In true Hong Kong style, there's a price to be paid for space

Every available inch at the stadium has been utilised to generate revenue, even if it leaves common folks out in the cold

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 4:41am

We have become numb to certain realities in Hong Kong and primary among them is the lack of space. If you live here, you intimately know about it and you deal with it. We get squeezed, it's just the way it is. However, there are no rules that say we have to like it. The property cartel in charge of this town would rather gargle with razor blades than leave any kind of space open for public use.

Well, guess what? We now have a sporting event truly worthy of the town it is being held in. Upon arrival through the main gates at Hong Kong Stadium this year the first thing you will see, and I mean the very first thing you will see, is a sign that is not exactly the warmest of greetings: "No Waiting Here."

What you won't see, however, is the pitch. Thanks to a sprawling block of newly erected corporate suites, the area above the North Stand, traditionally the most popular hangout of the Sevens, is no more. It has been whacked so the likes of Goldman Sachs, Gulf Oil Marine Ltd and Hong Kong Rugby Football Union will have unfettered access to the goings on this weekend. Needless to say, there are some upset folks.

I bumped into a friend who was trying to crane his neck around the crowd huddled by the only sliver of space remaining where you could see the pitch from above the North Stand and he was borderline apoplectic at the new setup.

"It's a travesty, an absolute and utter travesty," he said. "It's sad that it's come to this where crass commercialism has destroyed the prime meeting area of the Sevens. How can this have happened?"

"Can I quote you," I asked.

"Of course you can," he said. "You just can't use my name."

And it was the same reply I received from those gathered around him. It's the corporate mute that keeps so many people in this town off the record and after more than 20 years in this place, I understand it all too well. Financial and professional repercussions are at stake here. Perhaps that should make it easier for them to understand the disappearance of the vista from the North Stand.

The Sevens is the primary source of funding for the union, so you have to squeeze what you can out of it. The union's commercial manager, Jonathan Hamp, was hired in 2012 and his duties include, "PR & communications, brand positioning, sponsor management and revenue generation of the union and its related events". Hamp is clearly the man to talk to.

"The whole activity here is part of an overall piece of activity to expand the overall experience of the tournament," he said. "In doing this, along with creating a spectacular players lounge down at Son Kon Po, we have freed up another 326 seats for the public."

Previously, a large section of the North Stand was reserved for the exclusive use of the players. And in fairness to Hamp, the union, a non-profit organisation, hired him to find more revenue. "Yes," he said, "to support the game of rugby in Hong Kong. Our sole focus of generating revenue is to drive and fund the development of rugby here."

Again, this is a corporate town. The biggest annual event here can't help but bend over somewhat to the local ethos. But you don't even have to break a sweat trying to demonise the likes of Goldman Sachs these days. Stick their name on eliminating a space that clearly has a sentimental value to many and there can't help but be some animosity.

"While I understand it's a convenient meeting place for people, it's not what the stadium wants to happen and the police would like people to keep moving there," said Hamp.

I don't like the decision but it's no more a grievous offence than the fact that only 4,000 tickets are available to the public and that we have rows upon rows of touts outside of the stadium or that hotels in Hong Kong are charging astronomical fees during the Sevens. It's all part of the package when you have a truly red-hot event in a truly red-hot town.

The truth is this event is bursting at the seams and desperately needs a new stadium to grow. But that is a good four to five years away, if at all. In the meantime, get used to every inch of available space being squeezed for revenue. It's nothing personal, it's just business. More importantly, it's the Hong Kong way of doing business.