Left Field: Empty stadium seats don't help

If organisers have trouble selling tickets, give them to underprivileged children so they have the chance to watch superstars

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 August, 2014, 8:28pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 August, 2014, 8:32pm

It's not every day you get the chance to see a world-class player in action in Hong Kong. Five days ago, Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic dazzled fans at Hong Kong Stadium by scoring a hat-trick in the 6-2 demolition of Kitchee by Paris Saint-Germain.

It's a pity the stadium was less than half full with only 17,000 fans turning up to watch the French soccer champions take their local counterparts apart with Gallic flair.

The first reaction from Kitchee boss Ken Ng Kin was bemoaning the financial loss his club suffered. Apparently it cost HK$10 million to put on the preseason friendly. Gate receipts were HK$6.92 million, leaving Kitchee reportedly carrying a loss of more than HK$3 million.

The cheapest ticket cost HK$330, (there was a concessionary price of HK$180 for elders) while the high-end stub which earned a prime seat on the halfway line was HK$780. They needed to sell 20,000 tickets to break even.

Obviously the boys at Kitchee flunked economics in school. Wouldn't it have been better to set cheaper prices and sell more tickets to try to break even?

Obviously the boys at Kitchee flunked economics in school. Wouldn't it have been better to set cheaper prices and sell more tickets to try to break even?

Apologies to Ibrahimovic and the rest of the Ligue 1 winners but as Ng himself pointed out they did not draw the same reaction as Manchester United did last year when 39,000 fans flocked to see the Red Devils play Kitchee.

PSG does not have the pulling power that Manchester United has. Knowing this, why did organisers set ticket prices at just HK$200 less than the most expensive ones for the Manchester United game?

One person who didn't need hindsight to forecast a meagre crowd was reader Wayson Paterson, a long-time resident who is a keen supporter of the game.

In an e-mail to the Hong Kong Football Association before the game, Paterson asked chief executive Mark Sutcliffe if it was possible to donate tickets for underprivileged children.

Paterson says he approached the HKFA in the past when teams like Barcelona, LA Galaxy, Juventus and Manchester City turned up and when large swathes of empty seats were the norm at the stadium.

"Why is the HKFA not donating any tickets for their own people to watch these games when the stadium is half empty/full?" questioned Paterson. "How can the HKFA convince children to come and play football instead of rugby, basketball etc when they can't even give them a chance to watch a great game of football?"

He has a point. The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union uses the showpiece Hong Kong Sevens to advertise the game superbly. On the Friday of the event, they bus in children from schools they target as potential rugby centres.

Why can't the HKFA follow suit? In theory, it should be easier to sell the beautiful game than rugby to the local community. The reason is because the HKFA's hands are tied, Sutcliffe told Paterson. Unlike the Sevens, these games are not "owned" by the HKFA, but rather the individual club or promoters and as such the FA is not responsible for ticket allocation.

When the Barclays Asia Trophy was held here last summer, it was run by the English Premier League, which set ticket prices, allocated tickets etc. Last week, it was Kitchee who ran the show.

But there is a bigger obstacle - the government. Organisers have to pay the Leisure and Cultural Services Department 20 per cent of gross ticket sales to hire the stadium. According to Sutcliffe, to prevent organisers from manipulating ticket prices and thus minimising the levy, they are prohibited from issuing more than 5 per cent of the stadium as complimentary tickets. This amounts to 2,000 tickets.

"We always have to give some of this allocation to our sponsors, members and guests, which usually leaves very few spare complimentary tickets. I have tried to negotiate out of this clause with the government, but I have been unsuccessful," says Sutcliffe.

The mechanism for hiring the stadium seems unfair. Having to pay either HK$150,000 or 20 per cent of ticket sales, whichever is the highest, is a big burden for event promoters to carry. The government should take another look at this issue. It helps no one when a major team plays in front of empty stands.

If organisers have trouble selling tickets, wouldn't it be better to give underprivileged children the chance to watch stars like Ibrahimovic?