Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Why I Oppose the EBU's Strategy Proposals

The EBU exists to promote and organise the game of bridge in England. It is the "promotion" part that we are interested in here. Bridge is a great game: the more people that play it the better. If the EBU can do something to increase the number of people playing then they can rightly say that they are a successful organisation. In fact it seems that the number of people playing bridge is declining; the EBU is understandably worried about this and is trying to do something about it.

But let's be clear about this - what we care about is the total number of people playing the game, whether or not they are members of the EBU. The success of the EBU is not defined by the number of people they have on their membership list, but by the total amount of bridge being played in the country. That's what it really means to promote the game.

The core idea of the EBU's strategy proposals is for "universal membership" - that is, all members of EBU-affiliated clubs would automatically be members of the EBU. Even if a large proportion of clubs decide to disaffiliate, this proposal will still surely increase the number of EBU members. But will it actually do anything to stop the decline in the number of people playing the game?

The most controversial aspect of the proposals is that they would change the way the EBU is funded. Rather than having an annual subscription, the proposal is to charge players a certain amount for each session of bridge that they play, taken out of the table money. The intention is for the scheme to raise the same amount of money as the current scheme does; however, if you consider individual players, there will inevitably be some players for whom bridge becomes more expensive to play, and some for whom bridge becomes less expensive.

The way things are at the moment, with the annual subscription, means that the EBU membership contains a disproportionately large number of tournament players and other keen players, compared to the bridge-playing population as a whole. So, in effect, the tournament players are subsidising the rest of the bridge-playing population. Under the proposed Pay-to-Play scheme everyone would be contributing. The net effect is to make bridge more expensive for the casual player; their money goes to make bridge less expensive for the serious players. Isn't this a bad thing if we want to promote the game? The keen players are going to continue playing whatever happens. We want to get more people playing the game, but the newcomers are the people who are worst off under the proposed scheme, since at the moment they would tend not to join the EBU until they are more experienced.

My opinion is that the keen players should subsidise the promotion of the game, like they do at the moment. Because I enjoy playing the game, I am keen to see other people learning to play, and I am very happy for my money to be used to get them started. Under the EBU proposals you would instead be taking disproportionately large amounts money from the very people who you are trying to promote the game to. Admittedly the amounts of money involved are quite small, but one of the attractions of the game is that it ought to be a relatively inexpensive hobby. When the table money is typically £1.50, an increase of 30p or so is noticeable.

There is a strange imbalance in the EBU's proposals: having scrapped the annual subscription, they intend to make up for this almost entirely with Pay-to-Play fees from club games. But, as I said, most of the people playing annual subscriptions at the moment do so because they play in county or EBU events. So surely a sizeable proportion of the new Pay-to-Play fees should be coming from tournaments. But for some reason they are not doing this. Instead it is the casual player who pays more. I don't understand this at all.

But really it is not so much about the money anyway. People have strong feelings about the element of compulsion. If people currently are not members of the EBU, that's because they don't want to be members. If you force people to join an organisation that they don't wish to belong to, then that is surely going to be very unpopular. The fact that they have to pay for the privilege just makes things worse.

Let's face it - very little of what the EBU does actually benefits its members directly. You don't need the EBU in order to have a game at the club. But as a national bridge organisation, the EBU has some important obligations. The obvious example, and the most expensive, is sending teams to (and occasionally hosting) international events. Money is also needed to promote the game. These are good causes, and I have chosen to help fund these things through my subscription. But other people might not value these things so highly. That's unfortunate, but it should be their choice to make.

The EBU already tends to get a rather bad press. There is a significant group of players, including both members and non-members, who are distrustful of the EBU, generally feeling that it interferes with the game without giving them anything of value. Some feel that the EBU concentrates too much on serious players at the expense of the ordinary club player. Issues such as the introduction of announcements in 2006 proved to be very divisive. Generally I do not think the EBU deserves the criticism it gets, but I worry that the introduction of compulsory membership for players at EBU-affiliated clubs will only add to the antipathy that already exists. The critics will see it as just another way in which the EBU is trying to impose its influence on people who do not want anything to do with it.

While the details of the proposal have been well publicised, it has been quite difficult to find out why they want universal membership. The reasons that have been given seem mostly spurious. I went along to a discussion at the Brighton congress to hear what they had to say. Mr Capal pointed out the fact that the EBU membership was made up of disproportionately large numbers of serious players, and that universal membership would make the EBU more representative. This is absolutely true, as I have already said above. But Mr Capal's suggestion was that the EBU would not be able to address the needs of the casual club players unless they were members. This is utter nonsense. Of course the EBU should be listening to the club players; they should find out what these players want from their NBO and make sure that the EBU works for the benefit of everyone. But this has absolutely nothing to do with whether those players are members. The EBU should be working for all the bridge players in England, whether they are members or not. If the EBU has in the past ignored the large body of bridge players who are non-members, then that is a terrible failing. But it is something that can be put right. And it certainly has nothing to do with the way the EBU is funded.

I was particularly unimpressed by the long list of things that the EBU would provide for its clubs. Perhaps the most interesting idea was the proposed new "ranking" scheme, but there were also more mundane things like free software. Now, there was nothing wrong with any of the things on that list. But again, the problem is these services have nothing to do with the way the EBU is funded. The EBU should always be seeking to improve its services to clubs, but you don't need to impose universal membership in order to do this.

Finally, and only quite recently, the EBU did present one valid reason for universal membership. If the EBU has more members, then it can potentially get more money from sponsorship and advertising (particularly from the members' magazine), and could have more influence as a political force. It's quite depressing to think that what is basically an accounting trick ("in order to get more members, we'll just redefine who is a member") could actually make a difference to the influence the EBU has. Perhaps this is how the world works. But personally, I do not believe that this advantage is enough to make it worth alienating all the bridge players who do not want to be members of the EBU. I don't think the EBU is a popular enough organisation to get away with forcing people to join. Even the EBU itself is anticipating a mass of disaffiliations if the proposal goes ahead.

The final vote on the proposals is taking place in three weeks' time. It will not be the end of the world if the proposals are voted through. But if the EBU really wants to get more people playing bridge, there are plenty of things it could be doing to help achieve that - and these things have nothing to do with universal membership or Pay-to-Play. And for an organisation which already has trouble with public relations, the proposed strategy will only make things worse.