Matthew Silvester is the Head of Ticketing, Memberships and Hospitality at Southampton Football Club, a role which he started in March 2020, having been at the club since the latter part of 2018. In this interview, Matthew talks to Sascha about his experiences with stadium moves at both Arsenal and West Ham, implementing a new ticketing system with Southampton during the pandemic; his excitement at getting to grips with his role post-lockdown, and why listening to supporters is one of the key factors of fulfilling a ticket sales role successfully.
Growing up I was football mad, as a lot of people are, and so I knew I wanted to get into the industry somehow. I grew up in the Isle of Wight and went to university in Coventry to study Business Management; it was a sandwich course with a third-year placement. During the second year, I started looking into what I was going to do for my placement and I said to my tutor, “I want to do something with sport and business.” He laughed at me and said, “So does everybody else on this course so your chances are limited.” With that, he gave me a PDF with information about placements at Cadbury and Jaguar and said, “You should apply for these.” I thought, ‘I’m not going to take that!’ So in my second year, I wrote to pretty much every single football club and sporting organisation I could think of. This was back in 2005 when the internet wasn’t what it is now so I opted for the letter approach!
I remember it was around November time that I sent off all of the letters and I think I got back 4 responses with a ‘no’ and everybody else didn’t get back to me at all. June quickly came around. I had finished my exams for the year and suddenly I thought, ‘Oh, I haven’t got a placement year.’ I assumed I would have to turn my course into a 3-year course and go straight into my final year but then I got a letter from Arsenal. They said they were interested in talking to me, that they were working on the Emirates Stadium Project and there may be a role available. I went for an interview, got the role and spent around 15-16 months with the club before going back to university for my final year.
When I finished university, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I went off and tried a few different things for around 5 or 6 years. But I always had this nagging feeling at the back of my head that I wanted to work in football and ultimately, I ended up at West Ham United.
It was a great experience. My role was very much customer service; I was involved in scheduling the appointments for supporters to pick their seats. It was pretty cool being responsible for presenting them with the ideas of what was going to be happening around the stadium; showing them their seats and their view of the pitch. About two weeks before the first game, we had to go around the stadium and check all the seats, basically counting them all. It was just as well we did because we found that some of the seats weren’t there!
It was an interesting experience and also my first time in London. For the year I was there, Arsenal got to the Champions League Final too and so I was able to watch that, which was really good.
For both projects I came into a role at entry level so I haven’t had huge responsibility of managing or overseeing a key part of the project. Arsenal was a great experience because being a university student, it was brilliant to see how it was all managed and how the club grew their supporter base, as well as being able to see the first few games; the fans’ reactions to their first experience in the stadium. Initially, I was outside directing supporters around the stadium, and it was great to be a part of. There was so much excitement as supporters took their first steps into the Emirates. It was even more special when you compared it to Highbury, where the concourses were tiny and it was almost falling down! The Emirates was just a completely new level for everyone and it was incredible to see the development and be a part of it.
In regard to West Ham, again it was great to be a part of the process and contribute to helping the fanbase grow. To go from a 35,000-capacity stadium to one that is now 60,000 was a brilliant project to see come to life. Unfortunately, the low point came when we physically moved in because there were problems; supporters found themselves in the wrong areas and we had a lot of things to fix. We did our absolute best to improve the situation and it was a real adjustment period to get used to a stadium that is completely different to what Upton Park was; London Stadium isn’t a football stadium. But… it’s the best it can be right now and it has greatly improved from what it was when we first arrived. And it’s human nature for people to compare new with old; supporters comparing what was being offered at London Stadium to what they had before at Upton Park. But going from a 35,000 capacity to a 60,000 capacity - it is not physically possible to do things the same way. It wasn’t nice to see the negativity but it was an interesting experience and from my point of view, I know we did all that we could to improve things for our supporters and do our best to have them seated where they wanted to be.
Yes, I was part of the process for the sales team for around two years. Initially, I came in as a Sales Executive with the hospitality team and I then moved across to general admission sales. At that point, I got pushed across to managing the season ticket waiting list and I had a team to oversee, along with managing the booking of appointments. A few roles then popped up; I think 4 or 5 were available, so I went through the application process and was successful. Ticket Office Manager is perhaps not the right job title though, as it was more of a Ticketing Manager role; I was overseeing the system side of ticketing operations, rather than people management.
