Date: 17th January 2017 at 9:07pm
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Finances play a huge part in football thesedays, non more so than the costs associated with following your particular team and that was a big discussion point during 2016.

With fan protests such as the ‘£20’s Plenty’ campaign to reduce away ticket prices seeing some kind of result with the Premier League capping prices this season at £30 and also subtle changes to the organisation of the game seeing television selections having a deadline (it seemed) so fans could better avoid a loss of money when travelling away in particular and seeing games subsequently moved for screening, it appeared the Premier League had begun to finally realise that ‘fans’ should take a higher place in the tree of importance.

Makes sense they should really, fans by tickets, it’s fans that buy television packages, it’s fan that buy from the companies who sponsor all the many wondrous things you can sponsor in the modern game – so why shouldn’t the fan be treated far more fairly.

Now whilst non of these steps were perfect and nor should they be the last step taken, £30 instead of the £20 and even then it had no bearing on home ticket prices, many applauded the steps for being a real start in terms of dictating things in the top flight rather than just talking a good game and instead justifying prices by focusing on ‘improving the matchday experience’.

And of course with no bearing on the Football League the simple steps taken in time would/should and could have a trickle down effect to the Championship, League 1 and League 2.

But it seems those who thought it was mainly spin, bluster with a slice of Donald Trump telling the crowd what they wanted to hear may have been onto something given a recent Independent Football Ombudsman’s (IFO) ruling that in effect the Premier League stuck two fingers up to.

I stumbled over this Press Release by the Premier League the other day and given the flowery ‘isn’t the IFO great’ language before the tiny but subtle ‘…we are unable to take forward the specific recommendations related to travel refunds’ sentence and it left me thinking.

Mainly because in a piece talking up what the Premier League do and all the efforts they take over game rescheduling, it never actually explained what the complaint was nor what the IFO’s recommendations were – and that kind of peaked my interest.

As the above link shows, the game concerned the rescheduling of the Arsenal v Leicester City clash back on February 14 2016 and with the Premier League’s release talking about the variety of reasons a game can change – television selection, enforced because of European or domestic Cup fixtures and so on – and the fact that this is completely known to the paying fan it seemed there was nothing the Premier League could in fact do with regards to the IFO’s specific recommendations here.

Especially in light of this season’s commitment to a broadcasting schedule target date to give fans as much notice of changes as they possibly could and their agreement that more discussions would be held with clubs and stakeholders to see how it could be further improved.

But the fact the release also included the line…

‘Clubs have demonstrated, through the £30 away ticket price cap and a variety of fan initiatives that incentivise match attendance, that they recognise the special status of travelling fans. The Premier League thanks the IFO for their valuable input, and remains fully committed to working with clubs to develop positive processes in this area.’

…definitely peaked my interest, so with a well known search engine to hand who I’ll name for a Premier League level of sponsorship, I went searching.

Now most probably think of Ombudsman’s rulings being final, unchallengeable and binding on the industry they Ombudsman for whilst the complainant can still progress further and into the legal system should they be unsatisfied – but the Independent Football Ombudsman was established by the three football authorities, namely the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League (with agreement from Government) and although it acts as a final stage for complaints that haven’t been satisfactorily resolved by clubs themselves, it’s not actually binding on its creators.

So in this case the Premier League can take four fingers and claim they are unable to take forward recommendations because all the Ombudsman can do is turn into Mrs Doyle of Father Ted fame and suggest they ‘go on, go on and go on’ in case they might change their minds.

Whilst not being binding curiously there is no right of appeal – but maybe I’ll leave that one for another day as presumably in this case you can appeal by showing total ignorance to their ruling which is what the Premier League have done.

So to the specifics and for anybody who wishes to read the full findings by the IFO you can do so by clicking here.

In short, three fans complained about the rescheduling of the Arsenal v Leicester game which moved from February 13 to February 14 because it incurred them financial loss on bookings made for attendance on the original day.

