Preparing for a COVID-19 secure re-start with National League North club AFC Telford

by | Sep 23, 2020

When AFC Telford partnered with TicketCo in the 2019 close season, the English non-league club did what many of its rival teams had not yet embarked on by introducing a digital pathway to accommodate the majority of its matchday sales.

At first the partnership was questioned by some supporters who were used to traditional methods, such as cash on the turnstile and printed tickets. But AFC Telford’s forward-thinking decision is now paying dividends for the club commercially. TicketCo technology has transformed the way AFC Telford operates.

Advanced sales and online purchases were previously impossible, which meant unnecessary queues formed outside the ground in the minutes leading up to kick-off and the club did not have a database to enable it to engage with its fans regularly.

Times have changed since AFC Telford first used TicketCo. So, we caught up with the club’s Football Operations Manager Luke Shelley to learn more about how the club is preparing to welcome supporters back in a COVID-19 secure way when clubs are allowed to do so.

Extensive measures

This summer AFC Telford officials had to produce three documents for the FA and National League outlining how it would manage the season in a COID-19 safe way. The documents detailed how the club planned for players to return to training with no contact, with contact, and the organisation of matches.

In addition, thousands of pounds had to be spent on making the 6,300 capacity New Bucks Head stadium in Shropshire COVID-19 safe.

“We’ve had to measure every seat in the stadium and ensure the distance between seats that can be used is at least one metre,” explained Mr Shelley. “Furthermore, no one is able to sit directly in front or behind another supporter. Seats have been marked with red or green tape to make it clear which viewing spots can be used.”

But the precautionary measures do not stop there. Mr Shelley added: “All of the ground’s concourses have been measured to ensure the flow of supporters meets guidelines. Toilets have been measured and we have marked off cubicles, urinals and wash spaces to ensure social distancing requirements can be met.

“We have walkways and one-way systems in place with barriers and floor markings to guide spectators to pitch side in a safe and secure way. There are hand sanitiser points at several places around the stadium. A lot of work has gone in to ensure we’re fit for purpose.”

The COVID-19 cost

National League North and South clubs in the UK were relieved in the summer when it was confirmed that step two clubs could access £15,000 of funding from the Football Stadium Improvement Fund to make venues COVID-19 secure.

“That money has been hugely important to us,” said Mr Shelley. “We’ve had to adapt the changing and showering facilities for players to ensure only three players use the showers at once.

“The money has helped to ensure we are fit for purpose and are well stocked on PPE for physios, stewards and other members of staff. Balls, bibs, corner flags and more are all sanitised in-between each training session and game, it’s a long process that has been worthwhile to ensure that player safety is a priority.”

Bringing fans back

AFC Telford had everything in place to welcome a reduced number of supporters to its pre-season friendly against Notts County at the weekend, as part of a national test pilot.

Unfortunately, on the evening before kick-off, the club made the decision to abandon plans to open their gates to the public following meetings with the Shropshire Safety Advisory Group and Telford and Wrekin Council.

The club were hopeful that fans will be able to attend this weekend’s home friendly against Macclesfield Town. But Government placed plans to allow clubs to host up to 1,000 supporters at matches in October on hold. It has left clubs in limbo – but all the preparation work completed in the close season when clubs are allowed to welcome crowds they will be ready operationally.

Smooth ticketing

The stress of welcoming a crowd to New Bucks Head with potentially only hours’ notice has thankfully been eliminated for both the club and supporters.

TicketCo’s pioneering technology allows fans to purchase tickets on their mobile with the push of a button. A QR code is sent directly to a supporter’s mobile phone once a ticket has been purchased and is then scanned at turnstiles by stewards.

Mr Shelley said the benefits to TicketCo’s versatile mobile app are endless. He added: “Fans can turn up to the ground at 2.59pm without a ticket and purchase one immediately on their phone. In that example, there would be no queuing through a ticket office, no social contact with other people, no exchange of cash. It is everything we could ask for when organising a COVID-19 secure event.”

Track and trace

The TicketCo digital payment and ticketing platform also helps clubs maintain a robust track and trace solution.

“TicketCo’s app supports a thorough track and trace system,” said Mr Shelley. “That means should a supporter test positive in the days following a matchday, we will have all the information we need to reduce the spread of the virus by contacting fans that may be at risk. From a fan’s perspective, it’s great to know that you can be in a position where you purchase a ticket once you know for sure the event is going ahead.”

Ticketing’s new normal

Minimising touchpoints has now become a priority across all sectors, not just the sports event industry. For Mr Shelley, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the inevitable shift from supporters’ purchasing printed tickets to digital.

He said: “We were one of the first clubs at our level to adopt an online ticketing platform. I believe we will now see more clubs lead by our example and use online ticketing as a way of maximising sales through not only matchday tickets but also food, drink and programme sales.

“I see online ticketing as the future. It is not only in the football industry where we have seen an uptick in the number of clubs using online tools to generate income, but also in cinemas, bars and restaurants. It is however still important that we provide that physical ticket option to a small minority of our supporters that do not use mobile technology.”

Maximising off-field revenue

Fans’ feedback following the introduction of TicketCo to AFC Telford has been positive, reports Mr Shelley.

The club even generated essential income during the height of lockdown by hosting a virtual game on the internet.

Mr Shelley explained: “It was a Telford XI vs a Club Legends XI. The evening offered supporters the chance to donate some money to keep the football club ticking while lockdown was enforced.

“TicketCo were excellent in providing us with a platform to sell tickets for the virtual game and fans received the event really well. We’ve been working with TicketCo for more than a year now and we are thrilled with the progress the club has made in that period.”

COVID-19 safe matchdays

And for when fans are finally allowed back in to watch AFC Telford take to the field, Mr Shelley had some important advice.

“Arrive as early as possible,” he said. “We’ll be opening turnstiles half-an-hour earlier than usual at 1pm for a 3pm kick-off. Purchase your tickets in advance via the TicketCo app to help minimise touchpoints on the day.

“We’ll be asking supporters to follow our guidelines and respect the one-way systems that are in place at the ground. Use hand sanitiser regularly and if you have any symptoms please do not travel for your own sake and the safety of others around you.”