A report on Thursday's Open Forum that took place in the Tollers 1897 Suite at Sixfields.
Chairman Kelvin Thomas, Chief Executive James Whiting and supporters representative Tom Cliffe attended to answer questions from supporters.
Q: There seems to be increasing pressure from the Premier League to remove the Saturday 3pm blackout. How do we think that will play out?
KT: It is actually the Premier League that wants to keep the Article 48 blackout. I think it will stay through this next rights cycle which will be at least until 2028. I think eventually every game will be streamed but not just yet.
JW: I think streaming now is better than 5 years ago. Our experience is that streaming numbers are strong and our attendances are increasing too so we don’t necessarily agree with the evidence we have that one detracts from the other, but we believe the Saturday 3pm blackout will stay in place for a few years yet.
Q: When we travel away, the fan experience is very good. Are we missing an income stream with Carr’s Bar being too small and not being able to offer drinks to away fans. Are there any plans to expand things there?
KT: There are a few things to consider in there, especially when talking about away fans. We were talking about this recently and there seems to be a big focus on the away fans experience at Sixfields at the moment which actually says the home fans experience is pretty good, and that is backed up by the Family Excellence Awards ratings where we came 15th out of 72. There are some away experiences not as good as we offer and there are some better. I don’t think, and our experiences tell us this, that there are as many away fans as people believe want to drink at an away stadium, they tend to stop nearby. Maybe you average one or two drinks per adult away fan every two weeks and that is a very difficult business model to build based upon those figures. This year we would sell more of course, as crowds are bigger, but there are certain games where the police will limit what you can sell or whether you can even sell at all, and then you have invested all this money for no return on your busiest days. This would take quite a big investment from the club and would you get a return on that? There are a lot of uncertainties in that and as a club that has to spend millions of pounds in the next 12 months to both buy the land and finish the stand, is this the right time to spend more on a case that is not certain with no guaranteed return on investment? Is it a sensible, sustainable decision? We are always considering what we can do to improve the matchday experience but for a club we have to take prudent decisions and at the moment, given all the moving parts above, we don’t think it is the right thing at this moment in time. There are improvements to be made but we must not and cannot over stretch. The examples of certain other clubs at the moment shows what can happen if you do. When I walk down the steps at Sixfields on a matchday this place is buzzing. I just don’t recognise the experience of those who say it is a poor matchday experience, it is lively, vibrant and busy and there is a lovely atmosphere around the stadium every home game. Expanding is part of a conversation but it has to be right for the club and we won’t take risks with the club.
JW: Our secondary spend is something we look closely at. It is increasing and it is actually high for the football industry. We would like a bigger bar for home and away fans but the business case has to be right for the club. We will continue to talk about improving things where we can but as Kelvin said, it must be right for the club.
Q: As a fan I would prefer any money invested not to go into a bar but for facilities for younger fans, such as the new community pitch.
KT: That shows the problem the club has. Different people have different expectations of their club and their matchday. Some fans want a better bar, some want other things and it is very difficult for the club to be able to cater for all while being competitive on the pitch and being sensible and prudent. We try and make the most sensible decisions we can for the benefit of all.
Q: Is there a realisation amongst football clubs that costs are really rising for away fans? I have tickets for Exeter and Shrewsbury coming up and the ticket prices plus bus fares is £96 across those two games, that is just to get there. We have five away games in four and a half weeks and that is crazy.
JW: We have unbelievable support and it is not lost on us how much that costs, The other side of that is that club costs have gone up hugely too, in terms of policing, stewarding, staffing so it is very difficult for everyone. We try and limit things but some costs do have to be passed on, and this year our season tickets went up for the first time in more than a decade.
KT: It is not really for us to defend the pricing of another club but this is something really to raise with fan groups to see if something that can be done.
TC: When the pricing was being discussed about home tickets the facts are there to show much stewarding and medical costs have increased and how much the club have absorbed. The first thought we have is how will any price increase impact supporters and that is our priority and our main consideration. As a fan elected director I attend regular meetings with the FSA and these things are discussed by many clubs. It is crucial for fans to keep raising this point across the game. We have fans travelling a long way for home games too and costs are an issue that are at the forefront of the planning here.
Q: It is great to see NTFC Women play their games at Fernie Fields and Sixfields. Is there more the club can do to keep the side moving forward and competing at the highest level.
JW: The Community Trust oversee the side at the moment but there have been a lot of discussions about the way forward. The Women’s game is moving forward so fast, maybe faster than its infrastructure and there are conversations to be had. We see the Community Trust and the club as one anyway and we will keep doing all we can and this year the move to Fernie Fields has been a big step forward. We’ll keep that discussion going, there is a link up with the University and the Elite Talent Centre and that helps, as does our female player pathway. We want the women’s team to play at the highest level possible without forgetting the need to be sustainable.
Q: On to the East Stand. We heard the news about Buckingham recently. Have you had any discussions with any other builders?
KT: The simple answer is yes. We are discussing things with other builders. We are also meeting with the Council again soon, documents are going back and forth between lawyers and in the meantime we are meeting with builders and we are in a good place. We are not ready to make any announcement yet but we will be soon. The most important thing is to first ensure the land is under club ownership and then we can move forward. The lawyers are working under instruction to get things completed as soon as possible.
JW: We were never committed to Buckingham and we never had a contract with them. We feel for them and their staff but their issues in no way impact upon the completion of the East Stand.