This complaint is different from most complaints on this subject – invariably found in favour of the Premier League and Football League owing to the known caveats about matches not being set in stone and capable of being changed.

However in this instance the game was moved for television coverage for no other reason than the television company – Sky in this case – decided to screen an extra match on the Sunday anticipating that with the season Leicester were having it would be a big TV draw.

No element of natural television slots being filled, or European or domestic Cup enforced – purely and simply a later decision by the television company to screen a game after they had already announced the screened games for that weekend.

Those three fans objected to suffering a loss over that given travel costs because with the screenings already announced two of the three presumed it was safe the game wouldn’t move – rightly, you would wouldn’t you.

If they’d have brought tickets and travel ahead of that weekend’s games being announced, sadly (whether right or wrong) you accept that risk in the modern game, but booking afterwards, well they asked when was it safe if not from a legal perspective at least a moral one.

Complainant A was not left out of pocket ultimately as Virgin Trains refunded the travel costs themselves as a gesture but the complaint continued to see if a deadline could be agreed relating to liability for costs for all fans in the future.

Complainant B incurred additional costs as a friend from Hawaii travelled specifically to watch the game prior to heading to Paris and if the fixture move had been known the friend would’ve gone direct to Paris instead.

The Premier League response was as per their press release in reality.

‘The League recognises that any disruption should be minimised and generally aspires to give fans a minimum of six weeks` notice of any alterations arising from the broadcast selection process; it is only on rare occasions where that aspiration is not met…The selection of four matches for the weekend 13/14 February was announced on 17 December. When the Arsenal v Leicester match was identified for broadcast by Sky Sports, with all other broadcast slots filled, and in order to ensure that the match could remain on the same weekend, it was rescheduled for 12 noon on the Sunday. The information was confirmed with both clubs and announced publically on 21 January, only 23 days before the match.’

It goes on to say that with a sell out of tickets the screening enabled more fans to watch the game and viewing figures were 34% higher – basically justifying the inconvenience to fans by their decision to screen for broadcasting financial benefits.

‘The League`s view was that the circumstances which resulted in the rescheduling of the Arsenal match were exceptional and highly unlikely to recur.’

Which is completely irrelevant and gobbledegook for ‘let us keep our money’ and the clubs concerned here equally share blame as the Premier League as a body would’ve been responding on their behalf also – so don’t forget that.

It also flies in the face of the very ‘games can change for good reasons’ defence they relied upon by presenting such arbitrary and avoidable changes as football’s equivalent of ‘caveat emptor’.

In short buyer beware not our problem.

Whether it happens again in the future matters not one jot, it happened, it was not standard practice which fans tend to accept so should’ve been treated as an aberration, a one off and the Premier League and both clubs should’ve taken the moral decision to break with habit and compensate because of the ‘exceptional’ nature of the late change and the false impression it created on fans.

Especially as the change to screen the game in the first place could’ve been rejected ultimately.

The self justification continued with reference to fans buying ‘flexible’ travel or accommodation (more expensive normally) or even taking on specific insurance to cover all outcomes because the clubs have obviously refunded ticket prices and any club led official travel arrangements for the game already.

‘The League said that they had every sympathy with supporters who had been inconvenienced by the rescheduling. However, given that matches have the potential to alter throughout the season, the position of the Premier League and their clubs is that they are unable to consider refund requests for travel or accommodation bookings made through third parties, as such were outside their control. The League referred to the inflexible ticketing arrangements of rail companies which exacerbated the problem.’

Fans would point to the scheduling of games and why in today’s world four to six weeks prior to a match cannot be set in stone for changes and some kind of deadline being introduced that can be relied upon, or I supposed we could blame the Premier League for being inflexible as well but I doubt they’ve thought of that?

People might think that this is a little rant and some might disagree with me, others might agree and fail to see the sense in the Premier League’s standpoint – but interestingly the IFO were ahead of me.

