Real Hong Kong football fans let down by Premier League Asia Trophy ticketing arrangements as online touts cash in

Hundreds of briefs for the highly sought-after tournament are available at vastly inflated prices at online ‘resellers’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 June, 2017, 9:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 2017, 3:34pm

Just before the official announcement that the Asia Trophy would be played entirely in Hong Kong, the English Premier League was still trying to figure out the logistics of sharing the tournament with mainland China.

It is testament to the ease of working in Hong Kong, and the professionalism of the organisers here, that all four games will be held in our city.

But it will have been a hard decision. Like any major brand, the Premier League is eager to crack that China market, with its tantalising vision of 1.3 billion consumers.

The Premier League probably feels it has sufficiently established its brand in HK: July’s event, which sees Liverpool, Leicester City, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion come to town, will be the fourth time we have hosted, and the league knows local fans are crazy for the ‘product’.

So eyes turned to the mainland. Initial plans to split the tournament between Hong Kong and Shanghai had to be abandoned because of a clash with the Chinese Super League. Guangzhou was looked at, and up to almost the last minute the Premier League was considering Shenzhen.

But a source told me of all manner of shady-sounding demands from China – that journalists be paid to cover the tournament, requests for mysterious ‘participation fees’ and the like. Throw in the logistical difficulties of getting visas for the travelling teams and support staff, and eventually the league gave up.

It knows Hong Kong is easy to work in and comfortable for the teams, and that the Hong Kong Football Association and its associates can be relied upon for professionalism and trustworthiness.

The league knew it could also rely on high demand, as evidenced when tickets went on sale last Friday and almost immediately sold out.

But if we have one criticism of the running of the event, it is that aspect.

Ticket seller Cityline’s website did not crash completely, as it has before, but I and no doubt thousands of others were unable to get past the ‘please retry’ page as servers struggled to cope. A scan of social media showed fans around the world were frustrated.

Search for ‘Asia Trophy tickets’ online now and the top two Google ads are for Viagogo and Stubhub, ticket ‘resellers’. Viagogo’s ad even suggests it is the “Official Site” when of course it is not.

These sites make huge profits by allowing fans who ‘can’t use their tickets’ to resell them. They have been castigated around the world for their business practices. Viagogo even blithely rejected a demand from UK members of parliament to appear at an enquiry, an almost unprecedented snub, after being criticised for reselling tickets for a charity gig in aid of cancer.

Many hundreds of tickets for the Asia Trophy are available, at vastly inflated prices to the reasonable face value set by the HKFA and Premier League. The cheapest tickets on Viagogo, which employs all manner of psychological tricks to make you think that you must act fast or lose out, were around HK$660 - HK$800, around twice face value. Tack on a ‘handling fee’ of around HK$200, which is never mentioned until it comes time to enter your credit card details. Stubhub was offering tickets from HK$800 to as much as a wildly optimistic HK$5,000. The sites take a cut of up to 25 per cent.

It suggests a sizable portion of those jamming Cityline’s website were more interested in a quick profit than the football. It is even possible to create software that automates the entire process of buying tickets from a legitimate site then immediately uploading them to resellers.

And if you’re not a tech expert, you can buy one as quickly as it takes to Google ‘ticket bot’. The top site in the search rankings, registered in Panama, swiftly replied to my query if they had a Cityline bot by saying no, but they could make one “within 3-5 days” for a few hundred US dollars.

You wonder how much of the traffic pounding Cityline’s servers was from pro touts with bots, how much from amateur profit-seekers manually bashing the F5 refresh key, and how much from actual fans desperate to see their heroes in the flesh. If you didn’t fancy the F5 challenge, you could have wasted an entire day queueing at a store, but that’s a crazy prospect in the 21st century.

So real supporters who missed out face the prospect of paying at least twice face value to see Coutinho, Mahrez, Zaha and co. The resellers will argue that they are not selling tickets, just providing a platform, but it still rankles. Unfortunately Cityline’s antiquated methods make the tickets all the more attractive for touts. As well as the site’s technical limitations, the tickets have no features to identify the purchaser.

Other local ticket options are available – the music festival Clockenflap created its own platform that employs smartphones and QR codes to ensure tickets can only be used by those who purchased them, for example – but Cityline seems to have a hold on many events in Hong Kong, including the exclusive contract for Urbtix, for government-run events.

No doubt the Asia Trophy will be a great success and the Premier League will be eager to return in years to come. Hopefully the ticketing arrangements have improved by then.