RFU hand Burton a meal ticket

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The Independent Online

If you can't beat him, join him. Mike Burton, for so long the bête noire of the establishment, yesterday revelled in his role as a new-found "partner'' of the RFU. At the England-Ireland match, Burton's sports management company operated for the first time as an official provider of corporate hospitality.

For 25 years Burton, the former Gloucester, England and Lions prop, was an outsider as far as Twickenham were concerned. Through his contacts with clubs he obtained a ready supply of tickets to international matches and resold them as part of a package. Try as they might, the RFU failed to tackle the burgeoning black market, which cost them dear in lost revenue.

Now they have a radical solution - the black sheep is welcomed into the fold. Thus the Mike Burton Group have become one of three licensed operators to sell packages at Twickenham for the next five years. For this recognition, the companies, who still have to set up their marquees off-site, have paid the RFU a licence fee of £200,000.

"I know it sounds bizarre what with poachers turned gamekeepers, but we see this as a solution which will enable us to generate funds,'' Paul Vaughan, the commercial director of the RFU, said. "We didn't want to see the money going into a tout's pocket.'' The licenced operators can buy tickets from clubs for £150 and sell them on to a free market for whatever they like.

Last year up to 12,000 Twickenham tickets were sold on the black market, generating an estimated £8.5m in profits. Supply and demand dictates that a £50 ticket can be sold for £800 when lunch and drinks are thrown in. Yesterday the street price for a pair of tickets to watch the world champions was £1,800.

Burton made a successful bid for his RFU licence, along with Events International and Sportingclass, from a total of 52 applicants. It means there are plenty of other companies possibly selling "invalid'' tickets, and the RFU said they had a system to punish the culprits. "Everybody must read the terms and conditions on the tickets,'' Vaughan said. A couple of members of the England Rugby Supporters Club have already been banned for ignoring the small print.

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