Bigger stadium still needed even though Lions game did not sell out

Last night’s Lions match may not have been a sell-out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a bigger stadium is not needed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 4:45pm

The sight of empty seats at Hong Kong Stadium last night might present a compelling case for some people in government to argue against accommodating 55,000 seats when the new stadium is built at Kai Tak. The plan is for the new sports complex to feature a main stadium with 50,000 seats. The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union wants more but does it have a leg to stand on following the failure to sell out So Kon Po for the historic encounter between the British & Irish Lions and the Barbarians?

Trevor Gregory, the HKRFU chairman, refuses to see that as a reason for a smaller stadium at Kai Tak. He has several reasons why the showpiece wasn't witnessed by a capacity 40,000 crowd. And most of these reasons were beyond the control of the governing body.

When the game was first mooted, Lions officials forecast that 10,000 fans would travel with the squad on the way to Australia. This was nearly three years ago when economic conditions were bad and they remain so today. Stagnant fiscal conditions in Britain have clearly played a role in British fans setting a course straight for Down Under rather than including "Asia's World City" as a stopover.

The absence of the red army plus the fact that Hong Kong does not have a larger local fan base for rugby combined to create the situation where the stadium was only three-quarters full. According to Gregory, the price of tickets, the cheapest HK$750 and the most expensive HK$1,290, had nothing to do with the empty seats as most of the premium seats were sold.

"You cannot say because this game was not sold out, there is no need for a bigger stadium in Hong Kong. As far as we are concerned, we can easily sell out a 55,000-seater stadium for the Hong Kong Sevens, and that is what is most important to us," Gregory says.

An extra 15,000 seats at the Sevens would translate into more than HK$20 million in revenue for the HKRFU, the lifeblood of the game locally. And it is not only rugby which will benefit. More seats at the Sevens will also have a direct impact on the economy as it will allow for more overseas visitors.

"The difference between the Sevens and one-off games like this is that people plan in advance for the Sevens and there is a wide expectation. The Lions game was unique and the first time we put it on. Maybe if we repeat it every four years, then it can follow in the vein of the Sevens.

"What is important is that we have a new stadium with 55,000 seats and then we can fill it with suitable events. There is no point building a new stadium and increasing the capacity modestly. A 55,000-seater stadium will be just right," says Gregory.

Soccer has shown it can follow in the footsteps of the Sevens. This summer's exhibition game between Manchester United and Kitchee was sold out in three hours. Tickets for the Barclays Asia Trophy featuring English Premier League sides Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland and local champions South China went on sale on Friday and were in hot demand. A 55,000-seater stadium would certainly not be out of place in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile a reader, Jonathan Turner suggested the HKRFU consider offering the unsold tickets at the ground to children under-16 at half price. "There are thousands of kids who play every weekend, but no arrangements were made for them to watch this match without paying the full whack. This has put a lot of parents off taking their children to the match (whether rugby-playing or not). A family of four would have to lay out HK$3,000 even for the cheapest seats," Turner said.

The HKRFU seriously considered this proposal before deciding it would be unfair on those parents who had already bought tickets for their children at full face value. They have a point but I also suspect the real reason was they didn't want to set a precedent of offering discounted tickets at the last minute just to fill the stadium. That would have been a poor move for the long term.

One final word: Four years ago when the Lions visited South Africa, they began their campaign at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenberg which has a capacity of 42,000. Only 12,000 fans turned up, and this too in a rugby-mad country.

So hats off to the Hong Kong fans who came in their numbers last night.