Manchester United fans right to cry foul about a publicly funded event
Since the HarbourFest controversy about how HK$100 million was spent on concerts to boost the city's image in the wake of the Sars outbreak in 2003, the use of public money to finance big events has been a sensitive issue. The grant of HK$8 million from the Tourism Commission's Mega Events Fund to Kitchee Sports Club to organise a soccer match with Manchester United in July is a case in point. It means that the taxpayer is kicking in to help pay Manchester United's appearance fee. The club is a global brand and is so bankable anywhere that this raises the question of why a taxpayer guarantee is seen as necessary. Given that it is deemed so, resentment over the allocation of only 18,000 of 40,000 tickets to the public - most of them the worst seats, and at prices from HK$330 to HK$990 - is understandable.
Manchester United took more than 10,000 tickets, including some for its travel agent to use for overseas promotion; officials allocated 4,000 to the Tourism Board for distribution through tour packages; and 3,600 were reserved for Kitchee to share with others in the local soccer community.
The public shouldn't feel too hard done by compared with rugby fans, who were allocated just 4,000 tickets for this year's Hong Kong Sevens at the same venue, although many tickets go to the rugby union community.
Requirements that have to be met to qualify for grants from the Mega Events Fund include attracting overseas visitors and boosting Hong Kong's brand as an events city. Added to these in the case of Manchester United is the need to ensure that the club's stars actually play in the city. That's good for local fans, if they can get in. But public funding does not depend on adequate access to tickets for locals. Mega Events Fund chief Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung says that, as the organiser, Kitchee has the right to decide how to divide and sell the tickets. And the Tourism Commission says the public allocation is similar to that for comparable events in the past. We say that if the government puts up taxpayers' money, it has the right to see that the public gets a fair deal - and a duty to make that clear.