For pounds 19,625 a Wimbledon debenture provides the best seats and a sound investment. By George Campbell
The debentures which entitle holders to Centre Court tickets to Wimbledon rank among the best investments anyone can make.The new debenture issue, 1996-2000, covering the main lawn tennis championships over the next five years, has already been snapped up by some 600-700 existing debenture holders at a price of pounds 19,625 and the same debentures are now changing hands in the City for a cool pounds 27,750, or pounds 55,500 for a pair.

City dealers reckon the current pounds 27,750 could soon mushroom to pounds 30,000 and by the millennium anyone enquiring about the price could be quoted "Forty, Love".

The debentures are issued on a partly-paid basis in three tranches. Of the pounds 19,625, some pounds 15,000 goes to the club; pounds 2,000 is redeemable by the holder on expiry and some pounds 2,625 is payable on VAT. Holders have to pay for their own strawberries and cream, but in return for their investment and support, they receive a package of special privileges including one Centre Court ticket per debenture for the 13 days of the tournament for the five year period, plus car parking and lounge passes.

A spokeswoman for the UK conglomerate BET, the company that supplies the Wimbledon star players with their towelling and washroom facilities, said: "We have invested in six debentures in the new issue at a total cost of pounds 117,750. We pay for them over a period of three years and have the opportunity to sell tickets back to the club if we don't want them."

The All England Club, which controls Wimbledon, has raised nearly pounds 36m from the issue of the 2,100 new debentures, with most of it ploughed back into improvements. Last week it launched a new tranche of debentures to raise funds for the new No 1 Court, which is due for completion next year, and they may go the same way. These debentures will cost pounds 9,900 each and entitle the holder to one seat on the new court for the first 10 days of the championship for the five years from 1997 to 2001.

The price includes a nominal value of pounds 500 which is refundable at the end of the period, plus a premium of pounds 8,000 and VAT of pounds 1,400. The subscription price has to be paid in two installments, pounds 2,850 on or before 3pm on March 27, and pounds 7,050 in January 1997.

Of a total of 13,000 Centre Court tickets, 2,100 are reserved for debenture holders, and they are the only ones that may be bought and sold on the open market. All other tickets for the championships are non-transferable. One observer commented: "In a bid to undermine the touts, the club has effectively disenfranchised 85 per cent of the tickets, pushing up the value of the other 15 per cent."

Critics claim that by making debenture tickets exclusively transferable the club has inflated their value. It also acts as a middle man between debenture holders and corporate hospitality. The club claims that hospitality clients are happy to swap tickets among themselves.

But frequently the corporate hospitality company feel obliged to go to the All England Ground Company to buy extra centre court tickets. These are returned debentures.

Last year, ahead of the marathon struggle between Samprass and Boris Becker, the All England Club is alleged to have charged a bumper pounds 1,000 for just one returned centre court debenture ticket for the men's final.

The club described this as a "white" and not a black market. A spokesman said: "If for any reason debenture holders can't use their ticket on a given day they have a means of selling it back without having to go to the black market."

The debenture system was also strongly defended by the club on the basis that the profits from it go to ground improvements. The club itself also creates a market for tickets. If, for instance, a corporate hospitality company wants 30 tickets, they would be sold 10 Centre Court, 10 for No 1 and a further 10 for the outside courts.

And the Wimbledon touts still make a killing every year whatever happens on the debenture front. One tout last year sold three Centre Court tickets for the men's finals for pounds 750, allegedly courtesy of US players who were taking part in the tournament.

This incurred the wrath of the powerful All England Club and a severe reprimand, but has done nothing to diminish the explosive demand for tickets and debentures.

The brokers BZW and Warburg do brisk two-way business in the debentures as soon as the sun starts to shine. The final call on the new issue was made last week,a third tranche at pounds 8,225, VAT included. It has proved to be a winner all round.

Holders of the new issue are already sitting on a 41 per cent gain and existing holders have done even better.

The Wimbledon tennis championships start on Monday 24 June and finish Sunday July 7. Seat prices range from pounds 21 to pounds 42 for the Centre Court and pounds 12 to pounds 33 for the No.1 Court.

Advance tickets are available through a December ballot.

The All England Lawn Tennis Ground telephone no. is: 0181 944 1066.