They pointed out in their response that four games had already been scheduled for the telebox on that weekend and the arbitrary decision to shoehorn Arsenal v Leicester in was completely a ‘choice’ and a choice that caused two of the other games to suffer a further kick off change and no doubt maybe some extra inconvenience for those fans.

The IFO responded.

‘In discussions with the Deputy IFO, League officials said that Sky had
realised their misjudgement about the importance of the match and had asked
to screen it. Although the League and either club could have refused, they had decided that it would be of benefit to a vastly larger number of fans interested in it, than those likely to be inconvenienced by the change.’

So they accepted unanticipated inconvenience.

‘All League clubs sign up to the broadcast deal and can refuse to change a fixture, but obviously have a financial interest in agreeing.’

Interesting admission as the general attitude is clubs have no choice when it comes to game selections. Worth remembering that.

They go on to explain that both clubs offered refunds for tickets and around 200 refunds were processed, so granted not a huge amount and with several hundred thousand pounds changing hands for games being screened live, 200 refunds is barely worth £10,000 assuming an average price of £40.

It was also pointed out with the other two Sunday based games moving to accommodate, no complaints were received about their kick off times changing again (a 35 minute change for one, a 15 minute change for the other).

‘Although the officials sympathised with the complainants and accepted that they had suffered a financial loss, they stood by the line taken in their response at paragraphs 6 and 7 above. Their view was that ‘caveat emptor’ is relevant and that, in any event, any scheme of reimbursement would be difficult to administer.’

Now I’m no consumer sales whiz but I’m pretty sure if given enough time and Premier League resources I could come up with a procedure for a reimbursement scheme that was easy to administer in this particular case.

Did you book tickets/travel prior to initial announcement of changes?
Did you book tickets/travel after the initial announcement of changes was made?
Can you prove additional loss after the initial television selections were made where it becomes accepted fixtures won’t arbitrarily change at a whim?

I’m sure in the time it took some of you to read that, you’ve already got a far better procedure in your head.

‘The League reported that in the light of this IFO investigation they had ‘set in train significant changes to our procedures for agreeing kick-off times with the broadcasters and communicating the relevant information to fans’.’

And that presumably led to this season’s announcement windows for television selections which whilst welcomed, doesn’t solve this problem of late changes after selections have already been made.

The IFO acknowledged in its response that rescheduling always features highly in the complaints they receive but in many cases they accepted it was unavoidable and in other cases where a guaranteed ‘safe date’ couldn’t or wouldn’t be given for changes – for example where league fixtures would be subject to change owing to domestic cup games still to be played – that fans were already suitably informed in those instances.

So the IFO is certainly not against its creators on thus subject…so when they recommend their creators should act, doesn’t it make it a mockery to ignore them?

‘The IFO has sympathy with all fans who face the dilemma of whether to book travel and accommodation in advance in order to get the cheapest deals or secure their arrangements, against the possibility that a match may be postponed or rescheduled. Match rescheduling is a familiar enough event. The risks of making travel arrangements at an early stage should be well known – but what is a reasonable time frame?’

The IFO went on to point out that many fans would understandably assume the five/six week’s target for announcements is ‘an absolute’ where unfortunately it is simply an aim, and nothing in the rules or agreements means a television company can’t make it’s weekend selections and then not re-alter them a fortnight later.

‘Many supporters seem to think that the six weeks target is an absolute, rather than an aim. More informed supporters probably believe that the most economical way to make plans and still avoid the loss of travel/accommodation costs is to make arrangements only after TV fixtures have been announced. That may not enable them to get the cheapest deals, but generally avoids having to pay top prices required for fully flexible arrangement.’

And that’s fair enough and the majority of fans no doubt operate on that basis so it’s good to see it understood – so to the case in hand.