Yes, I did have progression at West Ham but I am not somebody who has this clear vision of where I want my career path to go. I am always open to new opportunities and to be honest, at West Ham, the majority of the games were almost selling themselves so my role became focused on systems and troubleshooting; I wasn’t able to be proactive or creative with my role. When I went for an interview at Southampton, one of the things that stood out to me was that they were a club who, at the time, weren’t fully selling out their stadium and so there was an opportunity to implement new ideas to encourage supporters to come to a game. They also have a lot of ambition and innovation is important; and not just important but a willingness to give you an opportunity to be creative and innovative. It was a sideways move in regard to the level I came in at but there wasn’t the same management structure above me like there was at West Ham so again, there was an opportunity to take on more responsibility and develop my role. Since starting, we have been able to implement new things and make changes so it’s been a really good experience so far. And now, I oversee the hospitality side of things too, although that happened just as the pandemic hit so I haven’t had an opportunity to run with it yet! I am excited to get back to the stadium and work on next season.
Yes, it is. It was definitely a sideways move to begin with but there has been quick progression, 100%. The club were looking for somebody to come in and oversee the ticket office but I am somebody who likes to get involved in a lot of projects and take on additional responsibilities. I don’t necessarily have any formal training but the experience I have, means I can contribute thoughts and ideas and I am more than happy to express them. So I think the club have realised there is a bit more to me than solely focusing on the everyday running of the ticket office. It’s been nice for me to have that recognition and I have to take the opportunity they have given me and run with it. There is a lot of learning for me to do too.
To be honest, I think sometimes the ticket office is looked down upon in the wider structure of a football club. I don’t know why that is but it just feels like it is. For me, along with supporter engagement teams, the ticket office is the only other team to have regular contact with the fans; there are many departments who have no contact with supporters at all. I like to see us as almost a custodian – a department that sits between the fans and the club. It is important to know your supporters, obtain feedback and ensure that it is passed to other people within the club, especially in a period where big decisions are being made.
At Southampton, we deal with everything internally: ticket sales, uploading ticket sales online, phone sales, ticket windows… before the pandemic we were also looking at moving the ticket windows into our club shop to create one central process. We deal with everything to do with the access to the stadium too, setting up the venue to make sure it’s operating and making sure tickets work at the turnstiles. We also look at other areas such as pricing and the overall product; how it compares to other clubs and other organisations within the sports industry.
A lot of the time, people think a good product is about price but if you look at hospitality, the experience is a key factor too. We are currently assessing our hospitality lounges, seeing what works and what doesn’t; trying to understand our space and how it can be better utilised. At Southampton, while we have a mixed fanbase, there are a lot of affluent supporters who have the means to experience hospitality but for some reason, are choosing not to. So that’s a challenge for us; to encourage those supporters to experience hospitality at the stadium. Hospitality and ticketing overlap and so it makes absolute sense to look at bridging the gap that currently exists. We don’t have enough people using hospitality so how can we upgrade general admission ticket holders to this experience? It’s an exciting project to work on.
We have also put in another turnstile system during the lockdown period and changed our ticketing provider so that’s been a huge project; it’s probably taken a full year to implement from start to finish. But we still haven’t been able to sell a game on it! So, while it’s been great to be able to work on two big projects during lockdown, you don’t really know how it will all come together until we can start selling games again. We are also looking at holding more events at the stadium; something that will be great for me to be a part of.
It’s all about listening; listening and understanding your audience. In any industry, you will always have customers that won’t be sold to but it’s about understanding the balance – knowing when it is appropriate to ask if a supporter wants to upgrade from 2 tickets to perhaps 3 or 4 versus knowing when not to ask. There’s no hard selling involved though and to be honest, that hard sell approach can be frustrating for everyone involved.
