“See you at the Sevens” has taken on a whole new meaning for Hong Kong Tourism Board officials, who are now bending over backwards trying to please a sport which most local people used to call “Rubby”.
In those years gone by the annual festival was regarded by the community at large as nothing more than three days of having to endure drunken gweilos traipsing all over Causeway Bay and Wan Chai singing strange songs and dressed up in even stranger outfits, or none at all.
The Chinese media used to turn up at the stadium only to click pictures of streakers encroaching on the field of play, or the semi-nude debauchery in the South Stand. Their backs were to the pitch, perhaps wondering why on earth grown-up men, and now women, engage in this brutish sport.
No more. The period of enlightenment has now dawned. These days, the Sevens is a much-anticipated event, which the community waits for with the eagerness of a pilgrim nearing journey’s end. In this case the altar is the one to Mammon for the Sevens brings wealth to many in this city.
Last year, for the first time, the tourism board released figures of a survey it undertook during the 2011 tournament. Among the many interesting facts was that more than half the crowd (21,931) came from overseas. They stayed an average six days and spent an average of HK$12,873.
This amounted to more than HK$282 million in direct economic benefits. There is no other sporting event which can even come close to generating these sorts of figures. Now government agencies are tripping over each other to accommodate the union. In the past, this body of (essentially) volunteers was ignored.
Over the next week, tourism board officials will proudly strut around as if they are responsible for all this manna being showered on our hoteliers and restaurateurs. Anyone down in Lockhart Road or Lan Kwai Fong could have told these government mandarins the economic benefits from March Madness had been filtering through to corner store businesses and other entrepreneurs for many decades.
What was new from the findings was that more than two-thirds of the fans rated the Sevens as eight, nine or 10 in comparison with the World Cup (soccer), Olympics and Wimbledon, with 97 per cent saying they would definitely recommend the event to friends and relatives.
The other 3 per cent were probably those unhappy they couldn’t get into the South Stand, or had to queue for ages at the toilet after the England v New Zealand clash, or maybe those who couldn’t stomach the pasty cold pies and oily French fries (as well as the French rugby team).
But everyone agreed the Sevens helps promote Hong Kong tourism and was a great advertisement for the city’s image and reputation. Yes, sport is a great way to raise the profile of a city or country. It is a pity the government is only stumbling on this fact now.
There is one last interesting tidbit from this appraisal. Rugby draws a wealthy following. Overseas fans at the Sevens are well-heeled, typically affluent professionals in managerial positions with an annual income of more than HK$1 million. The local variety was rated as earning an average of HK$60,000 per month.
It is perhaps fortunate the survey didn’t include the local Fourth Estate. They were probably too busy, clicking pictures of drunken gweilos, anyway.