Tackling the touts
Another Hong Kong Sevens has come and gone, but for all its enduring popularity the curse of touts and fake tickets proved worse then ever this year.
By the end of the three-day tournament at Hong Kong Stadium last weekend, 88 people had contacted the police after discovering they had bought fake tickets. That's nearly a 50 per cent rise on last year when only 60 fans were refused entry after flying in from as far away as Dubai and Sydney to be told by stadium staff that their tickets were fake.
The total number of suspected bogus tickets seized by police this year was 191, and it appears that while counterfeit tickets have plagued the event since it began 37 years ago, the fakers have suddenly got a lot more sophisticated.
Irishmen Adrian O'Doherty and his brother Justin both paid HK$3,000 apiece on eBay for tickets to this year's event only to be turned away at the stadium entrance as the tickets were fake. They ended up paying a tout HK$3,200 between them to get in to see last Saturday's action.
'I was gutted,' Adrian O'Doherty said. 'We'd been looking forward to this for months but it ended in disaster.'
As the hangovers finally cleared last Tuesday, a suspected dealer appeared in court accused of swindling Sevens fan Alexander de Sola Torgersen out of Euro10,000 (HK$103,000) by selling him 28 sets of fake tickets.
Briton Christopher McConville, 24, entered no plea when he appeared in Eastern Court charged with obtaining property by deception. McConville, who was described by his lawyer as a sports ticket dealer, was remanded in custody and is due back in court on April 17.
But what more can the event's organisers, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, actually do to eradicate this problem? The answer would seem to be not much. It is a malaise that affects every major event in the sports and entertainment world.
Tickets to popular events are always going to be scarce, whether it's the Super Bowl in American Football or the Sevens. The only way the average fan can get a seat is in the secondary market - which comprises all sellers who do not have official authority to issue the ticket.
Generally, these are tickets that have been bought from official vendors and are being resold, a security source explained. This is where the trouble starts. The Places of Public Entertainment Ordinance makes it illegal to re-sell admission tickets at a price higher than their face value. The law carries a HK$2,000 fine.
No matter what warnings an organiser issues about buying tickets through unofficial channels, however, fans will be prepared to take risks. Ticket scalpers know this all too well, but they also know there will always be a demand. Tickets sold in the secondary market make up a multibillion-dollar industry, and many are far from legitimate.
Some of the biggest offenders here come from the local rugby clubs or corporations which are allocated tickets. They grab a share then go and sell them online or through a broker for five times the amount.
The union says it will soon be able to trace the source of any ticket sold by touts through information held by its online ticket provider, Cityline. Only time will tell if this will have any impact.
'Someone who buys Sevens tickets through an official channel and decides to sell them at a ticket exchange or on eBay is a secondary ticket seller,' the security source said. 'Technology is so advanced that all forgers have to do is get their hands on one official ticket to print a number of replicas that will always be slightly different, like a changed serial number. Few buyers will spot this.'
On the first day of the tournament, police were on the lookout for fakes after the Leisure and Cultural Services Department took a sample of 1,000 tickets sold and found that at least 50 were high-quality forgeries bought by fans from overseas websites such as eBay.
The security source said that the same touts would be doing the same at this weekend's Japan Sevens in Tokyo, before moving on to other events in the region.
'They're getting better organised each year. The problem is you don't know if the tickets you are purchasing at an online exchange or from a scalper or unauthorised broker are real or not. You could easily show up at the game, sometimes at considerable time and expense, and be turned away,' the source said. 'Even if you do get tickets they may be awful, including obstructed view seats, seats that aren't together, or otherwise not what you thought they were.'
Sevens fans here were already angry at having to fork out HK$1,500 for a weekend ticket, up HK$250 or 20 per cent on last year's price. In 2009, an adult ticket cost just HK$1,080. In the end, this year some visitors ended up paying HK$3,000 for just a single-day ticket that turned out to be fake.
Four thousands tickets were made available to the general public this year, down from 5,000 last year. They went on sale at www.cityline.com on January 14 and were sold within hours despite the website constantly crashing.
The tickets were limited to two per person and applicants had to verify their residency with a valid Hong Kong or Macau postal address. The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's deal with the online ticket provider allowed it to introduce a modified ticket with enhanced security features to help beat the touts.
However, this did not deter ticket scalpers. Within 15 minutes of the public tickets going on sale, weekend tickets costing HK$1,500 were already being advertised on the AsiaXpat website for HK$6,000.
But there may still be a way out. Sevens organisers are looking into the possibility of allocating tickets for next year's event by lottery in a bid to reduce the influence of ticket touts. The move to a lottery system would make applying for a ticket more convenient and deter touts, claimed a union spokesman before this year's tournament took place.
He said the system would also show more clearly exactly how many people want tickets, and this would help support the union's push for a bigger, 50,000-seat stadium - 10,000 more than the current venue.
There was positive news on that front from the Home Affairs Bureau. It confirmed that preparatory work was underway for a sports complex at Kai Tak with a multipurpose 50,000-seat stadium. 'We are conducting a consultancy study to explore the most suitable procurement and financing arrangements for the project, and the current timetable is to begin construction of the project in 2014 for completion in 2018-19,' a bureau spokeswoman said.
There's hope for the future but the reality is that as long as fans have the money and are willing to take a risk on tickets from unofficial channels, touts and ticket scalpers will continue to prosper at the Sevens.
The price, in Hong Kong dollars, of a child's ticket for this year's Sevens, a 50 per cent reduction on last year