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In the days when the FA Cup Final was the most revered and inaccessible occasion of the sporting year, a friend once secured a couple of seats via the splendidly-named Stan Flashman, Britain’s only famous ticket tout or, as he preferred, “ticket broker”.
My mate was instructed to attend a council flat in the King’s Cross area, where he was greeted by a fat man in a vest, two fierce dogs – and two tickets. Flashman always said he could get tickets to anything, even, so he once claimed, Princess Anne’s wedding.
At night he went home to a mansion in Hertfordshire and hilariously became chairman of Barnet FC, until he eventually went bust and ended up living in penury in Ilford. So it goes: touting is a risky business. He died in 1999 and, since then, touts have become nameless and faceless again.
They have also been subject to increasing persecution. There is even an attempt to curb internet sales in the forthcoming 2006 Violent Crimes Reduction Act, which will presumably help push the trade back more firmly on to the streets. “Beating the touts” is a natural headline-grabber for the government, to be ranked with the “war on drugs” and the regular “crackdown on prostitution” – and every bit as useless.
But within the past two weeks there have been two non-governmental initiatives. One is a website called stoptout.com, which involves a complex (ie, I can’t understand it) points system enabling members to buy and sell tickets at face value.
The other, probably more significant, effort is a deal Chelsea and Manchester United have signed with an outfit called viagogo.com which will allow season-ticket holders to sell seats at matches they cannot attend – but only at a fixed rate to members of the clubs’ registered fan bases. Viagogo will take a 25 per cent commission on each sale without, so far as I can see, any risk to themselves. This apparently is OK.
Why are the laws of supply and demand considered inappropriate when it comes to sport? The organisers charge as much as they dare for tickets, and in Britain prices are notably high. But those arranging major events that regularly sell out – Premiership football, international cricket, Wimbledon etc – are somewhat constrained by fear of public opprobrium.
The sensible way to get tickets for most events is forward planning: hit the net on the day sales open. But this can mean making a commitment months in advance. And the future isn’t certain.
A classic example of what can go wrong befell golf fan Michael Thomas of County Dublin, who bought tickets yonks ago for the Ryder Cup later this month. The European tour is imposing – and intends to stick with – the same restrictions that broke down during the World Cup in Germany: the name on the tickets must match a photo ID.
“I was lucky to be allotted Sunday tickets in the draw,” Mr Thomas wrote to the Irish Times. “My son got tickets for Thursday and Friday, but is now required to work those days. Apparently, I cannot use his tickets, which would have suited me very well. Neither can I pass my Sunday tickets to a fellow golf club member, who was not lucky in the draw.
“Effectively we will have spent €600 (£410) on tickets we cannot use, and for which we cannot get a refund. Is this Ryder Cup bringing a new standard to Rip-Off Ireland?”
This is clearly unjust, and avoidably so. This is sport, not a transatlantic flight. And I see no reason why the promoters of obvious sell-out events should not have a waiting list and a facility to offer refunds to someone like Mr Thomas. A 25 per cent charge for this service would not be ridiculous, and everyone would benefit.
More events should also emulate the long-standing policy of both Wimbledon and the National Theatre and hold back some cheap tickets for sale to queuers on the day. Yes, these queues are untidy and require stewarding. But this way the young get a chance to attend something otherwise out of their reach.
In the meantime, let’s stop being ridiculous about touts. We shouldn’t countenance for a second players and officials who abuse their position and sell off their privileged allocation for a profit. One strongly suspects their employers often do countenance them and then quickly close their eyes.
But there will always be tickets that become available, legitimately or otherwise. Every large office has someone who knows how it’s done and can find a way through. The best hotels employ such people: they are called head porters. And there will always be people desperate to get in, whether it’s sport, a rock concert or a royal garden party. Indeed, the process may be regarded as universal. Since the new railway opened into Tibet, tickets to visit the Potala Palace have become almost unobtainable. Except of course from the Lhasa equivalent of Stan Flashman in his vest.