‘In this case the rearranged date was announced only just over three weeks before the match. In the case of the complainants, they made their arrangements only after they understandably believed that the weekend matches for TV had been finalised – three for Sky and one for BT. It is unusual for three matches to be shown on a Sunday and not possible, without additional rescheduling, where matches are already allocated to the 1.30 and 4pm slots. Given that all the available TV slots, two on the Saturday and a further two on the Sunday, appeared to have been filled, the IFO can well understand why the complainants felt safe to make their travel arrangements.’

They went on to say that even such sensible thinking in terms of waiting until the television selections had been made that the ‘scenario can backfire’ because again six weeks is an ‘aspiration’ not a promise and in fact provides no guarantee.

‘Although the underlying reason for the change lay with Sky, the League, or indeed either of the respective clubs, could have refused their request. Instead, the League decided that screening such a potentially key match was for the good of a great number of fans, even though in doing so they
knew it would inconvenience or disadvantage some, and the clubs agreed to the change.’

Good for a greater number of fans and of course the ‘facility fee’ paid to clubs for live games.

And really it shouldn’t be considered ‘caveat emptor’ in this particular circumstance as all caveats about fixtures aside.

‘The IFO considers that in the circumstances described above, the complainants had a legitimate expectation that the match would take place as scheduled. As a consequence, they suffered a quantifiable financial loss, albeit in the case of the father and daughter, they managed to recover their loss through the generosity of Virgin trains. The IFO recommended to the League that they make good by ex gratia means complainant B`s loss of £140, subject to the production of suitable evidence of actual expenditure.’

Adding.

‘The IFO is also sympathetic to the arguments put forward by the complainants, other supporters and the Football Supporters` Federation, that the rather vague approach to rescheduling needs to be tightened and that a balance needs to be struck to ensure that supporters who invest time, commitment and a great deal of money in attending games are treated fairly. The IFO recognises that the League have binding contractual agreements and that, exceptionally, there can be circumstances which render rescheduling as unavoidable, necessary or desirable, for example because of postponements, cup replays, European commitments or police advice. However, the IFO can see a case for not permitting rescheduling simply for TV purposes after the six weeks` point. The IFO therefore recommended to the League that where, other than for matches on the final day of the season, a match is chosen for broadcasting with less than six weeks’ notice of any rescheduling, for no reason other than the desire of a television company to screen it, the League should arrange reimbursement of reasonable evidenced out of pocket expenses for travel and accommodation costs.’

What a sensible decision and one that wouldn’t because of its wording have read across to other situations, you could even say it was ‘back of the net’ but unfortunately the Premier League in their wisdom have declared it ‘offside’ for all the reasons listed above.

That didn’t wash either with the IFO who responded to the league’s ‘it would be too difficult a process for refunds, it would mean fans might assume they should be compensated’…well read it for yourself because I might be prone to reading into what they said as opposed to what they actually claimed here because the whole thing is a farce.

‘In considering the matter the League were concerned that such a situation had the capacity to conflict with long established terms and conditions, which are well understood by clubs and used in communications with their fans. The League’s view was that the circumstances which resulted in the rescheduling of the Arsenal match were exceptional and highly unlikely to recur. Although the League accepted that the IFO`s proposition was worded in order to seek to restrict the application to those very narrow circumstances, they and their clubs have consistently communicated to supporters that matches can move for a myriad of reasons. The League said that to grant an individual refund – or
establish a formal refund process which singles out one set of circumstances outside of the established precedent – would dilute the message that fans, when booking travel and accommodation, should always consider the possibility of a fixture moving. The League said that they seek to achieve as much fixture stability as possible, but there are circumstances where six weeks` notice is
impossible to adhere to, for example as in this case where the season reaches
its conclusion in an unexpected way. The introduction of the concept of a time limit would, in the League`s view, create an expectation that liability could occur once that limit has been passed. In a highly congested football calendar and in a world where complete predictability is impossible to achieve, that is an expectation which on occasions would not be met.’

On those occasions where the expectation would not be met is exactly what the word ‘compensation’ was invented for but apparently in football that’s not supposed to apply as it does in the rest of the real world – or as we call life.

