EBU faces up to Summer Meeting crisis
Players face no shortage of choice at the EBUs Summer Meeting in Eastbourne this week but arguably the most important event will take place away from the bridge table.
On Sunday there will be a discussion about EBU competitions, including proposed changes to the timing and schedule for the 10 day meeting at the delightful south coast resort.
The decision to seek the views of members comes as the EBU faces up to a real crisis in the game at showpiece competitions, particularly the Summer Meeting.
As our graph shows, the numbers attending the EBUs flagship event are plummeting at an alarming rate. Since 2013 the number of pairs playing in the prestigious Swiss Pairs championship over the first weekend has fallen by half from 316 to 160. Old timers speak fondly of how there used to be around 450 tables when they first went to Brighton.
The turnout for the Senior Pairs is even worse: down from 89 pairs in 2013 to just 36 this year; a fall of 60% among the the age group which dominates the game. And it is a similar story in the Senior Swiss Teams: down from 58 teams in 2013 to 42 in 2015, 22 in 2017 and just 16 this year.
The dramatic reduction - more than 25% for all three events in the last two years alone - must be giving Gordon Rainsford and Jeremy Dhondy, chief executive and chairman of the EBU, more than a few sleepless nights. For how much longer will a 10 day meeting be financially viable when the mid-week events have a surreal, ghost town feel underpinned by row upon row of empty tables?
Excellent venue but too many empty seats
How has this all come about? In the short term, there is widespread agreement that the decision to stage the Summer Meeting in London last year while the builders were at work in Eastbourne was an unmitigated disaster. Part of the joy (for many) of the Summer Meeting is being beside the seaside. Anywhere but London would have been preferable and players voted with their feet and stayed away. And many have not returned this time round to see the wonderful new premises which host the meeting.
What is also clear is that the schedule for the Summer Meeting harks back to another era, when many participants stayed in bed and breakfast accommodation which required them to return for a lengthy dinner. It is totally out of kilter with the 21st century.
As a result players are required to twiddle their thumbs all morning before bridge starts at 2pm. A dinner break getting on for two and a half hours meant the Senior Pairs were then required to be still playing at 11.15pm.
As one lady against whom we played explained: “I live in Sussex about an hours drive away but decided to stay in a hotel in Eastbourne because I would not have got home until about 1am. That cannot be right.”
So what is to be done? Clearly, the timetable for the Summer Meeting needs to be overhauled. In addition, it seems madness to hold a Seniors Congress in Eastbourne only a month earlier. Pricing is an issue for some.
Above all, the EBU has to market the joys of Eastbourne and consider a pricing policy with various discounts to attract newcomers. As one of my partners pointed out rather astutely: “If one pair from every club could be persuaded to attend, the EBUs problems would be over.”
The Play with the Experts evening was staged at multiple venues around the country and as Suffolk discovered recently with the Senior Pairs, this is a way of attracting extra entries. 198 pairs took part nationwide. Ditto the Mixed Pairs, contested by 150 pairs around the country.
However, is the unfortunate truth that English bridge can no longer justify a ten day Summer Meeting? Will it be streamlined to a Swiss Pairs weekend and a Swiss Teams weekend, perhaps one in the summer and one in the winter - while other events are staged at multiple locations during the year?
Personally, I hope not. Eastbourne is enchanting and the Summer Meeting is a pleasant holiday...even if the dawn chorus offered by the seagulls takes a bit of getting used to.
A blueprint for change
Mike O’Reilly was on the board of a top British company for many years and specialised in troubleshooting. The Bury and Abbeygate member offers some thoughts on the way forward for the EBU.
It is clear that change is essential but that must involve the CUSTOMER; not just the 10% who attend regularly, but the 90% who stay away.
The customers, EBU members, are King and until they are consulted, the decline will probably continue.
Asking the 'faithful' who attended Eastbourne for feedback will only lead to more fine tuning but not address the main problem.
The introduction and increased application of NGS ratings has had an interesting effect. For the average stronger player retaining this rating appears to be quite important.
However, that can simply involve playing in a local club for a £2 table fee. Green points from a Congress entry involves an outlay of roughly £100 per point and accommodation costs. A small percentage will always want to become a 'super master' via this expensive route but many more will continue to protect their NGS rating and/or play on-line.
A poor result at the very competitive Eastbourne congress has a big effect on a players NGS rating.
The EBU could learn from County Associations where two day congresses are still popular and where publicity is more focused.. Running costs and, hence entry fees, are lower.
At Eastbourne probably only the two weekend events show a profit and the rest run at a significant loss. In business, activities which do not contribute to the bottom line are questioned and, unless there is an overwhelming hidden benefit, are scrapped or costs are removed to make them profitable.
Maybe what is needed is a radical shake-up. Four weekend events, one each for pairs, teams, senior pairs and senior teams. A really easy event could run alongside them and three of four regional locations could be chosen by members.
- Disconnect green point events from the NGS system - don’t penalise players when they aim a bit higher for greens!
- Keep the Eastbourne venue as one of the four weekend events.
- Add stratification whenever possible, even in main events.
- Seminars and discussions can be easily done on line rather than hiring an expensive hall.
KEEP IT SIMPLE ALWAYS - just look at this weeks program in the centrefold.
When consulting grass roots, ask a simple question and make it clear that ‘silence is approval’, i.e we plan to radically change the Eastbourne congress to widen the appeal of EBU competitions and would appreciate members views before proceeding.
Would you be more likely to get involved in our major competitions if we made them more available regionally, cheaper and less complicated?
Would players like to have feedback on hands they played well, were average, and played poorly?( pianola plus using very expert players comments).
The EBU management make decisions always, so never ask members or committees to usurp this responsibility. They can advise but not decide.
For many years the EBU management has been regarded as a remote and elite group of experts and that image must be changed by much more dialogue and sharing of information with its members.