You also need to work closely with the marketing team because they need to be aware of the products available and promote them through different channels. But in regard to everyday with the supporter, it is important to listen. I have been in sales roles in the past – cold calling and even door to door sales – and you’re speaking to people about a product that may be of interest to them but it’s not as interesting as football is to a football fan. Football fans are emotional, they want to talk about the sport and their club. One of the initiatives we ran during lockdown was a campaign in which we called our older supporters – we made over 4000 phone calls in the first couple of months. It’s quite funny because when supporters were first picking up the phone, there was this abruptness but as soon as we said we were from Southampton FC, they were excited and friendly; they just wanted to talk about football! Football fans are a completely different set of customers to deal with so I would say, make time to listen to them and have a chat.
The customer service side is so important and looking at ticket sales specifically, there can be such a fluctuation between busy and quieter periods. The phone lines go absolutely crazy when tickets first go on sale but by the afternoon, it’s a lot quieter and so within those quieter times, we want our team to have those personal conversations with people; make time to listen so that our supporters feel connected with the club.
It’s interesting to see how many people in senior positions in a football club actually started their career within the ticket office. For example, Andrew Pincher, who is the Club Secretary at West Ham United, after finishing his career in football, worked in ticketing and has progressed from there. It’s the same here at Southampton with our Club Secretary, Ros Wheeler; she started within ticketing and worked her way through the club. It’s amazing how many people have even started as casual members of staff, or just working matchdays, and find that it’s a foot in the door to work their way up the career ladder. Getting your foot in the door is key and working matchdays is a great experience, especially if you don’t have a customer service background. You will learn a lot and gain good understanding about supporters and the football operations from working matchdays. Football clubs are nothing without their fans so that’s a really good starting point and I think ticketing is a good area to start off in. A lot of clubs advertise for part-time/casual staff too so there are opportunities there.
At West Ham, I really enjoyed the final game I worked; it was a win against Manchester United. I managed to get 5 minutes just to stand there, look around and think, ‘Yeah, there are things that could have been done differently but look at this stadium. There are nearly 60,000 people here and they are watching their team beat Manchester United, and I have played a part in that.’ It was pretty cool to have that moment, that time to recap on my 4 years with the club. It was such a journey. On the first day I started, I never even made it into the office as there was an evacuation at Westfield so we couldn’t get to the Reservation Office that was based there. Honestly, my first day started like that. We got kicked out of London Stadium as an alarm had gone off there, we walked over to Westfield to work there instead, but was told the whole place was being evacuated! It wasn’t the best of starts but having said that, realising you have gone on this journey from that initial difficult moment, to seeing it all come together at the stadium, was a great thing to be a part of.
At Southampton, a highlight for me has to be implementing the new ticketing system. I have seen plenty of ticketing systems installed and it’s a real complex process. Southampton had to do it all remotely. We spent months talking through the project but our first onsite meeting was a week before lockdown so the majority of this project has been put together with the team working at home. Seeing the project go live, especially with it going live with the season ticket sales, was a great moment. Changing a ticketing system is a long project; it involved a number of colleagues across different departments working as a team. There is still learning that we need to do but knowing that it all came together during such a difficult time was a real positive for me.
And then looking back at my time at Arsenal, it has to be seeing those first few games in the Emirates. It was a huge step forward for the club in terms of fan experience.
Strangely, I had this conversation just yesterday with my line manager, our Sales Director; where do I see myself in the future and what my career path is going to be... I have never been a person who has sat and thought about it. I don’t have a specific goal; I just like to be involved in as many areas as possible and see what opportunities and pathways open up. I moved into my current role at Southampton in March last year and so I haven’t been able to get to grips with it fully because of the pandemic. I am just excited about progressing in this role and seeing how the next year goes for me, hopefully with our fans back too. I just want to keep learning and hopefully make a positive impact.
But long-term, I have no idea. I suppose in the back of my head I have always wanted to experience working abroad; the MLS has some appeal to me. To be involved in a new franchise and building something from scratch would be great; working with a blank canvas and being challenged. I have experience in stadium projects but not leading on them so maybe in the future, this could be something I go into. But now, I am happy with where I am and what I’m doing. I am excited to learn more and face the challenges that will come with it too. I am really hopeful that we will have fans back to enjoy the 2021/22 season. With fans back, we can start to implement new ideas, but it’s also really important to us that we continue to develop the way we operate as a team here at Southampton FC.
Interviewer: Sascha Gustard-Brown
Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.