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Köln’s Emirates invasion offers lessons for ticketing and crowd control

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The lesson isn’t “BAN THEM”. It’s a process.

Arsenal FC v 1. FC Koeln - UEFA Europa League Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

One of the bedrock principles of European soccer, particularly in England, is that fans who travel to away games will be seated together, in their own section(s), usually separated by police or some other physical barrier. This isn’t done for no reason; it’s because of a long history of crowd trouble, fights, and other violence done in the name of sports since the 1970’s.

So, ever since fan segregation started the 1980’s, and was codified into rule in the 90’s. fans of visiting teams were kept from entering stadia via the same gates as the home fans, kept from leaving them at the same time, and kept separate while in the stadium by, at a minimum, a line of guards/stewards. As the game got more moneyed in the 1990’s, and as stadia became all-seater, this worked pretty well; the usual instigators of violence were by and large priced out of the game, and reports of crowd trouble have dwindled to the point where yesterday’s scenes, particularly at clubs the size of Arsenal, were quite the surprise.

There was no violence, which was good news, but thousands upon thousands of drunken fans pouring into a stadium and taking over entire sections that are normally home supporter seats was a potential recipe for disaster.

Before I go any further, I do want to say this: Arsenal, the business, did everything they could yesterday, and did it as well as possible. They had no way of knowing how many Köln fans would be coming - they’re not an immigration agency, they don’t track travel. It’s fairly obvious that Arsenal wouldn’t know to expect the nearly 20,000 extra fans that reportedly descended on London. Once it was clear that the problem was of that scale, Arsenal did a very reasonable thing - they ceased allowing access to the stadium until they could get a sense for what they should do.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I have a hunch that UEFA basically told them “find a way to play this game, because money”. That put the onus on Arsenal to act quickly to find a resolution. Arsenal no doubt used the hour’s delay to put together something resembling an emergency plan to accommodate all the out of town fans who had purchased tickets and who, by this time, had started to enter the stadium and sit either in their purchased seats - or, in a lot of cases, wherever the heck they wanted to sit.

Overall, Arsenal in my opinion did the best they could with a tough situation - nobody got hurt, there were no widespread fights or violence, and the atmosphere at the Emirates, by all accounts, was the best it has been in a long time. The Köln fans came for, as the English say, a bit of a sing-song, and the Arsenal fans in attendance weren’t going to sit there quietly and just let them take over, so they sang too. All in all, what could have been a really ugly night crowd-wise turned out pretty well.

So the question then becomes: what happened? It has become clear in the aftermath that the secondary market is mostly the mechanism by which so many Köln fans were able to get tickets in the non-Köln section. They were officially allotted about 3000 seats, which is approximately 5% of the capacity of the Emirates. This is the minimum allotment required by UEFA for away fans, and it’s not unusual that clubs only allot that minimum.

Köln, however, was making their first appearance in European competition, and the excitement among the German fans has been building ever since the draw was made. So, while Arsenal can’t necessarily be faulted for not expecting 20,000 people, they can probably be faulted a bit for not expecting some sort of expanded away fan presence.

According to the Guardian today, “thousands” of visiting supporters bought tickets for this match from ticket resellers, including craigslist, viagogo, and Ticketbis (Stubhub). A whole lot more fans bought tickets from Arsenal itself, by becoming Red members. So clearly, there’s a problem with ticket resellers, right? They should all be banned? Flogged in the public square? Otherwise sanctioned?

Well...no? I mean, there will always be ticket resellers. I don’t like them, but they’re a fact of life in sports these days. They do pose a sort of problem, because there are literally no limits on what they do or how they do it, but their existence in and of itself isn’t really a thing that will change any time soon.

The one thing I would do, as far as online ticket resellers, is to build technology that would limit to a trivially small number the number of tickets they can actually buy up front, but even that is a wild goose chase, because they always seem to be one step ahead of any technical limitations imposed by the original sellers of tickets.

We see this in concerts and sports, or really any event that has bulk ticketing - you go online at the time of original sale, get shut out of buying from the venue/artist/team, and instantly get shunted over to StubHub where you can buy the same ticket, but for more money.

The second side of the problem is an obvious one - not a lot of Arsenal fans apparently wanted to go to this game, so the tickets were there to be had. Were the game already sold out, there’d be some resale from people who couldn’t make it or wanted to make a profit, but not nearly on the scale that we saw yesterday. That, however, is not a currently solvable problem. Arsenal are not a hot ticket right now, and I assume a lot of people just thought “Europa League? Not gonna bother” and dumped their tickets.

I can’t blame anyone for that, either - there is no obligation to go to a game you don’t want to go to. But when thousands of people do that, it creates a vacuum, and what does nature abhor? Yup. The announced attendance was just a shade over 59,000, of which it was estimated that 10-14,000 were away supporters. Leave them out, and the crowd was about 44,000, which is 16K short of capacity. So the vacuum needed to be filled, and so it was. By traveling support.

I don’t say any of this to handwave away the challenge of segregation of fans, ticket sales, and the acceptance of responsibility. There’s a cliche that “it takes a whole lot of failures to cause a plane crash”, and that’s kinda what happened yesterday. There’s no one thing we can point at and say “X HAPPENED SO TROUBLE, FIX X AND IT’S SOLVED”. I mean, not every away contingent is going to be this big and boisterous, so if the club puts in place things to deal with 20,000 unexpected away supporters and 500 show up, is that useful?

Increasing away allocations would help. Being more stringent with entry protocols might help. The impossible dream of shutting down scalpers would help, but that won’t happen. The point is, what happened yesterday may happen again, but hopefully enough was learned from yesterday that going forward, the team is better braced for any eventuality.

Yesterday was a confluence of events that all swirled together to create something that could have been awful, but thanks to Arsenal doing work we’ll probably never know the details of, turned out to be nothing really significant.