Ticket to ride roughshod over real fans

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The Independent Online
We are being told with increasing volume that the main purpose of big-time sport these days is to put bums on seats. Anyone keeping even half an eye on our major games in recent years would have concluded that there are more than enough bums watching already.

I refer not to the yob element particularly, although there are unwelcome indications that their ranks are not yet outnumbered by the gentry, but to those whose presence is not dictated by the normal urges that direct a person's feet to our cockpits of sporting passion.

The well-heeled who could always buy their way into the best seats have long been with us but their numbers have been systematically swollen by the corporate hospitality industry that has been favoured and fawned over to an indecent extent. Sport thereby volunteers to take a leading role in the open corruption endemic in the business world which ensures that the prime viewing places not occupied by royalty and politicians are given as bribes to top clients.

This censure is not delivered in a haughty manner because I've had a few bloated times myself as a sporting guest. Indeed, I've also seen the other seamy side. I was for many years a football correspondent; a most difficult job that has among its distasteful tasks the role of ticket ferret at big match times. Editors, managing directors and the like have needed to be accommodated. Not by heavy purchase on the black market, you understand - I've never been that desperate for a job - but requiring much pleading and the calling in of favours.

The use of the sporting ticket as a form of currency, a palm-greaser or a grovelling tool is as old as the games themselves. But one always had the impression that the ticket went to one who genuinely wanted to watch the action and not take part in a social occasion. Nowadays, that distinction seems of no importance to the authorities who appear to take deliberate steps to steer tickets towards a clientele who lift the profile of their audiences while reducing the collective ability to appreciate what is going on.

Apart from the odd situation that has been allowed to develop between the incoming and outgoing coaches to the England team, most of the advance publicity about the European Championships has centred on the ticket distribution fiasco that has already led to the departure of the Football Association's commercial director, Trevor Phillips. Obviously, selling tickets for a big tournament is not a simple matter of putting them on sale via host clubs and national associations of the competing nations. For a reason not clear to me, large numbers are routed through agencies and this is where the problem has arisen.

In a written parliamentary answer on Thursday the Minister of Sport, Iain Sproat, said that "a significant number of tickets have not been allocated in accordance with FA procedures". Apparently, more than 100,000 have been allocated improperly. He should have added that any ticket not sold direct to supporters has been allocated improperly. We have to think of foreign supporters, of course, but tickets could be sold to them direct. Nearly every big sports event around the world these days seems to involve a scam by which you have to buy a complete travel package in order to get a ticket. I can think of no reason why this should be so, apart from a sinister one.

Why do they need middle-men? After more than a century of organising the busiest football country in the world, you would think the FA would have got the hang of putting the right tickets into the right hands by now. All we once needed was a dingy office, two dopey girls, a surly supervisor and a little window you had to stoop to speak through. And if you were willing to pay a little extra, there was always the black market; and a damned sight more efficient it was than these swish agencies offering unnecessary extras that do no more than attract the wrong sort of people.

The amount of money wallowing around in sport these days continues to amaze. And the number of managers, agents and the like getting their hands on large amounts of it with the minimum of effort is even more phenomenal.

Yet, you could hardly accuse the Lennox Lewis camp of not working hard to get their man into the ring with Mike Tyson. What with boardroom battles and long legal wrangles in court, it has been an exhausting time for Lewis's manager Frank Maloney. On Friday he got the reward. So that Tyson can fight Bruce Seldon, Lewis is passing up his right to be the champion's next opponent in return for the promise of a future bout and a large payment. In effect, Lewis will receive pounds 4m not to fight Tyson - many of us would not fight him for a lot less than that.

While that financial arrangement was being hammered out, another was going on at Old Trafford where Alex Ferguson was attempting to negotiate a new contract after leading Manchester United to their Double triumph. It was pointed out unkindly in the Daily Mirror on Friday that the man who has benefited most from United's success is the chairman and chief executive, Martin Edwards, who in the past 13 months has collected over pounds 7m in shares, fees, salary and bonuses. His personal stake in the club is said to be still worth pounds 48m.

The chief executive's role in a football club is obviously more important than we thought. Last year, Edwards' salary was pounds 290,000,pounds 65,000 more than Ferguson's. Happily, after some hard bargaining Ferguson has a new four-year contract at an increased salary which is not as high as he wanted but still healthy. I trust, as the old union negotiators used to say, that the differential will be maintained.

Sad tales from America where the Olympic torch is having a rough ride on its 15,000-mile journey across the United States. The flame fizzled out the other day. Rumour spread that it was spat on by Liverpool fans on holiday. I am pleased to be able to deny this scurrilous smear. The Yanks are fully capable of putting their own dampener on a sacred event.

The flame, carried by the traditional relay of runners, is having to weave a more meandering path than was originally planned because of an outrageous outbreak of political incorrectness. Under pressure from gay rights' groups, Games organisers had already announced that the torch would avoid Cobb County, a suburb of the host city Atlanta, which in 1993 passed a resolution condemning homosexuality.

Now, other places on the route are declaring themselves homophobic. The latest is in South Carolina. Spartanburg county council have passed an anti-gay ordinance that certainly the Spartans wouldn't have agreed with and are defying the torch to give them a wide berth.

It is very upsetting for the organisers who are determined that the Olympic ideal should embrace all sections of society. Perhaps they should make a conciliatory gesture to the gay community by adding an extra event to the men's athletic programme in their honour. How about the three-legged race?

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