KW: Buckingham were one of the best stadium builders in the country so obviously we were going to talk to them as that was sensible but we never had any contractual arrangement as we couldn’t sign a contract until the legal work was completed given the delays forced upon the club.
Q: How do you see the start to the season. Do you take any notice of the keyboard warriors?
KT: People will say what they say, that’s up to them. I think the way we have played has been good but we want to convert some of that good play in to goals and points. I spoke to the Stevenage Chairman today and he said we should have beaten them on the first day, no question, and they are towards the top. As a group we are competitive, we are having a go, it is a young group and we are only seven or eight games in. We will have our ups and downs and you will have tough days in League One. We will lose more this season than last, that’s the reality of being in League One but no one will panic. We have learnt as an ownership about looking more at the long term picture and we are pleased with our progress.
Q: Jon Brady deserves a lot of credit. We have gone up, we know we are a bottom half budget but we are trying to play the right way and that is a big pat on the back for the manager.
KT: I agree. I think we have been competitive or even on top in most games, maybe Port Vale aside. We have full confidence in Jon and the staff and you can tell the fanbase is content with things at the moment and as a club I feel we are in a decent place on and off the pitch. There are always some who want us to spend more money but we have to be sensible and keep the club as sustainable as possible.
Q: Congratulations to Tom Cliffe on his midnight walk around London last week. How have you found the last two years being the supporters representative?
TC: The walk meant a lot with many Cobblers fans struggling with cancer and it was my bit to try and help them in some small way. As for the role, for me, just to be involved is huge. I don’t see myself as a director, I am just Tom, a Cobblers fan. An obvious highlight was promotion but it is really about seeing the next generation of fans come here and have a great time. Over the last 2 years we have gone up a level, crowds are up, the women’s team have progressed and the club has progressed. Did I do all that myself? Of course not but we did it together and I am proud of that. I don’t get involved on social media, I don’t act unprofessionally but within the club we talk, we message daily and we deal with issues or questions to help fans quietly, one on one and that’s what I am proud of. We are a club, a family and there are some fantastic characters here not just on the field but off the field too, people who don’t always get the credit they deserve. It has been a massive learning curve, it has been hugely enjoyable and I am very proud to have carried this role. I have asked lots of questions and got lots of answers. Not everyone likes those answers but we have a duty to make this club sustainable, to support the community and to not put the club at risk. We are a club, we are a collective. We listen, we look out for each other and we help each other.
KT: The role has been a big success for the club. To have Tom here to sound points to is great. I think we are very open and we communicate with fans but there are still some people who won’t contact me for some reason but they do contact Tom and he puts those questions in the group and Tom gets the answers. Tom is fantastic because he is able to represent so many different groups, so many different backgrounds with his communication skills and his approachable manner. A lot of clubs have complimented us on this role and Tom deserves a lot of credit. We believe he is everything a representative of the fans should be.
TC: My feedback with other representatives at other clubs is so different. Many of them can’t believe the access we have and the information we ask and get. We are envy of a lot of clubs. We don’t get everything right but we are always striving to improve. I’m representing both the club and each and every supporter and I don’t think it is great to get involved in emotional posts or discussions on social media. I am a big fan of talking, of meeting, of face to face conversations. I don’t think many clubs have the instant access to the CEO and Chairman that we do.
Comment from floor: Thank you Tom, please don’t think it is a thankless task, we all appreciate what you do.
Q: Because of the new community pitch position, does this mean there are no plans to expand the North Stand?
KT: Not at all. There have been comments the pitch is in the wrong place but let’s be honest, there is plenty of room. The pitch was free as our prize but we paid for the foundatuions and the surrounds and it is a big cost for the club and we think about things carefully and clearly. Anyone who has criticises the location has never been around there behind the stand on a matchday. That is where the children play on a matchday. That is where things happen. It is a wonderful addition to the club and it is a very valuable land we have given up there to improve their experience. The depth of the West Stand would fit in between the front of the North Stand and where the pitch is. That is the expansion you would do and there is room. What was the alternative? Do we put the pitch on land we don’t own yet and say to the community we will delay this pitch until the leases are signed or until we have decided if we want to extend the North Stand in a few years time? That is not in the best interests of the community. We want this pitch open as soon as possible. Criticism of this pitch is non sensical and it baffles me that anyone can possibly see this fantastic pitch as a negative in any way. The whole reason the pitch exists was because we won a European award and this is a fantastic tribute to this football club and what we do.
Q: Kelvin, James and Tom, you represent this club fantastically well and I want to say thank you so much for what you do and what you will continue to do.
KT: Thank you but it is not just us, it is staff and fans together. It is not about land or the East Stand, it is about community. Those East Stand issues are important and we are solving them and moving forward but this club is about joint experiences for the community, all the community. The club currently loses money, we wish we didn’t but that’s the reality of football and as owners we are comfortable funding losses at that level. Some clubs over extend, some clubs have fans who want them to sign more and more players until they over-stretch and you only have to see examples of clubs who have done that. It is not a lack of ambition, we have to find a balance as owners and custodians to look after the club for current and future generations. We won’t take risks with the club. We are ambitious but we have to be sensible and we have to find that balance. We make no apologies for working to a budget and to finding that balance. Until the financial flow in football is fixed we will never be truly sustainable but we will try and keep the losses to levels that as owners we can manage while also using the land as an asset for the football club.
Thank you to all who attended.