. He made it clear this was not the case. He added: "Unfortunately, once stewards do ask someone to sit down, the person will often sit down and then stand back up or whether, we agree or not, we get a diatribe because 'the away fans are standing, so you're not telling me to sit down'. Away fans come once per season and the resources we have - I'm happy to go with it in more detail should anyone want me to - means that we cannot make 2800 people sit down on their seats."
Mark expressed a will to return to future Assembly meetings to discuss matters relevant to matchdays and supporters' experiences.

Jo Barr was asked why, when on the ticket line queuing up, it only allowed 10 people to wait. Jo confirmed it had been increased to 20 following demand from supporters, with the Club opted out of a premium 0871 number in favour of a local rate 0121 number.

Next meeting:  June 17, 7pm for 7.30pm start. East Stand, The Hawthorns.


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