And we saw from the figures above, around 200 refunds barely caused a five figure dent in the seven figure sum clubs receive for televised games so worse case £100,000 (less than a seventh) of a television fee to fully (with change) refund fans inconvenienced in general – unless their travel took them round the world twice, via Mars and included a two night stay in a Trump Hotel – would not be out of the question and that wasn’t even the recommendation.

What a pathetic response for self justification from a league that has secured multi million pound television deals and an industry that spent over a billion pounds in the transfer market – because again without fans there would be no TV deal, there would be no sponsorship and there certainly wouldn’t be a gravy train to tap into.

With the league accepting the IFO recommendations as they pertained to making terms and conditions of ticket sales even clearer, the IFO continued in light of this year’s target date for announcing television screening changes as early as possible.

‘The IFO welcomes that development but notes that from the 25 January selection date to the end of the season, there is the potential for less than six weeks’ notice of selections and, of course, there is still the caveat that all games are subject to change. The IFO fully accepts that, for a variety of reasons, such as those described in paragraph 13, fixtures need to be rescheduled with less than six weeks’ notice. What the IFO takes issue with is where a match is changed at short notice purely at the belated wish of a television company.’

Having picked out a few inconsistencies in approach in my humble opinion above, the IFO had their own issues with the response given.

‘The League have given their reasons for not agreeing the IFO’s recommendation. In doing so they have highlighted both that the IFO recommendation was worded so as to restrict the compensation requirement to a narrow set of circumstances, and that such circumstances were exceptional and highly unlikely to recur. Why then should there be opposition to the IFO’s proposition, which would be a safeguard for those affected should there be a repeat case?

Good question I thought.

‘Implementation of the recommendation would give supporters considering whether to make early arrangements in order to cut costs some assurance that once the six weeks’ stage has been reached, rescheduling could take place only for the sort of reasons which are unavoidable. It would then be for individuals to weigh up the potential for rescheduling without worrying about a late change purely for television purposes. While welcoming the communications options outlined by the League in paragraph 15, the IFO nevertheless recommended that where a league match is chosen for broadcasting with less than six weeks’ notice of rescheduling for no other reason than television purposes, the League should arrange for those supporters affected reimbursement of reasonable evidenced and non-refundable out of pocket expenses for travel and accommodation costs.’

The IFO went on to say that considering contractual arrangements and a desire for the most interesting games to be screened come the end of the season, in their opinion May based games could be exempt from their recommendation to provide balance with late title race and relegation permutations but that would still mean more piece of mind for fans August through April.

The IFO were also asked to clarify in its recommendation ‘reasonable expenses’ and their response shows its not rocket science.

‘Judgement has to be made on the individual merits of the case. So for example, hotel accommodation as a discretionary purchase to permit the supporter to stay in the location would be disallowed, but hotel accommodation arranged because it was not reasonable to return home say after a night match might be accepted. The key criteria are that the costs incurred were reasonable in the light of the logistics of the getting to the fixture and they were proven to be nonrefundable.’

And as for the ‘difficult to administer’ defence for a refund scheme.

‘If indeed the League are right in saying that the narrow set of exceptional circumstances surrounding the IFO recommendation is unlikely to recur, then the only impact of the recommendation for the League and their clubs will be a requirement for it to be incorporated in the relevant terms and conditions and for the communications options to make abundantly clear that the six weeks` limit applies only to matches rescheduled purely for television purposes, excluding matches in May. However, for supporters it will safeguard any out of pocket expenditure on travel and accommodation should such a situation recur.’

They concluded.

‘Although the IFO is aware of the reservations expressed by the League it believes its findings on the individual case are soundly based on the special individual circumstances and its broader recommendations reflect concern widely expressed by supporters generally. The IFO therefore stands by the recommendations.’

The Premier League doesn’t stand by those recommendations though as they suitable expressed.

Oh for concepts and expectations of liability in an industry whose mantra is ‘fair play’ – clearly that concept eludes them.

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